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: I’LL NEVER TELL, BY CATHERINE MCKENZIE

 

Twenty years ago, she was found bludgeoned in a rowboat at the MacAllister family’s Camp Macaw. No one was ever charged with the crime.

Now, after their parents’ sudden deaths, the MacAllister siblings return to camp to read the will and decide what to do with the prime real estate the camp occupies. Ryan needs to sell. Margaux hasn’t made up her mind. Mary believes in leaving well enough alone. Kate and Liddie—the twins—have opposing views. And Sean Booth, the groundskeeper, just hopes he still has a home when all is said and done.

But it’s more complicated than a simple vote. The will stipulates that until they unravel the mystery of what happened to Amanda, they can’t settle the estate. Any one of them could have done it, and each one is holding a piece of the puzzle. Will they work together to finally discover the truth, or will their secrets finally tear the family apart?

My Thoughts: As we wend our way through the events of one summer, we are shown Amanda’s thoughts on that crucial night, and offered bits and pieces of what happened to her.The MacAllisters are a big dysfunctional family, with dark secrets held by each of them, so it is no surprise that, in the pages of I’ll Never Tell, we begin to sort through a lot of history in order to put the pieces together. But even as I picked out my “favorite culprit,” as time went by, there were clues pointing elsewhere. The stunning reveal in the final pages changed everything for the family, but because of their family motto to keep secrets, the answers were not made public.

In the end, it was clear how the family ties kept them all competitive and secretive, locked away in the darkness of their guilt and fear. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: I INVITED HER IN, BY ADELE PARKS

 

Imagine the worst thing a friend could ever do.

This is worse.

When Mel receives an unexpected email from her oldest friend Abi, it brings back memories she thought she had buried forever. Their friendship belonged in the past. To those carefree days at university.

But Abi is in trouble and needs Mel’s help, and she wants a place to stay. Just for a few days, while she sorts things out. It’s the least Mel can do.

After all, friends look out for each other, don’t they?

My Thoughts: I Invited Her In opened to cozy scenes in the home of Ben and Melanie Harrison. They have settled into a suburb an hour from London, with Liam, Melanie’s 17-year-old son, and Imogene and Lily, their children together. Melanie loves her life, but when she gets the email from her university friend Abigail Curtiz, she is curious and intrigued.

Abigail arrives on the scene full of chatter and delicious treats, and the two women catch up on the years they were apart. Abi’s broken marriage has brought her to a sad place but remembering the good times will help…so she insists.

But soon Ben is anxious for the interloper to go. He misses his cozy times with Mel and the kids, and he doesn’t have a good feeling about Abi’s intentions.

Melanie is still eager for the party to continue…but then things begin to happen that are disturbing and uncomfortable. Soon she sees her old friend for who she truly is.

What secrets from the past will reveal more about Abi’s intentions, and how will Melanie find peace and family time again?

A stunning surprise at the end changed the tone of the story, but even with that snippet, I couldn’t help but really hate Abigail and her plots and evil plans, while rooting for Mel’s happy ending. A 5 star read.

***

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: PIECES OF HER, BY KARIN SLAUGHTER

 

Andrea Cooper knows everything about her mother Laura. She’s knows she’s spent her whole life in the small beachside town of Gullaway Island; she knows she’s never wanted anything more than to live a quiet life as a pillar of the community; she knows she’s never kept a secret in her life. Because we all know our mothers, don’t we?

But all that changes when a Saturday afternoon trip to the mall explodes into violence and Andrea suddenly sees a completely different side to Laura. Because it turns out that before Laura was Laura, she was someone completely different. For nearly thirty years she’s been hiding from her previous identity, lying low in the hope that no one will ever find her. But now she’s been exposed, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Twenty-four hours later Laura is in the hospital, shot by an intruder who’s spent thirty years trying to track her down and discover what she knows. Andrea is on a desperate journey following the breadcrumbs of her mother’s past. And if she can’t uncover the secrets hidden there, there may be no future for either one of them. . . .

My Thoughts: I was drawn into Pieces of Her because I loved the premise of the chasm between mothers and daughters, and how they keep parts of themselves hidden, even from those they love.

In her daughter Andrea’s eyes, Laura Oliver has had an ordinary existence, but then a violent episode in the mall drastically changes that view. Afterwards, Laura tells her daughter she needs to move out, now that she is thirty-one, and make it on her own. Blindsided by her mother’s actions, both at the mall and then afterwards, Andrea resists.

But suddenly something even more troubling happens a day later that sends Andrea on a quest to find answers. Her mother has given her very specific guidelines of where to go, and how to stay safe. Everything about these actions changes not only her view of her mother, but of her own existence.

I found this part of the novel intriguing, as Andrea tried to stay ahead of the danger, but kept finding herself in the midst of it because she had forgotten to do one or two of the things her mother had suggested.

Obviously Laura had quite a journey in her younger years, but it will take Andrea’s numerous and sometimes dangerous efforts to learn what her mother had done back then…and how she managed to survive.

The story also reminded me a little of other cults we saw in the 70s and 80s, and how the groups depend on the leadership of charismatic and dangerous men.

Who was Laura Oliver, and what were her defining moments? How did she manage to escape, and what did she still need to do to protect her daughter. An engaging read. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: OUR HOUSE, BY LOUISE CANDLISH

 

When Fiona Lawson comes home to find strangers moving into her house, she’s sure there’s been a mistake. She and her estranged husband, Bram, have a modern co-parenting arrangement: bird’s nest custody, where each parent spends a few nights a week with their two sons at the prized family home to maintain stability for their children. But the system built to protect their family ends up putting them in terrible jeopardy. In a domino effect of crimes and misdemeanors, the nest comes tumbling down.

Now Bram has disappeared and so have Fiona’s children. As events spiral well beyond her control, Fiona will discover just how many lies her husband was weaving and how little they truly knew each other. But Bram’s not the only one with things to hide, and some secrets are best kept to oneself, safe as houses.

 

My Thoughts: In the opening lines of Our House, we are stunned by what Fiona Lawson sees, as she comes home after a few days away: moving vans and a strange family unloading them. They are moving into her house!

Flashback to the previous summer when Fiona caught Bram cheating on her. It wasn’t the first time. So the split would change their lives, but they thought their solution for the children was the perfect one. The so-called Birds’ Nest custody arrangement had the children permanently in the house, with the parents taking turns moving in and out. A flat nearby was where the off-duty parent would stay.

Next, our narrators take us back and forth in time: Bram’s Word doc reveals his story, while Fi’s podcast confessions on The Victim offer her perspective. Slowly we come to discover the intricacies of how Fi ended up losing her house, and what happened to Bram to take them there.

It is not a simple story, and there are so many twists and turns, with a final unexpected one at the end. But this story is not divided into villains and victims…unless we label some of the other parties. But someone has gone to a lot of trouble to unravel their lives. And both Bram and Fi have made choices that led them to this place.

Did the Birds’ Nest arrangement set this family up for what happened? Could secrets and lies from the past have added to their vulnerability? And would the final denouement leave questions unanswered, with more heartache ahead? Rapidly turning pages kept me guessing and wondering, and made me feel empathy for both Bram and Fi. They felt like people who might have been our friends and neighbors. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley

REVIEW: LET ME LIE, BY CLARE MACKINTOSH

 

The police say it was suicide.
Anna says it was murder.
They’re both wrong.

Last year, Tom and Caroline Johnson chose to end their lives, one seemingly unable to live without the other. Their daughter, Anna, is struggling to come to terms with her parents’ deaths, unwilling to accept the verdict of suicide.

Now with a baby herself, Anna feels her mother’s absence keenly and is determined to find out what really happened to her parents. But as she digs up the past, someone is trying to stop her.

Sometimes it’s safer to let things lie….

 

My Thoughts: Multiple narrators, including an anonymous one, lead us through Let Me Lie.

I liked trying to decipher the clues that came to Anna in the form of scary messages. Odd events that make her question everything she thought she knew.

Would Anna find the answers to the disturbing events? Would her family secrets be unveiled? What if her past was exposed as a twisted lie?

Murray Mackenzie, the retired detective who worked the case, was an interesting character. I liked how his own personal issues with his mentally ill wife added another layer to the story. He seemed to be a compassionate person, which isn’t necessarily how I see the police. But I liked how he worked, and even how he and his wife Sarah talked about possible scenarios. They felt like a team, and those moments were some of their best.

As the pace sped up, and just when I thought I knew what was happening, unexpected truths were revealed.

Even beyond what I thought was “the end,” another surprise stunned me. I had to read the last line again and again, leaving me with more questions. A 4.5 star read.

***

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: NOT THAT I COULD TELL, BY JESSICA STRAWSER

 

When a group of neighborhood women gathers, wine in hand, around a fire pit where their backyards meet one Saturday night, most of them are just ecstatic to have discovered that their baby monitors reach that far. It’s a rare kid-free night, and they’re giddy with it. They drink too much, and the conversation turns personal.

By Monday morning, one of them is gone.

Everyone knows something about everyone else in the quirky small Ohio town of Yellow Springs, but no one can make sense of the disappearance. Kristin was a sociable twin mom, college administrator, and doctor’s wife who didn’t seem all that bothered by her impending divorce—and the investigation turns up more questions than answers, with her husband, Paul, at the center. For her closest neighbor, Clara, the incident triggers memories she thought she’d put behind her—and when she’s unable to extract herself from the widening circle of scrutiny, her own suspicions quickly grow. But the neighborhood’s newest addition, Izzy, is determined not to jump to any conclusions—especially since she’s dealing with a crisis of her own.

As the police investigation goes from a media circus to a cold case, the neighbors are forced to reexamine what’s going on behind their own closed doors—and to ask how well anyone really knows anyone else.

 

My Thoughts: A story that could have been ripped from the headlines, Not That I Could Tell was a reminder that secrets, lies, and possible violence could be hiding behind any of the doors in a friendly neighborhood.

From the police and the media presence to the suspicious behavior of several normally sociable neighbors, there is a sense hovering in the neighborhood that nothing will ever be the same in the quiet small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Izzy is new to the neighborhood, and smarting from her own feelings of betrayal when her best friend and potential love interest marries her younger sister. Clara, who hosted the party and who has her own past connections to domestic violence, is suddenly hypervigilant. Then there is Paul, the almost ex-husband of Kristin, moving back into the house after his wife has gone missing…and acting sad and victimized by it all. But what is really behind his behavior? What had happened between them? How would the neighbors learn to cope with events?

As the story winds down and with the police unable to close the case, a few things happen unexpectedly that bring out the final secrets and reveal everything that was unknown. The story was interesting, with some characters I enjoyed…but I figured out much of what was happening long before the end. However, there were some missing pieces that I enjoyed watching unfold. 4.5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.