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.

***

REVIEW: OUR LITTLE LIES, BY SUE WATSON

 

Marianne has a life others dream of. A beautiful townhouse on the best street in the neighbourhood. Three bright children who are her pride and joy.

Sometimes her past still hurts: losing her mother, growing up in foster care. But her husband Simon is always there. A successful surgeon, he’s the envy of every woman they’ve ever met. Flowers, gifts, trips to France – nothing is too good for his family.

Then Simon says another woman’s name. The way he lingers on it, Caroline, gives Marianne a shudder of suspicion, but she knows she can’t entertain this flash of paranoia.

In the old days, she’d have distracted herself at work, but Marianne left her glamorous career behind when she got married. She’d speak to a friend, but she’s too busy with her children and besides, Simon doesn’t approve of the few she has left.

It’s almost by accident that Marianne begins to learn more about Caroline. But once she starts, she can’t stop. Because what she finds makes her wonder whether the question she should be asking is not ‘should she be jealous’, but… ‘should she be scared’?

 

My Thoughts: It didn’t take very long for me to hate Simon, with his criticisms, his bullying, and his crazy-making behavior, but Marianne was so damaged and so beaten down from this behavior and from her childhood that she was also difficult to endure.

Our Little Lies is a journey into the dark dynamics of a truly toxic marriage, and sometimes I just wanted one of these characters to step up and make some changes.

On the edge of my seat, I rapidly turned pages and wondered which of them would truly go nuts and do whatever they had to do to stir the pot until it boiled over.

The back and forth between the two marital partners grew more and more tedious, for me, as I couldn’t believe that they could sustain that level of animosity without doing grave harm to each other…or to someone else. Finding out what would ultimately happen did keep me reading. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE ESCAPE ROOM, BY MEGAN GOLDIN

 

Welcome to the escape room. Your goal is simple. Get out alive.

In the lucrative world of finance, Vincent, Jules, Sylvie, and Sam are at the top of their game. They’ve mastered the art of the deal and celebrate their success in style—but a life of extreme luxury always comes at a cost.

Invited to participate in an escape room as a team-building exercise, the ferociously competitive co-workers crowd into the elevator of a high rise building, eager to prove themselves. But when the lights go off and the doors stay shut, it quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary competition: they’re caught in a dangerous game of survival.

Trapped in the dark, the colleagues must put aside their bitter rivalries and work together to solve cryptic clues to break free. But as the game begins to reveal the team’s darkest secrets, they realize there’s a price to be paid for the terrible deeds they committed in their ruthless climb up the corporate ladder. As tempers fray, and the clues turn deadly, they must solve one final chilling puzzle: which one of them will kill in order to survive?

 

My Thoughts: Something strange has been going on at Stanhope, and the players in a suspenseful conspiracy are about to find out the price of their secrets and heinous games.

In alternating chapters, we meet the players in a team building game called The Escape Room, but as the players try to figure out the clues, we soon learn that there is much more at stake.

Sara Hall is an alternating character whose story gripped me from the beginning. She had tried hard to get the job at Stanhope, but she never quite fit into the circle, and another character, Lucy, who was brilliant but not one to interact socially, would soon find out what could happen to someone who knows too many secrets.

Rapidly turning pages, it took a while to figure out the layers of the game or the master controlling them all, but when I finally did, I was elated by the beauty of it. 5 stars.

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

REVIEW: THE FRIENDS WE KEEP, BY JANE GREEN

 

Evvie, Maggie, and Topher have known one another since college. Their friendship was something they swore would last forever. Now years have passed, the friends have drifted apart, and they never found the lives they wanted—the lives they dreamed of when they were young and everything seemed possible.

Evvie starved herself to become a supermodel but derailed her career by sleeping with a married man.

Maggie married Ben, the boy she fell in love with in college, never imagining the heartbreak his drinking would cause.

Topher became a successful actor, but the shame of a childhood secret shut him off from real intimacy.

By their thirtieth reunion, these old friends have lost touch with one another and with the people they dreamed of becoming. Together again, they have a second chance at happiness…until a dark secret is revealed that changes everything.

 

My Thoughts: I was definitely in the mood for The Friends We Keep, as there is something so heartfelt about Jane Green’s friendship tales. I also love how she paints pictures of the settings, the food, and the events in a way that makes me feel as if I’m there with the characters.

A story that spans decades, this book shows the characters as they struggle, as they soar during the good times, and then how their feelings of betrayal come to the forefront when dark secrets are revealed.

In the end, the friendships are tested in a familiar way, and we are left with good feelings, even though real life would have given them more challenges along the way. An enjoyable read that earned 4.5 stars from me, despite the predictable elements.

***

REVIEW: SUMMER OF ’69, BY ELIN HILDERBRAND

 

Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century. It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket. But like so much else in America, nothing is the same: Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests and determined to be independent, takes a summer job on Martha’s Vineyard. Only-son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother and her worried mother, each of them hiding a troubling secret. As the summer heats up, Ted Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, man flies to the moon, and Jessie and her family experience their own dramatic upheavals along with the rest of the country.

 

My Thoughts: At the beginning of Summer of 69, Kate Levin is living in fear for her son Tiger, who has just received his draft notice. Could the secrets of her past lead to a karmic punishment?

As each member of the family descends on Nantucket and the family’s vacation home, they ponder the possibilities for the months ahead. Alternating narratives take us along for the ride, and I could almost feel myself catapulted back to my own defining moments of the past.

I especially enjoyed relating to Kirby and her protests, which led to her decision to get a job on Martha’s Vineyard instead of joining the family on Nantucket. We gradually learn about her previous choices and how they changed her life. I also connected to how the author wove real life historic characters into the plot, reminding us of how these events unfolded.

Young Jessie’s summer felt especially real, as she faced adolescent angst and the questionable actions of the adults in the family.

Moon landings, the Vietnam War, and Chappaquiddick stirred the pot and made the lives of the characters fit seamlessly into the historic moments for the country.

A memorable story that brought me into a delightful setting in a time that I won’t ever forget, the book earned 5 stars for me.***