Category Archives: Book Reviews

Love in a Carry-On Bag by Sadeqa Johnson

Erica excels as a publicist in NYC. Her love Warren is under contract in DC, while pursuing his true love of jazz whenever he can. They vow their weekends to each other in good faith, but family and work overspill their boundaries. Erica’s alcoholic mother is an emotional vampire, constantly requesting her time and money. Warren’s father is an emotionally inaccessible, strict disciplinarian, whose second marriage exposes a family secret that rips Warren out of time and space. As Erica tries to move up the ladder in her company, special projects snatch her away from her special time with Warren, who renews his contract in DC without discussing it with her. He breaks up with her, setting Erica on a downward spiral. She confronts her mother about her childhood, prompting her mother to reveal her own tragic background. She and Warren must come to terms with the families that they have and find their way back to each other.

This is so much more than a long-distance romance novel. Both main characters are well-developed, complex individuals placed in impossible situations with no clear resolutions. They learn more about their families than they wanted to know, but this helps them to evolve and move toward each other.

Perennials by Julie Cantrell

Lovey allows herself to be chased from her childhood home in Oxford, Mississipi by her older sister Bitsy’s inexplicable animosity. Though she calls foul on sibling rivalry, her parents don’t back her up, making Lovey feel damaged. When their mother’s garden shed burns to the ground after their friends Fisher and Finn barely make it out, Bitsy blames Lovey and no one protests, leaving her alone for years wallowing in the injustice. Bitsy uses Finn’s injuries to fuel Lovey’s guilt, prompting her move to another state, another life, away from his brother Fisher, who asked Lovey to marry him. Emotions run rampant through Lovey as she tries to balance her current life and the one she ran scared from decades ago. Her parents convince her to return home for their 50th wedding anniversary party. She complies, facing her lost love and antagonistic sister. When she’s called to return to work to resolve a hostile takeover by the boss of her ad campaign project, her father changes her mind when he confesses that her mother is terminally ill. She stays, determined to treasure every last moment with her mother, making a truce with her sister, and dealing haphazardly with Fisher’s current “it’s complicated” relationship status. Lovey continues to bond with her mother over their shared love of gardening, with life lessons inspired by gardening and favorite local writers Welty and Faulkner sprinkled throughout the book by both parents. Religious themes run a bit strong in this story and can be distracting, assuming that readers are Christian and accepting of religiosity as part of the lessons. Lovey makes a breakthrough with her father after a particularly hurtful encounter with Bitsy, which starts her healing process. She is home. This is her home. Everything comes together, albeit some of it a bit too easily, as there are decades of pent-up hurt to be worked through, especially for the sisters.

This novel lays a family bare across the lush backdrop of a Mississippi farm, with floral imagery cascading over it all, a tragic history made bigger by time, southern literary greats explored, and long ago loves who may not be lost.

Tranquility by Laurie Gardiner

Single mom Sarah starts day shift in the dementia ward of the healthcare facility Tranquilty, moving from nights in palliative care. Her new co-worker Tracey immediately befriends her, introducing her to the “cast of characters” for whom she will be caring: Sam, who randomly prefers nudity, gentle, inquisitive Rose, the bickering twins Lily and Beth, the wheelchair menace Mrs. W, who remembers a concentration camp more vividly than contemporary events, quiet Mrs. Sellers, Italian immigrant Mrs. Gallo, whose husband visits her daily, Alfred, who has a tendency to call for a once beloved cat named Hairball, and Mrs. Amaral, a sweet Portuguese immigrant. Gardiner’s work in such a facility inspired the story, and to ensure accuracy, her research included interviewing employees in all areas of the facility, from bathing to housekeeping. New residents to Tranquility bring a professional dilemma, a dangerous situation, and potential romance for Sarah. Edie, with her soft Scottish brogue, does not appear to be suffering from dementia, but when she fakes it to expose an abusive employee, Sarah keeps an eye on her. After two violent incidents, endangering staff and residents, John is quickly moved again, to the psych ward. With Georgia comes a big family, including her great-grandson Jay, who lights a fire in Sarah. Along with all this, Sarah’s own grandma suffers a second stroke, and her mother must deal with end of life choices, a struggle for a woman who hasn’t really gotten over her husband’s death a decade earlier. The brightest light in this story is Kayla, Sarah’s daughter, who gives her grandma life, and handles great-grandma’s struggle with surprising grace for a 4-year-old. Sarah and Tracey execute a not-quite-legal plan to prove the co-worker’s abuse, but it’s waylaid by Edie’s plan to do the same. Everything comes together in the end in a complicated, bittersweet resolution, just like in real life. Characters learn and grow, while others astonish, but most of all, the ones who need to find themselves do so.

This is a beautiful story of faith in humanity, dignity in aging, justice for the vulnerable, and finding strength in family and friends.

Ghost Gifts (Ghost Gifts #1) (2016 Montlake Romance) by Laura Spinella

Aubrey Ellis grew up learning to control the physically ravaging and emotionally draining interactions with ghosts who insist upon her assistance, ghosts who always leave tangible evidence of the encounter. As an adult, she’s settled into a position as a real estate columnist that gives her the opportunity to connect with and aid those who have passed on to continue their journey without too much damage to herself. Then she’s sucked into a decades old unsolved murder after new evidence emerges. Her reluctant partnership with fellow journalist Levi St. John takes her in new and unexpected directions, personally and professionally, and she comes fully into herself.

Although Spinella is designated a romance writer, I found the romance to be an integral part of a paranormal story and not the focus. She spins a ghost story so enchanting that I looked forward to meeting the ghosts and cheered Aubrey on when she succeeded in convincing Levi of her gift / curse. I love when writers understand human emotions, building character integrity and deepening genre novels. Spinelli is brilliant at laying down the elements that came together later in the story, doing so without distracting from the current scene. The tension builds as the story veers from the apparent guilt of one character to another, and I did not guess the true culprit, even with the hints sprinkled about everywhere.

Readers who are intrigued by the possibility of the existence of ghosts and the ability to converse with them will like this story. If you liked the television series Ghost Whisperer, you will love Aubrey’s story.

Thank you, Laura Spinella, for gifting me the digital copy of the first Ghost Gifts. I love it!

Little Fires Everywhere (2017 Penguin Press)by Celeste Ng

Photography artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, OH, bringing a new element into the staunchly middle-class, by the rules neighborhood, changing dynamics of two families, her own as a single mom, and her landlady Elena Richardson’s properly planned one as third generation Shaker Heights. Into this volatile blend is thrown teenage hormones, a King Solomon dilemma, and outside the box thinkers, culminating in “something’s gotta give.” Wisdom comes from unlikely sources.

Throwing an artist into the mainstream never goes as planned. This is a brilliant expose of the bubbles in which we live, what happens when someone pops it and we must acknowledge that our life may not be what it seems. I love how Ng shows the reader the different perspectives of the characters, especially the Richardson’s youngest daughter’s idea that her mother likes her least, because she’s harder on her, when the reality is that her mother has feared for her life since she was born prematurely. Ng shows how easily failing to communicate feelings can lead to harsh presumptions. Her characters remain true to themselves throughout, and although there are lessons to be learned, there’s no “moral of the story” here, leaving a satisfying open ending.

Readers of Lian Moriarty may like this novel. If you love complex characters that build tension through miscommunication, strong feelings, and searching for themselves, you will like this book.

Most Wanted (2016 St. Martin’s Press) by Lisa Scottoline

Christine and Marcus want a baby so much that they use a sperm donor. Pregnant Christine sees their donor on the news being arrested for multiple murders. Against Marcus’ wishes, she visits him and helps him with his defense. She vacillates between thinking him innocent and guilty, believing he is her sperm donor and desperately wanting him to be a good person.

Scottoline’s standalone novels are as twisty and turny as her lawyer series. Her unique storylines are compelling and emotional. As in most of her books, Scottoline’s protagonist proceeds on her mission with confidence despite those she loves disagreeing with her. Christine relies on her best friend when her husband opposes her. She does what she believes is moral and ethical.

Readers who like John Grisham and / or David Baldacci would likely appreciate Scottoline. If you love a fast-moving thriller with complex characters and ambiguous situations, you’ll like this story.

The Husband’s Secret (2013 Berkley) by Liane Moriarty

While looking in the attic for something, Cecilia finds a letter from her husband to be opened upon his death. Her life becomes intertwined with the secretary of the school who lost her daughter to murder 30 years and a young mom who separated from her husband and came home to care for her mother with a broken ankle. Cecilia discovers the limits of her endurance and her loyalty to her family.

Moriarty intricately weaves stories and lives together with conscientious telling details. I love the different perspectives of all the characters, how much more complex they are then they seem. Though Cecilia is the main character, the other two women are just as relevant to the story, and even minor characters are developed enough to envision. The big secret is not held until the end from the reader, yet Moriarty continues building tension until the final revelation.

I suspect Agatha Christie fans would like Moriarty’s work. Readers who love mysteries, the complexity of small town relationships, and familial nuances will appreciate this story.

Raising the Dad (pub date April 17, 2018 Thomas Dunne Books) by Tom Matthews

John Husted picks up his brother from prison with his mother, whose dementia charms her into thinking he’s coming home from vacation. The good son, John cared for his mom after his dad died, is now building his own family, continuing to monitor his mom in her home, and settles his ex-convict brother in with mom. It’s no surprise then that his father’s colleague, succumbing to a terminal illness, turns over his clandestine responsibility to John, who now must make a final, impossible decision.

This story started off with the hook of prisoners being released at the end of their term, the nitty gritty of getting out, which was interesting. When it came to the individual prisoner, the story slowed down a bit, until the family secret was revealed. Then it flowed. The reader spends a lot of time in John’s head, agonizing with him over the dreaded options that aren’t really options. Everyone else seems secondary to John, which makes sense for a man who took on a lot of obligation at a very young age.

This young age comes into play when John digs into his father’s past through old medical records stored in the original hospital behind the one Dr. Husted’s vision brought to fruition. He finds a chink in his father’s armor, an event that everyone else remembers and has chosen to forget, but is just like brand-new to him, because he was so young when his father died. He cannot resolve this news within himself, and it adds more angst to his awful final decision, so that he delays. His wife sees here some redemption for his nogoodnik brother – though Mike might believe that the world would be better if everybody smoked pot while listening to 80’s heavy metal, Robin understood that he could be the answer in this case. This leads John back to his family, as his mother becomes lucid long enough to share a story about herself regarding the incident that shows her altruism.

Matthews has a wicked sense of humor – John purchases hockey gear to tackle the rats nesting in the old medical records in the abandoned hospital, and the scene of the vermin ambush is so visceral the reader cringes, though John is sufficiently protected. Though he didn’t really expect to find his father in the meticulous medical notation, John is still disappointed – though he knew better, he did not find personal reports of his dad’s heroics by patients’ families or staff.

Readers who like shocking secrets, dark humor, and soul-searching conundrums will appreciate this story. Those who enjoy character evolution and complex family relationships will like this novel.

Thank you, St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley, for the opportunity to read this Uncorrected Digital Galley.

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!

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.