Big Little Lies (2014 Berkley) by Liane Moriarty

Someone died at the Pirriwee Elementary parent’s trivia night. Just who, how, and why are explored throughout the story, beginning months earlier with new mom Jane and son Ziggy introduced to the kindergarten community. Madeline and Celeste befriend her as their frenemies waylay her with accusations. Secrets worm their way out painfully slowly, personalities clash, and life decisions are made. The parents of Pirriewee Elementary learn more about each other this year than they ever wanted to know: bullying, adultery, abuse, etc.

Moriarty brilliantly resolves every tangle in this convoluted storyline, with a gotcha ending. She not so much develops the characters as seemingly lays out the personalities of loudmouth, but loving Madeline, whose ex remarried granola Bonnie and enrolled his kindergärtner in the same class as her child, gorgeous, flaky Celeste, mother of twins, who can hold a secret tighter than a nutshell, and Jane, an anomaly who drops a bombshell on them.

Antagonist Renata, with sidekick Harper, and half of the kindergarten parents, relentlessly pursues her goal of removing Jane’s son from the class based on an assumption. Moriarty does an excellent job of showing Renata’s justifiable reason of protecting her child, making her a complex character who is intertwined in the main character’s lives before Jane arrives. She weaves all of the extraneous, yet relevant, characters into the story through police statements and references by the main characters. The revelations that lead to a resolution are doled out in a credible timeline and manner, contributing to the group’s unusual reaction to the death.

I don’t know anyone else who writes like Liane Moriarty. She keeps a huge amount of details under control and multiple characters distinct. The perceived slights and misread cues are so relatable to any reader. Surely everyone has jumped the gun once or twice, especially when concerned about their child’s welfare, or gone overboard when obsessing about something outside of their control. Moriarty is great at telling details that connect characters and at the same time, explain why they miss something that they later feel should have been obvious.

Readers who love mysteries set amongst everyday people and places will appreciate this story. Those who like to see the bit of naughtiness in people will enjoy the novel. It’s a wild ride!

Prompt: someone goes to extreme lengths to return something borrowed.

Begrudger

“Mother, I swear!” I looked around the pantry, though there could be no one to hear me. Who else would willingly clean up after my mother? She had so many grudges, and she kept everything related to them. In every room of her home, I saw the evidence of her inability to let go of circumstances, accidents, basically any incident where someone disagreed with her perception or somehow slighted her by not following her expectations. This book in my hand had to be the longest running grudge in the history of grudges, with more animosity on both sides than the Hatfields and McCoys.

That may be why I decided to return the library book that my mother had vengefully held onto for 52 years to the librarian who refused to let it go. If she was still alive, I would find her and hand her the god-damned book that had boomeranged around my childhood and beyond. Everyone else had let go of whatever trophy Mother chose to keep to emphasize her point, socks that actually did belong to my cousin and my mother had accidentally packed with my stuff, the lighter she said my father had given her, though he’d not recognized it and asked her to return it to his friend, so many other stupid, little things. Letters were written and phone calls were made, where arguments ensued, with no one as relentless as my mother.

I went directly to the address on the most recent letter in the box on which the book sat. Miss Habscomb apparently still lived in our town. Alas, this was not true. The new tenant informed me that she had moved three years prior, but gave me the name of her son, who lived in the neighboring state. The next weekend, I knocked on his door. When I explained my mission, he gave me the name of a cousin in Germany who’d taken her in, since he and his mother weren’t close. I took an indefinite sabbatical from work to fly to Germany. The cousin passed me on to his brother in Amsterdam, who sent me back to the US, Ohio specifically. Three weeks later, I had traveled most of the country.

Suffering signs of early dementia meant round the clock care, but her family passed her around like an unwanted pet. I was feeling sincerely sad for this woman. More than once, I had doors slammed in my face and thus returned to the previous kin to brainstorm her next possible move. Once I found out that she was in a nursing facility, I thought my journey was over. But they had sent her to a specialized hospital for an acute something I couldn’t pronounce. She then moved around from assisted care facilities and various nursing homes, depending on which relative was paying.

I found her in a California rest home, sitting in a bay window, scowling at the sunny beach. She waved me to sit down.

“I don’t like people hovering over me.”

“Sorry.” I set on the sofa next to her wheelchair.

“Do you need something?”

She still scared the little girl in me returning a book late. I swallowed and persevered. “Miss Habscomb?”

“Mrs. You’re not a child. Call me by my proper name, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I found this book in my mother’s pantry. There were several letters between the two of you.”

“I don’t know your mother, child. I don’t even remember you.”

“Oh.” I tapped the box on my lap. “Of course.”

“May I see the book?”

I opened the box and handed her the book. “Here you go. She kept all your letters, and even the ones of hers that you returned.”

Miss, er, Mrs. Habscomb’s eye widened and brightened. Lucidity shone like beacons.

“This book! This book! I do remember this book!”

“You do? That’s great. I’ve spent a long time and traveled a long way to return it to you. My mom died this last summer.”

She gripped the book tightly in her arthritic hands and held it up, looking at it with glee. “It’s too bad your mother died, dear.”

“Thank you.” I sniffled, holding back tears I hadn’t expected.

The book floated down to her lap and she pet it as though it were a cat. “But I have to tell you something.” She leaned forward, holding herself in the chair by placing her forearms along the wheelchair arms. The twinkle in her eye was alarming. “I win!”

I snatched that damn book from her lap and hissed at her, “No, you don’t!” and drove home.

Prompt: language class of aliens

“Class, class, do we all have our translators? Remember, you are not to rely on them outside of class. They are a teaching tool only. Let’s begin where we left off yesterday, with phrases.”

The teacher waited as students settled into their seats, popping the various translators into their ears. There was a bit of grumbling still about the price of the translator modifiers to fit the different alien ears – “should be included in the price,” “can’t believe we have to buy these just for class.”

“Must we do this every day? It wastes valuable learning time. We are not children.”

A tiny, orange insectoid hopped on the desk, giggled, and said, “Some of us are.”

The teacher sighed and hung her head. “I know, I know, but you will never be an adult. Let’s move on. Aringhanja, what was the last phrase we learned yesterday?”

A tall, slender, martian cyborg stood next to her desk to recite, “Mi nij ay troy. It means a three-legged dog, which is a favorite plaything of grown human males in over-populated, centralized habitats of the obsolete planet, Earth. Why do we have to learn this old stuff?”

“History of the Earth and its language is relevant to understand its demise. Your planet may one day be in danger of termination.” She rubbed her foreheads with all four tentacles. “Why must I go over this every day? I realize your governments sent you, but it’s up to you to learn. Just do it. Please.”

She tapped a tentacle on the front wall to bring up the presentation. It read “Menage a trois: 3-legged, mangy dog, a favorite plaything of grown human males in over-populated, centralized habitats of Earth.”

The students grumbled as they wrote down the definition and prepared for the next.

The Wife Between Us (pub date January 9, 2018 St. Martin’s Press) by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Vanessa struggles to move on after her divorce from a self-made, influential businessman. She recalls him controlling her every move. He recounts her episodes of irrational behavior that led to his decision to divorce her. The journey to the truth bends back upon itself time and again as Vanessa reaches out to her replacement to warn her.

The cliffhangers skillfully expose each character. The writing is so tight that there’s no unraveling the narrative to reveal these secrets too soon. I love the unconventional ending that brings everyone back down to earth.

Readers who love unreliable narrators, complicated romance, and impossible situations will enjoy this story.

Thank you to Netgalley.com for the opportunity to read this ARC.

Prompt: the story of how your parents met, transposed to the Victorian era

“He’s a cad, Caroline,” Victoria hissed as she pushed her toward the door.

Caroline had not attended a garden party before today. At the height of it, when she believed she could eat no more food nor drink in no more ambiance, Allen had linked his arm in hers and led her to the grand oak tree at the edge of the lawn. He fingered Caroline’s blonde curls while appraising her figure with his eyes and whispering sweet nothings into her ear.

“I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong Caroline, my dear sir.”

Allen took three quick steps away. “Whatever do you mean?”

“This is my friend Caroline, as you well know. Your lovely fiancée Caroline is looking for you in the parlor.”

“I shall have to attend to her needs, then, shan’t I?” With that, he briskly walked to the house and disappeared inside.

“Whatever do you mean, Victoria, coming upon us so?”

Astonishment settled onto Victoria’s face at the rebuke. She whisked herself from the yard, following Allen into the house. Caroline sighed and also went to get her shawl. Passing the parlor, she witnessed Allen hugging a blonde in a spring green dress. He winked at her over the woman’s shoulder. She feared exposing her low breeding at the queasiness it brought to her.

Veronica called him a cad that day. She married him six months later.

Prompt: language of flowers, pyjamas, secret passageway & Prompt: she had tea with the King and he didn’t even know it

Prompt: language of flowers, pyjamas, secret passageway

Neither Nurture Nor Nature

Rose tittered to Camellia who squeed to Violet who giggled to Daisy who whispered to Gladys who poked Pansy.

“I don’t know what they’re saying, but I just love their tiny pyjamas.”

Irony’s remark was the last straw. Memory continued her search for the break in the wall. When she found the opening behind a loose stone that led to a drop between the walls that ended below the dungeon, she told Literally.

After gathering up the flowery, little bedroom fairies, Literally dropped them one by one down the secret passageway and replaced the stone.

Memory watched, but would not tell Irony.

Prompt: she had tea with the King and he didn’t even know it

Emily finally perfected her rich and famous spell. Unfortunately, the side effect was invisibility. Now everyone knew who she was, but no one could see her.

Her books sold like mad, though not a soul could say what the books were about.

Soon she received speaking invitations, turning down television and phoning in radio. Even the King invited her for tea. Heartbroken, Emily declined.

But she came to tea, sneaking through doorways past various employees of the castle. She slipped a letter with all her questions out of her pocket and in front of the King’s saucer when he looked away for a moment.

The King laughed at the special request of reading her questions and answering them aloud.

And he complied.

Prompt: the smoke hung so think in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it

All Holly’s Eve

Holly was in on the scheme. She helped Jarrod set up the mysterious boxes with the magical switches and mystical buttons.

“I’m so excited for you,” she said again, giving him another hug.

He blushed. “I wish I could take you with me.”

She playfully punched him. “Stop that!”

“I know, I know. You’d only go with me if I love you, and I don’t love girls.” His baritone boomeranged through the library rafters.

“Miss Lovington will be so pissed.”

“She’ll get over it when I send her my first movie.” He held up his hands as he announced, “Special effects, Jarrod West.”

“I still think it’s magic.”

“It’s just technology, babe.”

She swatted him again.

Jarrod finished hooking everything up, and they descended the ladder to set up downstairs. The library had been a church originally, built by a self-made Italian immigrant, who imported marble for the floors, quartz for the altar, and the finest granite for the walls. Rails were added to the walkways in the rafters when the high school reluctantly let go of religious education in public schools.

Holly relished the irony of decorating the church for Halloween, her favorite holiday. Jarrod’s blueprints made no sense to her, so she anticipated the theatrics along with everyone else. Except she loved him as her friend, whereas others appreciated only his talent. Being a gay teenager who looked like a lumberjack in a little redneck high school was tough.

That night, she helped him carry up the bag that held, as Jarrod put it, the unknown quantity, his parting gift to his fellow high school students. Next, Holly arranged all the Halloween books chosen by Miss Lovington, lining them up with the ambient lighting strips for her “spooktacular” display. She placed fun-sized candy bars in front of the books, and she ate a couple. Jarrod finished upstairs alone, wishing to reveal his farewell to her this evening. Something thudded behind her, startling her.

“Sorry. Only way to get it down.” She widened her eyes at him in mock anger. His laughter bouncing off the walls rewarded her effort. He climbed down and attached the piece he’d dropped carefully to the wall, pulling the wires taut. “In the dim light, no one will see this. Close to midnight, when most of the people are in here—“

“Cuz it’s the end of the tour.”

“Right. That’s when you push the button.” He pulled her to the wall and pointed her own finger at the button.

“Okay, okay, I get it.” She snake-eyed him. “Won’t you be here?”

He grinned. “Yeah, I’ll be upstairs. Remember, don’t let anyone see you push that button.”

Just before the tour started at 9 pm, Holly and Jarrod supervised the placement of smoke machines on the outer walkways of the rafters. After quick instructions, Jarrod turned them on and set them to build gradually. Then Holly followed him downstairs to watch him work his magic with the laser lights. A few people drifted in, but hung back by the door, waiting to see Jarrod’s special effects.

As the smoke built, Holly could actually read the short passages in it. Miss Lovington had agreed to horror classics, Frankenstein, Dracula, and some less famous works. No Stephen King or Clive Barker. Absolutely no gore. She had conceded to Poe, so the lights frequently spread his words through the swirling haze.

Enchanted by the miracle of technology, Holly missed Jarrod’s departure, but assume he’d gone upstairs. She mingled with the Halloween revelers, oohing, aahing, and reading aloud at random intervals. With only a half hour cycle of quotes, Holly quit re-reading, getting excited again with newcomers. Fellow students who never spoke to Jarrod praised his work to Holly. She held her tongue.

Stifling a yawn, she checked her watch – 11:30, almost time. She could hear the tour guide outside the door telling a large group about the origins of the library. Then the guide continued with a few ghost stories the planning committee had conjured for the event. After a moment of silence, they were ushered inside. Holly stayed back to give room for everyone to witness the laser light show. Then she pushed the button.

Thunk! Jarrod’s surprise hung from the rafters over their heads, swinging wildly at first. As it stilled, the group gasped at the face of Jarrod lit up by laser on the body hanging above. As she stared, horrified, someone kissed the top of her head and whispered in a soft baritone, “I do love you, my friend.” She looked around, but he was gone. On his way to his uncle’s in LA.

Prompt: impulse buy that starts an intergalactic war

Aftermath of Iggy

I hate this planet. I want to go home. But home is gone. I was lucky to be drawn in the SOA lottery. I forget what SOA stands for, but we called it Save Your Ass lotto, cuz the shuttle took us to Ninger-14A when Imperiaz aimed their super nukes at us. They weren’t kidding with those babies. Those damn things ripped righ through our planet and took out a good portion of Fierasubuta, bringing them and their 1,400 ally planets into the Inter-Galactic War.

We call it Iggy. Apparently, we started it. Commandant Susifruze was having a really bad day. By accident, she bumped the arm of the ShoCo shuttle’s robot too hard against the Triad’s mounting sensor when repairing it. This caused a ricochet, setting off a small missile. It wasn’t aimed, so it hit the nearby Floating Flo’s space diner, taking out 14 Hellyions’ deep space scooters. They had to be rescued. And they were pissed. They blamed all three planets of the Triad. The rescue ship destroyed the Triad Station. Waymarrons had rescued the Hellyions, so that was five planets involved originally. We know how this escalated. We watched planet after planet explode. Now we’re here, scrunched like robot butlers awaiting assignment.

Commandant Susifruze apologized repeatedly, but no one listened. It had already been set in motion. I’ve seen her on dozens of talk shows, crying. A commandant, crying, over a superstition. She always chewed Tangerine Scream gum before every mission. I’m here on Tullivaara Planet Morning to tell Commandant Susifruze what an honor it was to meet her the morning of her last mission at Soar’n’Soar convenience store. And I’m really, really sorry I chose that day to snag the last Tangerine Scream. I never buy it. I didn’t know.

Are those antique manacles?

Where are you taking me?

I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around (2016 Gallery Books) by Ann Garvin

Tig Monahan just put her mother into a home, lost a boyfriend to Hawaii, and gained a newborn from a runaway sister. After leaving her job for the boyfriend who leaves her, Tig falls into the position of radio psychology host, where she blossoms, but also learns a harsh lesson about the limitations of radio. She must find herself to put her life back in order, and let go of trying to control everything and everyone. When she finally opens up, her family relations, romance, and friendships fuel her rather than burden her.

I love how Garvin sucks the reader into the chaos that is Tig’s life, investing the reader in Tig’s welfare as she comes to realize that she doesn’t have to do everything and she doesn’t have to please everyone. As Tig learns to accept others as they are, as well as herself, things naturally settle down.

Readers who like to see stubborn characters grow and evolve into better versions of themselves will love this book. Garvin brings the reader to an unexpected and promising ending.

What Alice Forget (2010 PanMacMillan Australia) by Liane Moriarty

Alice wakes from a daydream of the beach to a painful head in an unfamiliar gym, with a colleague peering down at her. She fell off her bike in spin class and misplaced the last decade in her brain. Current events are not so current, and Alice learns some astonishing facts about the world and popular culture. Over the following week, she discovers some harsh truths about that decade from family, friends, and neighbors. As she slowly gains insight into her own life and troubled relations with her loved ones, the soul searching begins. When the memories hit all at once, Alice is stunned and reasserts herself as she merges her 29-year-old self with her 39-year old self.

Now this is how you open a novel! Moriarty begins the story with Alice floating in a pool, listening to a man playing Marco Polo with kids, knowing that the someone next to her with toenails painted different colors like her own is a person she loves. As the dreamlike sequence morphs into a painfully realistic nightmare of Alice’s confusion at finding herself in a gym, where she would never expect to be, the reader is pulled into the confusion and learns the truths as Alice learns them. Brilliant! Along with the facts presented to the memory-challenged Alice, secrets are unveiled, strengthening relationships and urging everyone forward toward positive opportunities.

Readers who wish to be invested deeply in the main character’s life will love this book. If you are fond of secrets, humorous references to current (and not so current) events, and gut-wrenching situations, this book is for you. Moriarty will have you laughing and crying out loud!