REVIEW: SWAN SONG, BY LISA ALTHER

Dr. Jessie Drake, in her mid-sixties, following the sudden deaths of her parents and Kat, her partner of twenty years, has fled the Vermont life she has known for decades.

In an effort to escape the oppressive constancy of grief, she accepts a job from an old flame from her residency in New York City’s Roosevelt Hospital, and agrees to assist Ben as the ship’s doctor on a British liner. Jessie boards in Hong Kong, and, as the Amphitrite sails throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East, cruise ship antics ensue. Jessie is lulled back into a long-ago romance with the ship’s co-doctor, and both she and her new/old beau become enmeshed with the ship’s lead (female) singer/entertainer. Among the passengers who fling socialized behavior aside on the high seas: a former Florida beauty queen (Miss Florida Power and Light) on a second honeymoon with her husband, as she causes high-velocity scandal, while juggling onboard affairs with a suicidal golf pro, and a defrocked priest hired as one of the liner’s gentleman hosts, until she vanishes–poof!–from the ship off the coast of Portugal . . . As the ship sails through the Gulf of Aden and into a possible hijacking by Somali pirates, Jessie retreats into her lover’s journals, written during her final months, journals filled with sketches of potential characters, observations on life and love–as well as drafts of a long new poem in progress, “Swan Song,” that seems to be about being in love with someone else, someone new. As Jessie’s grief turns to suspicion about the woman she thought she knew so well, her illumination of the poem’s meaning begins to lift the constraints of the past and make clear the way toward the future.

 

As Jessie begins her journey beyond the grief of her recent years, we join her as she strives to make sense of her life and her loves. In Swan Song, she discovers a series of poems written by Kat, and in trying to make sense of them, she wonders if Kat had had a new love at the end.

Meanwhile, she works on the ship doing medical tasks and meeting new people, some of whom are potential friends and/or lovers.

Can she really move beyond Kat with someone she meets on the journey? Or is she meant to be finding answers to life’s journey, especially the journey that ends with death? Eventually, after a number of events, all of which make her think, she comes to a decision. A contemplative read that earned 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: A WEEK AT THE SHORE, BY BARBARA DELINSKY

One phone call is all it takes to lure Mallory Aldiss back to her family’s Rhode Island beach home. It’s been twenty years since she’s been gone—running from the scandal that destroyed her parents’ marriage, drove her and her two sisters apart, and crushed her relationship with the love of her life, Jack Sabathian. Twenty years during which she lived in New York, building her career as a photographer and raising her now teenage daughter Joy.

But that phone call makes it clear that something has brought the past forward again—something involving Mallory’s father. Compelled by concern for her family and by Joy’s wish to visit her mother’s childhood home, Mallory returns to Bay Bluff, where conflicting loyalties will be faced and painful truths revealed.

In just seven watershed days at the Rhode Island shore, she will test the bonds of friendship and family—and discover the role that love plays in defining their lives.

A Week at the Shore opens up with family history and years of secrets, all set aside for one week at the small Rhode Island town. The patriarch, Tom Aldiss, is failing and his recent actions may have put him in jeopardy.

Mallory has been away from the shore for twenty years, and she has loved her life with daughter Joy in Manhattan. But reuniting with her sister Anne, and possibly Margot as well, might be a place to start. But then there are memories and issues to deal with about Mallory’s first love Jack. Their differences involve her father and his mother, so there may be no way to patch up those old hurts.

In this engaging story about family, missteps, secrets, and possible betrayals kept me rapidly turning pages. I didn’t like Mallory’s sisters, who were too bossy, and being the one in the middle, Mallory had often become the peacemaker. The sisters were blunt and sometimes abrasive with one another. The family felt real, so I was hoping they would find ways to overcome their issues…and find the answers to the past. I was also rooting for Mallory to reconnect with Jack. A 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: THE LAST HOUSE GUEST, BY MEGAN MIRANDA

 
Littleport, Maine, has always felt like two separate towns: an ideal vacation enclave for the wealthy, whose summer homes line the coastline; and a simple harbor community for the year-round residents whose livelihoods rely on service to the visitors.

Typically, fierce friendships never develop between a local and a summer girl—but that’s just what happens with visitor Sadie Loman and Littleport resident Avery Greer. Each summer for almost a decade, the girls are inseparable—until Sadie is found dead. While the police rule the death a suicide, Avery can’t help but feel there are those in the community, including a local detective and Sadie’s brother, Parker, who blame her. Someone knows more than they’re saying, and Avery is intent on clearing her name, before the facts get twisted against her.

In The Last House Guest, we follow a story that takes us back and forth in time, from a fatal party in the summer of 2017 to the present. Each time the story circles forward, we learn more tidbits. As if we bring fresh eyes to the scene.

I liked watching Avery as she pieces things together, circling through events and clues like the detectives who know that “follow the money” will take us where we need to go.

Just when I thought I had it all figured out, we leaped to a final reveal that shone a bright light on the corruption in small town life. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE SEA GLASS COTTAGE, BY RAEANNE THAYNE

The life Olivia Harper always dreamed of isn’t so dreamy these days. The 16-hour work days are unfulfilling and so are things with her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when she hears that her estranged mother, Juliet, has been seriously injured, Liv has no choice but to pack up her life and head home to beautiful Cape Sanctuary on the Northern California coast.

It’s just for a few months—that’s what Liv keeps telling herself. But the closer she gets to Cape Sanctuary, the painful memories start flooding back: Natalie, her vibrant, passionate older sister who downward-spiraled into addiction. The fights with her mother who enabled her sister at every turn. The overdose that took Natalie, leaving her now-teenaged daughter, Caitlin, an orphan.

As Liv tries to balance her own needs with those of her injured mother and an obstinate, resentful fifteen-year-old, it becomes clear that all three Harper women have been keeping heartbreaking secrets from one another. And as those secrets are revealed, Liv, Juliet, and Caitlin will see that it’s never too late—or too early—to heal family wounds and find forgiveness.


In the beginning of The Sea Glass Cottage, we meet Olivia, who has gone through a terrifying experience in her favorite Seattle coffee shop, and now is suffering a form of PTSD. Despite her issues, she changes her schedule to head to her hometown when her mother, Juliet, falls and seriously injures herself.As she tries to step in to help, she has to deal with her own feelings from her adolescence, when her mother focused all of her energy on her sister Natalie, an addict, and then on Caitlin, the baby her sister had back then. Now Caitlin is fifteen and full of barely suppressed rage about her own resentments and secrets.

It was hard to like Caitlin, who had done something she shouldn’t have, and is allowing what she learned to interfere with her relationships.

Juliet has her own secret, which is also an obstacle that could prevent future happiness.

I was rooting for Olivia throughout, but also hoping that Juliet and Caitlin would own up to their fears and secrets, allowing the family to rebuild. A 4.5 star read.

***

REVIEW: ELSIE DINSMORE, BY MARTHA FINLEY

Elsie is an eight-year-old girl who has became a Christian and abides by Biblical law—as taught to her by her dead mother’s housekeeper and then her own nanny, Chloe. Her father, Horace, is a man who dictates rules by which his daughter must live. Many conflicts result from Elsie’s belief that she must only obey her father when his orders do not conflict with Scripture.

 

When I was a young child, my mother gifted me with a hardcover version of Elsie Dinsmore, a book that she received from her aunt in 1926.

I read the book several times in childhood, and felt sad for the poor child who was treated so badly by her father’s relatives, and because he did not even appear in her life until she was eight years old.

Now that I have the book on Kindle, I have reread it and realized that the preachy aspects of the book do not appeal to me at all.  However, I did like experiencing how different my adult attitudes are and realized that time and distance affected me greatly.

Despite the distance of time and my attitudinal changes, I still felt sorry for the child and deplored how the adults in her life treated her so poorly and even modeled very cruel behavior that their own children emulated.

The physical book is still a treasure, especially the illustrations.  The binding has been repaired twice over the years, and this book, which is almost 100 years old, will stay with me.  I like having it in the Kindle format.

The story earns only 3 stars from me, but the sentimental value receives 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SNOW ANGEL COVE, BY RAEANNE THAYNE

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Eliza Hayward and her five-year-old daughter Maddie have arrived in Haven Point, Idaho, eager to start a new life. After three years of pain and loss following the death of her husband, Trent, Eliza was thrilled to be offered a hotel management position at the Lake Haven Inn.

But sadly, upon her arrival, Eliza is greeted by the burned out ashes of the inn…lost in a fire only a short time before. The owner, Megan Hamilton, can offer a small severance, but that is it.

While Eliza and her daughter are walking in town to find a diner, Maddie runs into the street, and when Eliza pushes her out of the way, she herself is struck by an out-of-control SUV. Her injuries are not serious—a concussion and some bumps and bruises—but Aidan Caine, the owner of the car, had hit a patch of ice and couldn’t stop, so it wasn’t really his fault. However, he takes her under his wing and soon she is hired to run Snow Angel Cove, the inn he is getting ready for a Christmas visit from his large family, arriving soon from Hope’s Crossing in Colorado. But it will be a short-term position.

Naturally, the story will turn into one in which a rich man helps the poor young woman get on her feet again, using his own responsibility for the accident as a way to sell his plan to Eliza. He also happens to be falling in love with her, apparently, as well as with her young daughter Maddie…who has a defective heart.

Could a story be more heartwarming? Especially during the holidays? Eliza, of course, fights the feelings she is developing, telling herself she and Maddie will soon be on their way again—after Christmas.

Would this fairytale story have a happy ending? Or would the barriers between Aidan and Eliza be too great? Would it be a Christmas to remember?

I liked the story, which was a bit predictable, but it was just what I needed after the thriller I just read. I couldn’t help but root for Eliza and Maddie, and had hopes that Aidan would do something great for the townspeople, who are standoffish with him because he seemingly bought up half the town and then hadn’t done anything except renovate his inn. And, of course, I hoped that he and Eliza would give us that HEA ending. 4 stars.

REVIEW: THE ARSONIST, BY SUE MILLER

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During one summer in a small New Hampshire town, tensions are ignited between the summer people and the locals after a string of fires spread across the landscape. Despite its time period, set in the 1990s during the Clinton years, the issues exposed during and after each conflagration seem timely.

Bud Jacobs, the editor of the local newspaper, writes about the impact of the arsonist:

“The sense of community that is the bedrock of small-town life is broken, suddenly.”

Home from a fifteen-year stint in Kenya doing aid work, Frankie Rowley finds herself caught up in the fear that overwhelms all the residents, as she also struggles with family issues. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have retired to their former summer home in Pomeroy, but Alfie’s slow descent into dementia seemingly changes everything about the dynamic between them. Meanwhile, Frankie is at loose ends, undecided about what to do next and whether or not to return to Africa.

In Miller’s beautiful prose, the story of The Arsonist: A novel unfolds, while Frankie and newspaper owner Bud give in to the powerful pull between them.

We follow the tale from the perspectives of the various characters, as it sweeps back and forth through the years, revealing the relationships between them all and the paths that have led them to where they now are. We learn more about Sylvia’s teen years and how an unresolved relationship has informed her life in the subsequent decades.

Meanwhile, we must ask ourselves: Who is targeting the summer people in Pomeroy, and why? Could the frustrations and conflicts of the past be presenting themselves now? What will Frankie decide about her next project, and how can she escape the feelings of not belonging anywhere?

Themes of home and belonging, of the social context that surrounds us in our dwellings, and the divide across which hostilities are played out, bring the story to its somewhat nebulous conclusion, with still more questions than answers. A brief fast forward through the years gives us a glimpse of what might be, even as we puzzle over those unanswered questions. A lovely narrative that will never leave me. Five stars.

REVIEW: MERCY SNOW, BY TIFFANY BAKER

17869466Titan Halls, New Hampshire, is a small town ruled by the paper mill and its owners, the McAllisters. They are the “haves,” while the “have-nots,” like the Snow family, live on the fringes, dubbed as itinerant ne-er-do-wells and a blight on the community.

So when a tragic bus accident ends a life and seemingly destroys another, the McAllisters, like some others, are quick to place blame on young Zeke Snow, who has recently returned to town with his younger sisters, Mercy and Hannah.

But Cal and June McAllister are keeping secrets, while trying to railroad the Snows out of town. Will Mercy and her young sister starve before the truth comes out? Will the runaway Zeke prove his innocence? And what long-ago secrets might be revealed after a skeleton is discovered near the accident site? Was there more to the story than a simple accidental death?

Following the struggles of Mercy and Hannah made me root for them, even as their desperate choices only seemed to bring more doubt upon any possible innocence. Hazel, the local sheep owner and the wife of the bus driver, injured in the crash, is barely hanging on. Will her sympathy for Mercy put her on the wrong end of things when faced with June McAllister’s pressures? And what surprising connections will Hazel discover in an unexpected way?

Mercy Snow: A Novel is a story that shines a spotlight on the long-buried secrets in a small town, along with the hierarchy of power and how those who possess it will struggle to retain it.

The story comes to its conclusion with a surprising reveal, and then fast forwards into the future to unmask how sometimes the sinners can find redemption. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: PLAYING DEAD, BY JULIA HEABERLIN

13147826When Tommie McCloud returns home to Ponder, Texas, it is for her father’s funeral. And sadly, it might as well have been for her mother’s, too, as she is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, her health deteriorating.

The funeral is scarcely over when her father’s secretary hands her a letter from a stranger. A missive that will change her life in unexpected ways. A letter that makes Tommie question everything she thought she knew about her family and who she is.

Set on finding out the truth behind the secrets and lies of her childhood, Tommie’s journey takes her to Chicago, to various places in the Southwest, and to a bank vault, where more of her mother’s secrets are revealed.

But will any of the questions find answers? What is Tommie’s connection to mafia prisoner Anthony Marchetti? Who really murdered the family of an FBI agent, and what really happened to Tommie’s brother Tuck?

With the help of special friends and a reporter, Tommie tries to sort through the pieces to the puzzle. Happily, her time at home has given her special moments with her younger sister Sadie and her niece Maddie. But when she finds the answers, will her life as she knew it be over?

I enjoyed the settings, the characters, and the continual surprises that kept me from guessing the answers right away. I always love being surprised by who did what and to whom.

Playing Dead: A Novel is a story that engaged me from the very first page and kept me intrigued throughout. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a good mystery, with all the twists and turns and unexpected surprises that this author so brilliantly provides. Five stars.

UNEXPECTED TRANSFORMATIONS — SEPT. 10

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While studying in Africa, young Jessica Speight, an anthropology student, was struck by the vision of children with “lobster claws,” children whose abnormalities would haunt her. In the midst of these impressionable moments, Jessica would ponder her feelings and wonder if their impact on her was a foreshadowing of things to come.

When she has an affair with her married professor, the consequences would be far-reaching. The child born changed Jess’s academic future, but also took her into a whole new kind of life. For the child, Anna, was delightful, with a sunny nature: described as “a pure gold baby.” But what that meant, ultimately, was that Anna was not “normal,” and over the years would display various special needs, changing family life for Jess and Anna. There would be private schools and boarding schools. There would be an enhanced connection between Jess and Anna, a symbiotic connection, if you will.

Jess and Anna’s story is told by another parent with whom the two have a friendship. Someone who is almost like part of their extended family; someone who narrates in what seems to be a “plural” voice, as if there are several storytellers. There is a sense of an extra layer between the storyteller and Jess: a slight detachment. Almost an omniscience about the narration. It also has an essence of being told after the fact, which also places distance between the narration and the characters.

Sometimes I had difficulty engaging with The Pure Gold Baby, as the narrator would shift onto her own issues, while remaining in the first person voice she used when talking about Jess and Anna. I would then lose focus and have to reread several paragraphs to find my way again. The story also felt repetitive and weighed down with historic details and issues that were important, but didn’t require repeating. All of these elements lent a tedium to the tale.

Overall, the story, which spanned several decades, from 1960s London to the 21st Century, revealed how one promising young academic lost her way in her initial journey, and found another one. Her almost complete focus on Anna might have been her only way to absorb herself in this new life. In the end, she takes a trip back to Africa with Anna and some friends, hoping to find something obviously missing, or to remember what was. And realizes that nothing is as it seems, even though she has come full circle. 3.5 stars.