REVIEW: SHE’S NOT THERE, BY JOY FIELDING

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It was a glamorous ten-year anniversary celebration in a Mexican resort, and Hunter and Caroline Shipley, along with friends and relatives, planned a number of activities for that week. But on the last night, the babysitter did not show up, and a decision was made to leave the sleeping girls, Michelle and Samantha, ages five and two, in the room, just above their table outside…and they would check them every half hour. Hunter insisted, and Caroline went along with it.

But as all the best laid plans often go awry, that one certainly did, and a confluence of wrong things happened, leading to the kidnapping of two-year-old Samantha.

Now, fifteen years later, the trauma still follows them, with reporters showing up every time another year goes by. From the very beginning, Hunter presented well for the cameras, while Caroline’s stiff exterior made the press characterize her as cold and remote. She was vilified more than her husband, unfairly, in my opinion.

Caroline and Hunter divorce, and some of Hunter’s secrets surface, adding to the pain coursing through their lives.

But something unexpected happens in that fifteenth year. Caroline gets a call from a young girl who thinks she might be Samantha.

She’s Not There was a page-turning tale that swept back and forth in time, over the years, showing the lives of the characters, and reminding us of the pain that haunts them. Caroline blames herself for agreeing to leave the girls alone in the room when Hunter insisted on it; Michelle is belligerent and hateful most of the time, a sure sign of how events impacted her life, too. Could she be feeling overlooked? Invisible? Her behavior was annoying, but in the end, I came to feel more empathy for her.

Ultimately, I became suspicious of a number of people, and not totally stunned by the final revelations. How we learned of what happened that night did surprise me, however. I loved this story and could not stop reading it. 5 stars.

***My copy of the e-ARC came to me from the publishers via NetGalley.

REVIEW: PRETTY BABY, BY MARY KUBICA

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Heidi and Chris Wood have a marriage that seems to work for them. Longevity, a twelve-year-old daughter Zoe, and a lovely condo near Chicago.

Yes, Chris travels too much, in his career as an investment banker, but for the most part, this works for Heidi, too, as she has her own career teaching literacy classes. She loves helping the underprivileged, and even before we see what happens next, we are ready. Ready for her to do the unthinkable.

So one day, when Heidi spots a young woman with a baby near the train station, looking cold…and possibly homeless, she is drawn to them. She begins seeing them over and over until the night that she decides to do something about it.

What Heidi does next seems completely out of the box, and seemingly without a second thought, she takes the plunge anyway. Does she realize that she could be threatening everything she has and all the people she knows? What dark moments in Heidi’s past have contributed to the empty space inside that is suddenly filled by the presence of Willow and baby Ruby, in her life and in her home?

Narrated alternately by Heidi, by Chris, and then by Willow, Pretty Baby is a mesmerizing tale that takes the reader to the dark side.

Especially in Willow’s narrative, when we learn much more about her past, what events informed her life, and what contributed to the train wreck her life has become. But is she a reliable narrator? Or could she be fictionalizing events for her own purposes?

The characters were completely believable, and I found myself connecting more to Heidi than I would have imagined I could. Chris was someone whose behavior annoyed me, even as I could understand how he would resent the intrusion of Willow and the baby. But his attraction to his colleague Cassidy, who traveled with him and other co-workers, made him seem like the kind of man who reacts when his needs are not immediately met.

Even though I rooted for Heidi, I also found her behavior frightening. What would she risk to help a stranger? Even when I knew about what had happened to her in the past, it was hard for me to conceive of some of her actions. And then, as more of the story unfolds, we see her descend into a morass from which she might never escape.

Zoe, the twelve-year-old, was an annoying pre-teen, and her behavior was so stereotypical, with the scowls, the eye rolls, and the belligerence, that I pretty much dismissed her. Who can relate to someone so cardboard-like?

Despite the frustrations I felt with the characters, I could not put this book down. Completely engaging, and even though I put the pieces together before the end, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. 5 stars.

***An e-arc of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.

REVIEW: WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, BY LAURA LIPPMAN

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In 1976, two young girls, Sunny and Heather Bethany, went missing from Baltimore.

Now, thirty years later, a young woman with no identification, dubbed Jane Doe, has an auto accident that leads to a series of statements on her part, and a joint effort by police, a social worker, and an attorney to discern the truth in what she has to say.

Could she, as she claims, be Heather Bethany? If not, why does she know so many details of the events, as well as private information that only an “insider” could have?

What the Dead Know was narrated by various players in the story, from Miriam and Dave Bethany, the parents, to the present day investigators. We also read the narrative of the Jane Doe character, and try to ascertain her credibility.

Flashbacks convey much of the story through these narrators, and as the story unfolds, we are soon trying to decide if we believe Jane Doe’s statements, or if she has conned us.

I found the details about how the character achieved her numerous identities to be fascinating, and much in line with what we know about how such new identities are obtained. I liked this quote: “Like a bird who moved into abandoned nests, she had inhabited the lives of long-dead girls…”

In the final twist, which I did not see coming, the facts and details came together to give us a most satisfying conclusion. While not my favorite book by this author, I still will not forget it, and enjoyed the numerous ins and outs and twists and turns. 4 stars.

REVIEW: TRUE BLEND, BY JOANNE DEMAIO

20945746On a serene day in spring, in the lovely town of Addison, Connecticut, Amy Trewist, a widow, is running errands with her toddler daughter Grace. As they reach their destination at the bank, unknown to them, on a parallel path, George Carbone and his brother Nate are getting ready for a trip to the casino…but first, they must stop at the bank.

Suddenly chaos reigns. An armored car heist is underway, and Grace is grabbed, just as she and her mother exit the bank. Men wearing stocking masks and bearing guns now control the scene, and the spring day is no longer serene. All that Amy can remember in the moments afterwards were one man’s words: Be strong. And the warning to wait one hour before calling the police. She recalls a hand holding her down, and later will not remember any other details, except in flashbacks, when something is always missing….

The nightmare seemingly ends when a man named George Carbone finds her daughter in a parking lot of a store and brings her to the police. What happens over the summer that still simmers with the unsolved crime is how George becomes a regular part of Amy’s life. She sees him as a protector. Especially since Grace no longer speaks, and seems to be more lost by the day. Is Amy becoming too dependent on George? Or is something more happening? And what secrets is George hiding?

In this beautiful town where Amy has a vintage bridal shop and wonderful friends, she no longer feels safe. Strange things are happening…is someone stalking her, or is her memory failing? Her life is in pieces and the only person who makes her feel safe is George.

The richly drawn characters soon became part of my life, too, as I eagerly followed them through the nightmare. Amy felt like a dear friend, and George did seem like a good, strong protector. Also throughout the story, a few reminders of other books came, as Amy and her friend Celia frequented Whole Latte Life, the shop featured in another book. References to Stony Point reminded me of Blue Jeans and Coffee Beans. I love how the author weaves into this story characters and places from other books, making me remember other old friends.

True Blend is the kind of story that twists its way into your mind, as you try to imagine what will happen next, and whether or not Amy will ever feel safe again. Or feel love. Will she find the answers before her life spirals further into danger? A captivating and mesmerizing tale that left me breathless. Five stars.