REVIEW: RETURN TO VIRGIN RIVER, BY ROBYN CARR

Kaylee Sloan’s home in Southern California is full of wonderful memories of the woman who raised her. But the memories are prolonging her grief over her mother’s recent death. A successful author, Kaylee hoped she could pour herself into her work. Instead she has terrible writer’s block and a looming deadline.

Determined to escape distractions and avoid the holiday season, Kaylee borrows a cabin in Virgin River. She knows the isolation will help her writing, and as she drives north through the mountains and the majestic redwoods, she immediately feels inspired. Until she arrives at a building that has just gone up in flames. Devastated, she heads to Jack’s Bar to plan her next steps. The local watering hole is the heart of the town, and once she crosses the threshold, she’s surprised to be embraced by people who are more than willing to help a friend—or a stranger—in need.

Kaylee’s world is expanding in ways she never dreamed possible. And when she rescues a kitten followed by a dog with a litter of puppies, she finds her heart opening up to the animals who need her. And then there’s the dog trainer who knows exactly how to help her. As the holidays approach, Kaylee’s dread turns to wonder. Because there’s no better place to spend Christmas than Virgin River.

From the very beginning of Return to Virgin River, I felt a connection to Kaylee and her life. As she settles into Virgin River, trying to deal with her grief and push forward with the book she is writing, I was caught up in her feelings and her goals.

Meeting townsfolk helped her begin the healing process, and then connecting to Landry, who was her landlord, brought out other forgotten emotions. The possibility of love.

The author’s descriptions of the setting, the characters who lived in Virgin River, and telling their stories as they all formed a community for Kaylee brought out a sense of a real place with real people. I love Humboldt County, so I felt as if I was there with these characters, many of whom were in the previous book.

I read the book in one day, as I could not put it down. I hope to rejoin these characters again. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: MONOGAMY, BY SUE MILLER

 

Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years. A golden couple, their seemingly effortless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances.

Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites—curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge. Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer. She is about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull and is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her. They have two adult children; Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York. Annie and Graham’s daughter, Sarah, lives in San Francisco. Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love.

When Graham suddenly dies—this man whose enormous presence has seemed to dominate their lives together—Annie is lost. What is the point of going on, she wonders, without him?

Then, while she is still mourning him intensely, she discovers that Graham had been unfaithful to her; and she spirals into darkness, wondering if she ever truly knew the man who loved her.

From the very first page of Monogamy, I was captured by the prose, the characters, and the settings, in which I could imagine myself walking along with Annie and Graham, as their story unfolds. A bookstore, a beautiful gallery of photographs, and a cottage by a lake in Vermont to which Annie retreats after Graham’s death.

The small details of a life are presented in a way that grabbed me, and I could feel the moments that had defined them. I could see Annie in her childhood, go back with them to their first meeting, and remember with Annie how they built a home and a life, while raising the children.
Reconnecting with people from the past, and reliving those poignant bonds left an indelible mark.

As Annie moves through her days and weeks, the past rises to confront her and comfort her. Can she mourn the loss without going back in time to all that defined her? As Annie struggles to move beyond the death and the discovery of the betrayal, she learns to accept it all and rediscover the love they shared. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: DON’T LOOK FOR ME, BY WENDY WALKER

One night, Molly Clarke walked away from her life.

She doesn’t want to be found.

Or at least, that’s the story.

The car abandoned miles from home.

The note found at a nearby hotel.

The shattered family that couldn’t be put back together.

They called it a “walk away.”

It happens all the time.

Women disappear, desperate to leave their lives behind and start over.

But is that what really happened to Molly Clarke?

 

 

On Day One, we see Molly Clarke driving in the rain, thinking about the sadness of her life: her losses, her remaining two children who seem to wish she weren’t there at all, and the emptiness of her marriage.

She has just left her son Evan’s game at school and watched him look away from her, dismiss her, pretend she wasn’t there.

Driving toward home, she keeps going, as if she has no destiny. And then she runs out of gas on a stretch of road. She sees a gas station 30 feet away, but as she walks toward it, she realizes it is boarded up. Empty. Like her life.

When a truck drives by with what she thinks is a man and his daughter, and they pull over, offering her a ride, she doesn’t really hesitate…

What then begins is a nightmare.

Will Molly ever go home again? The man takes her to a house instead of the police station where she wanted to go. He makes empty promises about phoning for help…and she is soon a prisoner.

Meanwhile, back home, Molly’s daughter Nicole is searching for her. She doesn’t believe that her mom just walked away, and too many pieces of the story don’t make sense.

We watch the tale unfold between Nicole and Molly, back and forth in alternating narratives.

Who is the man holding Molly hostage? Why are the police and other residents of the small town of Hastings where Molly’s car and supposed “note” were found telling tales that don’t make sense? Is it a conspiracy? Or is it even more dark and evil?

I kept trying to figure out who the players were and how they connected to Molly and Nicole, so as the answers began to come, I was breathless with anticipation. Don’t Look for Me was a brilliant 5 star read.

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

***

REVIEW: WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, BY JANELLE BROWN

 

It’s been a year since Billie Flanagan—a Berkeley mom with an enviable life—went on a solo hike in Desolation Wilderness and vanished from the trail. Her body was never found, just a shattered cellphone and a solitary hiking boot. Her husband and teenage daughter have been coping with Billie’s death the best they can: Jonathan drinks as he works on a loving memoir about his marriage; Olive grows remote, from both her father and her friends at the all-girls school she attends.

But then Olive starts having strange visions of her mother, still alive. Jonathan worries about Olive’s emotional stability, until he starts unearthing secrets from Billie’s past that bring into question everything he thought he understood about his wife. Who was the woman he knew as Billie Flanagan?

Together, Olive and Jonathan embark on a quest for the truth—about Billie, but also about themselves, learning, in the process, about all the ways that love can distort what we choose to see. Janelle Brown’s insights into the dynamics of intimate relationships will make you question the stories you tell yourself about the people you love, while her nervy storytelling will keep you guessing until the very last page.


In Watch Me Disappear, we follow the thoughts and actions of those left behind when Billie Flanagan “dies.” Did she die, though, or did she choose to disappear?

A year later, her beloved friends and family are still struggling with that question. Jonathan is writing a memoir of his life with Billie, but the more he digs into what he knew about her and their life together, he realizes that he has more questions than answers about Billie. Who was she really, and did he even know her at all? She has had a history of disappearing from her life, beginning when she was very young. Has she done the same thing again?

Her daughter Olive was close to Billie, but near the end, there were some troubled spots. Now Olive wants to reach her mother just one more time. When she starts seeing “visions,” she is convinced that Billie is communicating with her.

Our story weaves back and forth in time, with more revelations as the moments pass, and just when we think we know what really happened, a final twist seemingly comes out of nowhere. This book I couldn’t put down earned 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: WINTER IN PARADISE, BY ELIN HILDERBRAND

 

Irene Steele shares her idyllic life in a beautiful Iowa City Victorian house with a husband who loves her to sky-writing, sentimental extremes. But as she rings in the new year one cold and snowy night, everything she thought she knew falls to pieces with a shocking phone call: her beloved husband, away on business, has been killed in a plane crash. Before Irene can even process the news, she must first confront the perplexing details of her husband’s death on the distant Caribbean island of St. John.

After Irene and her sons arrive at this faraway paradise, they make yet another shocking discovery: her husband had been living a secret life. As Irene untangles a web of intrigue and deceit, and as she and her sons find themselves drawn into the vibrant island culture, they have to face the truth about their family, and about their own futures.

 

My Thoughts: As the story opens with Irene enjoying her beautiful home and her job with Heartland Home & Style magazine, a feeling of foreboding tells us that everything she holds dear will soon be put to the test.

Meanwhile, her sons Baker and Cash are being challenged in their own ways: Cash is facing reversals in his business and Baker’s marriage is on the rocks.

The phone call that changes their lives takes them on a plane to the Virgin Islands, to a place they might have loved visiting under other circumstances.

How will Irene and her sons deal with the death of their husband and father? What will they discover about the secret life he was living?

In alternating narratives, we learn more about the islanders who are now part of Irene’s story: Huck, a ship captain and stepfather to Rosie, who now has become part of their lives; Ayers Wilson, Rosie’s best friend; and Maia, the twelve-year-old girl who has lost her mother.

Set against the backdrop of the island retreat, Winter in Paradise captured my heart with the sadness, the joy of the setting, the delicious foods that tease our taste buds, and the sense of betrayal dealt by Russell, who is no longer alive to explain himself.

Just below the surface is the sense of a mystery, and as Irene reminisces about her life with Russell, she tries to piece together what signs she might have missed along the way. At the very end, however, another tidbit of information from the authorities adds a startling conclusion. Since this book is number one in a new series, I look forward to more from these characters. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: BEFORE & AGAIN, BY BARBARA DELINSKY

 

Mackenzie Cooper took her eyes off the road for just a moment but the resulting collision was enough to rob her not only of her beloved daughter but ultimately of her marriage, family, and friends—and thanks to the nonstop media coverage, even her privacy. Now she lives in Vermont under the name Maggie Reid, in a small house with her cats and dog. She’s thankful for the new friends she’s made—though she can’t risk telling them too much. And she takes satisfaction in working as a makeup artist at the luxurious local spa, helping clients hide the visible outward signs of their weariness, illnesses, and injuries. Covering up scars is a skill she has mastered.

Her only goal is to stay under the radar and make it through her remaining probation. But she isn’t the only one in this peaceful town with secrets. When a friend’s teenage son is thrust into the national spotlight, accused of hacking a powerful man’s Twitter account, Maggie is torn between pulling away and protecting herself—or stepping into the glare to be at their side. As the stunning truth behind their case is slowly revealed, Maggie’s own carefully constructed story begins to unravel as well. She knows all too well that what we need from each other in this difficult world is comfort. But to provide it, sometimes we need to travel far outside our comfort zones.

 

My Thoughts: An emotional tale of family, loss, and starting over, Before and Again captured me from the very first pages.

Maggie, our protagonist, reveals much about what her new life looks like through her first person narrative, but it also gives us glimpses of what she has lost.

How will she deal with the newest scandal in her adopted town? Can she stay under the radar, or will her own back story burst through her carefully constructed mask? As each piece of her past pushes its way through, she gradually begins to realize that sometimes one has to accept the past and all of its pain in order to truly start over.

I loved the setting of her new life, and could feel the warmth and coziness she had created. I also began to realize, along with Maggie, that parts of the past could be woven into the new canvas she has drawn. As we watch the drama unfold, we realize that the life we had before can be remembered with a sense of healing, and when we begin again, we can bring forward the lessons we have learned. A beautiful story that earned 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: PARIS EVER AFTER, BY K.S.R. BURNS

 

Can Amy’s rocky start in Paris turn into a happy ever after? Amy didn’t realize how stale her life was until she jetted off to Paris without telling a soul—not even her husband—and had the adventure of a lifetime. Now as she tries to establish herself in the City of Light, she finds that despite a fun (and quirky) group of friends and the ability to indulge in French pastries whenever she wants, reinventing her life is much harder than she imagined.

Then on Amy’s thirtieth birthday, two unexpected visitors leave her wondering if she will soon be saying au revoir to Paris and the new life she’s struggled to build. Her estranged husband, Will, shows up—but is he interested in reconciliation or separation? And a young woman who arrives on Amy’s doorstep unleashes chaos that could push Amy out into the street.

As Amy’s Parisian dream starts to fall apart, she must decide: return to the stability of Will and Phoenix (if that’s even still an option) or forge her way forward in Paris? Amid secrets and surprises, set in enchanting gardens, cozy cafés, and glittering Parisian streets, Amy must choose between two very different worlds. And each has a claim on her heart.

My Thoughts: In our first look at Amy Brodie in Paris Ever After, she is still reeling from the death of her best friend Kat. The death that sent her flying off to Paris on a trip that she and Kat had planned, but was derailed by her death. But then, after just a few weeks, Amy returned to Phoenix…to a bitter fight with William that catapulted her back to Paris. On her second day, she meets an older woman named Margaret, who offers a room, and in a short time she begins to feel at home.

Her life is now full of beautiful café lunches; soirees at Margaret’s, with her two friends Herve and Nanu; and a new pregnancy with baby daughter Catherine. Just before she left Phoenix that last time, William gave her a parting gift. He does not know, however, and now she faces a dilemma.

Can she share her news with him and see if there is anything left of the marriage? What will her future hold: Paris or Phoenix?

A lovely book full of scenes that I loved, some characters that were wonderful, and others that were not. Secrets come out and an unexpected reunion between Margaret and someone she thought she had lost would upend Amy’s plans. Where will she belong now? As the story drew to an end, I was hoping for a sequel so that I could spend more time with these characters. 5 stars.


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

REVIEW: MAP OF THE HEART, BY SUSAN WIGGS

 

Widowed by an unspeakable tragedy, Camille Palmer has made her peace with the past and settled into the quiet safety of life with her teenage daughter Julie in a sleepy coastal town. Then the arrival of a mysterious package breaks open the door to her family’s secret past. In uncovering a hidden history, Camille has no idea that she’s embarking on an adventure that will utterly transform her. 

Camille, Julie, and Camille’s father return to the French town of his youth, sparking unexpected memories — recollections that will lead them back to the dark days of the Second World War. And it is in the stunning Provençal countryside that they will uncover their family’s surprising history.  

While Provence offers answers about the past, it also holds the key to Camille’s future. Along the way, she meets a former naval officer who stirs a passion deep within her — a feeling that she thought she’d never experience again.


My Thoughts: A beautiful family drama with dual time lines, Map of the Heart grabbed me from the very beginning.

In the present, Camille is struggling, but also immersed in her business in which she restores old photos. Her days of photographing the world around her, however, died along with her husband.

In the project that sets her on a new path, she connects with Malcolm (Finn) Finnemore; an unfortunate accident in the dark room and a family emergency almost upend their professional relationship, but events have a way of turning around.

What is going on with teenager Julie, who seems to have lost all of her friends? Why are unpleasant happenings keeping her holed up in her room, gaining weight and sullying her once adventurous spirit? Can a trip to Provence for the summer change everything, for both Julie and Camille?

I loved the characters, and so many historical and contemporary layers kept me digging for the treasures that would reveal a lovely story and uncover secrets from the past. By the conclusion, I was in tears, rooting for them all. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE LAKE HOUSE, BY KATE MORTON

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In beautiful Cornwall, Eleanor and Anthony Edevane live an idyllic life in a home they call Loenneth (Lake House). They met, fell in love, had one daughter, Deborah, and then Anthony went off to war. Eleanor got pregnant with Alice when he came home on leave. And after his return, two more children were born: Clementine and Theo.

All seemed lovely, and then came the Midsummer’s Eve party…a gorgeous event that seemed to signify all that was good. Until it wasn’t. That night, little Theo went missing.

The case went cold with no results. Seventy years later, Alice, in her eighties, is a best-selling mystery writer and living alone. She has held secrets close to her heart. But then she discovers that Deborah also has some secrets. Everything changes then.

Meanwhile, a young detective, Sadie Sparrow, is on leave from the police force after bad publicity from one of her cases, visiting her grandfather Bertie in Cornwall…and she stumbles upon the crumbling estate. Of course she has to investigate, and what she finds will change everything for her.

The Lake House is one of those rambling tales that moves back and forth, slowly filling in the blanks and giving us the intriguing details of the characters’ lives. The characters were each fascinating, and even those who seemed unlikeable at first glance became sympathetic, the more we know. As each character was introduced, from Constance to her daughter Eleanor and son-in-law Anthony, and then to Ben Munro, the gardener at Loenneth, we start to put the pieces together that form a cohesive story rich in details.

The house itself is like a character, with its own stories to tell. From the lush rooms to the secret tunnel, with the verdant gardens spreading around it, one can imagine only happiness within its walls. But sadness comes…and the house falls into disrepair. It would take decades before happiness returns. A lovely story that was impossible to put down, this one earned five stars!

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

REVIEW: DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY, BY BILL CLEGG

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In a small Connecticut town, several individuals are caught up in a tragedy that ultimately links them, and through the pages, the author takes us into the lives of some of these individuals, revealing past and present choices, and leading us to a place of understanding just what happened that day.

It happens the night before the wedding between June’s daughter Lolly and her fiancé Will. At a time when everyone has gathered to celebrate, the explosion kills everyone but June.

The multiple narrators are somehow connected to those who were killed, and separate chapters are devoted to each of them, sometimes in first person and other times, third person. Each narrator has been somehow scarred by events, both before and after the tragedy. Some have been living outside societal norms, clinging to what sets them apart, as if the familiar roles they have fallen into are too comfortable to change. What truths have kept each of them outsiders? Who are they? There is Lydia, whose son Luke was also killed, but is somehow blamed for the tragedy. And then there is June, who was Luke’s older lover, dubbed a cougar by the townsfolk. And then there are Rebecca and Kelly, who live in Moclips, Washington, as far from events as could be, but somehow they are connected to what happened by virtue of offering refuge to one of them.

How did June escape the tragedy, walking away without an identification, to find that refuge? Why did the small town folk believe only the worst about Luke and Lydia? And even though she was from a more polished life, why did they also seem to shun June?

Did You Ever Have A Family could be a poignant view of small town life, with all of its flaws and foibles, reminding us that sometimes the people we choose to dismiss are more like us than not, and that understanding goes a long way toward forgiveness.

The characters’ stories were intimate and insightful. Even though I struggled at times to make the connections between the numerous characters, by the end I could see a clear picture forming. 4 stars.