August 22, 2018

THE GIRLFRIEND by Michelle Frances




A girl. A boy. His mother. And the lie she'll wish she'd never told.

The Girlfriend by Michelle Frances is a gripping and chilling debut psychological thriller, based on the fall-out following an unforgiveable lie. It looks at the potentially charged relationship between girlfriend, boyfriend and his mother, which most women can identify with, and locates it in an extreme but believable setting.

Laura has it all. A successful career, a long marriage to a rich husband, and a twenty-three year-old son, Daniel, who is kind, handsome, and talented. Then Daniel meets Cherry. Cherry is young, beautiful and smart but she hasn't had the same opportunities as Daniel. And she wants Laura's life.

Cherry comes to the family wide-eyed and wants to be welcomed with open arms, but Laura suspects she's not all that she seems.

When tragedy strikes, an unforgiveable lie is told. It is an act of desperation, but the fall-out will change their lives forever.


I had not heard of The Girlfriend when I picked it up but apparently it was a bestseller. Reading it, I understand why. 

I liked the overall concept of being a psychological thriller and one that involves ripping the seams of a family unit apart. 

The Girlfriend will draw you in from the first pages, causing the reader to early and quickly become invested in Laura, Daniel and Cherry and the outcome of their impending explosion, or implosion.  The characters are relatable -- both the three main leads, as well as the supporting players -- as well as the situation in which a mother does not approve of her son's girlfriend.  

That's not to say that the characters were without flaws.  All of them were.  Laura, while a loving mother, is also overprotective and overinvested in her adult son and takes some unconventional and immoral steps to keep him to herself.  Daniel is blind when it comes to his girlfriend and the warning signs that are clearly there, and quick to take her side.  Cherry is so adamant that she escape her blue collar upbringing and working class mother that she's obsessive about keeping Daniel.  Ironically, both Laura and Cherry are similar in their devotion to Daniel and wanting to keep him to themselves.  Neither are right in their actions and behaviors and neither are seen as solely the heroine or the villain in the tale.  Both are manipulative and both play dirty.  So the real question is who do you root for? 

The Girlfriend had me so tense and so frustrated with one of these characters that I literally felt like I not only disliked but hated this fictional character.  Not hated in the way that it made me dislike the book but hated the character so much that I couldn't wait to finish the book to see what was going to happen. 

I found this book to be a literary form of caffeine or chocolate.  Highly addictive.  I had a hard time putting the book down.  In fact, I tried to force myself to stay awake longer to read, resulting in me dropping the book on my face when I simply couldn't keep my eyes open.  Not because the tale wasn't fascinating but because it was two in the morning. 

And a minor note but as someone who loves all things British, I was delighted that the book took place primarily in London, with some lovely field trips to the south of France and a brief one to Wales.   

If I have one complaint about The Girlfriend, it's that the ending failed to live up to the breakneck pace of the rest of the book.  The ending felt rushed and bizarrely lacking in any bulk.  I was expecting a meatier payoff and was left disappointed with what I was given.  That said, although I wish the ending had been more substantial, it doesn't lessen my overall enjoyment and satisfaction with the book.  

The Girlfriend is a great read for the beach, the airplane or if you're just in the mood for a twisty psychological tale that will remind you what jealousy can do to you and everyone around you.  Credit to Michelle Frances on this, her debut novel.  I look forward to seeing her future work. 

The Girlfriend is available for purchase at major booksellers and as an audiobook through Audible.

 

For more information on author Michelle Frances, please visit her website.

FTC Disclosure:  I obtained this book at my local public library.  I was neither paid nor compensated for this review.

August 13, 2018

THE ROSE GARDEN by Susanna Kearsley



A journey through time and a story of love, The Rose Garden tells the story of a modern woman thrown back three centuries only to find that might just be where she belongs.

After the death of her sister, Eva Ward leaves Hollywood behind to return to the only place she feels she truly belongs, the old house on the coast of Cornwall, England.  She's seeking comfort in memories of childhood summers, but what she finds is mysterious voices and hidden pathways that sweep her not only into the past, but also into the arms of a man who is not of her time.  But Eva soon discovers that the man, Daniel Butler, is very, very real and is thrown into a world of intrigue, treason, and love.  

Inside the old house, Eva must confront her own ghosts, as well as those of long ago.  And as she begins to question her place in the present, she realizes she must decide where she really belongs; in the life she knows or the past she feels so drawn towards.

"I've loved every one of Susanna's books!  She has bedrock research and a butterfly's delicate touch with characters -- sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won't let go!" - DIANA GABALDON  



Can you get any greater endorsement than one from Outlander's creator, Diana Gabaldon?  Surely my endorsement won't mean nearly as much but I adore Susanna Kearsley and The Rose Garden just as much.   A fan of Ms. Kearsley's work, The Rose Garden did not disappoint me.

As with The Winter Sea, the story has a slower build up, requiring a degree of patience, but the payoff is more than worth it.

The locale with this work is in Cornwall, England - - something that delighted this Anglophile from the first pages.  Even if you didn't read the book's summary, you just know that having the story center around an ancient home like Trelowarth will give you all kinds of literary history, excitement and twists.    In The Rose Garden, you get those in spades.

Although time travel and time slips figure prominently in this work, it's not what I would categorize as science fiction.  Nor is it strictly romance, mystery or historical fiction.  We lucky readers get bits and pieces  of each, as The Rose Garden is liberally sprinkled with dashes of the aforementioned time travel, mystery, history and, yes, even sweet romance (but nothing explicit or tawdry.)

Our heroine, Eva, is lovely because she's smart, inquisitive and a person you really pull for.  Having suffered the terrible tragedy of losing her sister, and now being the remaining immediate family member, she is seeking for something to assuage her grief as well as allow her strong, positive memories of her sister.  I love heroines who are realistic and who don't act in out of character fashions in order to move the plot forward and Eva ticks these boxes.  Her pain, her confusion at the time slips, her interest in turning the former Trelowarth greenhouse into a suitable tea room for tourists all feels organic and true to life and her nature.

Her "supporters" -- Mark, Susan, Claire, Oliver, Felicity, all of them come to life much as Eva has.  All have a very distinct purpose in the story and all are as real as Eva is, thanks to Ms. Kearsley's deft writing hand.

But perhaps other than Eva the most vivid and colorful characters are those that Eva meets in the past - - Fergal O'Cleary, Jack Butler, and Daniel Butler.

I adored Fergal who, despite his gruff exterior and at-first brusque nature, turns out to be the compassionate man who claims Eva as his sister in order to protect her, who teaches her how to cook 18th century style as well as how to properly do her hair and cock a pistol.  Fergal is a loyal friend, whether you are in 1700s England or 21st century America.

The brotherly relationship between Daniel and Jack tells a lot about their characters.  While vastly different in some regards, both are loyal to their king.  Jack brings levity to otherwise serious situations with his happy-go-lucky whistle and fondness for drink at the local pub while Daniel keeps a steady older brother eye out and remembers his lost wife as Eva is attired in her clothing.

Could Daniel have been a better leading man?  I don't think so.  I fell in love with him as Eva was doing the same.  I appreciated that it wasn't instant love and a gradual building of knowledge, time and interests that eventually led o the realization for both that no matter how unlikely, the heart wants what the heart wants.

The Rose Garden proves to be a very satisfying story.  I had a hard time putting the book down and stayed awake into the night in order to finish it.  I was pleased with the ending but sad that it had to end and the story remained in my mind hours after completed.  Like most time travel works, it requires the suspension of disbelief and if you do indeed suspend reality for a while, you will the greatest of entertainment.

I loved, loved, loved The Rose Garden and would not hesitate to recommend this book.  If you haven't read anything by Susanna Kearsley, this is a great book to start with.  What are you waiting for?  Go!  Go!

The Rose Garden is available for purchase at major booksellers and as an audiobook through Audible.

For more information on author Susanna Kearsley, please visit her website here.

The Rose Garden was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.  In no way did the provision of this book affect the outcome of my review.


August 4, 2018

THE WOMAN ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Lindsay Jayne Ashford






Hoping to make a clean break from a fractured marriage, Agatha Christie boards the Orient Express in disguise.  But unlike her famous detective Hercule Poirot, she can't neatly unravel the mysteries she encounters on this fateful journey.

Agatha isn't the only passenger on board with secrets.  Her cabinmate Katharine Keeling's first marriage ended in tragedy, propelling her toward a second relationship mired in deceit.  Nancy Nelson -- newly married but carrying another man's child -- is desperate to conceal the pregnancy and teeters on the brink of utter despair.  Each woman hides her past from the others, ferociously guarding her secrets.  But as the train bound for the Middle East speeds down the track, the parallel courses of their lives shit to intersect -- with lasting repercussions.  

Filled with evocative imagery, suspense, and emotional complexity, The Woman on the Orient Express explores the bonds of sisterhood forged by shared pain and the power of secrets.


As an Agatha Christie fan, and a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, I thought I would probably enjoy this book.  The beautiful cover made the prospect even more inviting.

I was wrong.  No probably about it.  And I more than enjoyed it - - I absolutely and thoroughly adored this book.

Where to begin?  Author Lindsay Jayne Ashford takes a real person (author Agatha Christie) and a real event in that person's life (Ms. Christie did take the Orient Express in the fall of 1928) and weaves a magical, enthralling and thoroughly engrossing story from that.

In this fictional take, Agatha, in the wake of her very recent ex-husband's upcoming remarriage to his mistress, is taking an adventure aboard the Orient Express disguised as Mary Miller.  She hopes to restore, rejuvenate and heal, as well as perhaps gather ideas for future novels.   Like Katharine and Nancy, two ladies on board whom she meets and befriends, she is headed for Baghdad.  Agatha hopes to meet up with adventure and mystery but finds more than she bargained for, as Katharine and Nancy have secrets of their own.

Ms. Ashford's writing is as smooth and satisfying as a nice cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling.  From the first page, I was drawn into the story and you will be too.  The vivid descriptions of the Orient Express will have you very nearly feeling the rocking of the train and sound of the wheels on the tracks - - oh, to have been alive during that golden age of travel.  To be sitting in that compartment with Agatha and Katharine, enjoying a fine cup or a tasty meal.  This book almost puts you there.

Equally as strong are Ms. Ashford's descriptions of Venice, Turkey, Istanbul, Baghdad and Ur - - the various places that Agatha visits.  Prior to reading The Woman on the Orient Express, I had little interest in Turkey, Istanbul or Baghdad but having just finished the novel, it certainly has lit a travel bug in me.

Fans of Agatha Christie's will find a variety of Easter eggs sprinkled liberally throughout the book.  Agatha does mention Hercule Poirot (and his little gray cells) in the course of the novel and obviously her eventual work Murder on the Orient Express comes to mind but you will also see flashes of Murder in Mesopotamia, The Mystery of the Blue Train, and the future journeys of Poirot.

The heart of the book is Agatha herself.  She is a wonderful heroine and protagonist.  I found it fascinating to see her as a thirty-six year old woman rather than the older, refined woman we've all see on book jackets.  She's also flawed and, in the beginning of The Woman on the Orient Express, still pained over the end of her marriage and the special sting her husband marrying his mistress brings.  Her steely backbone will rise soon enough, along with her creativity, and capacity for love, and it's wonderful to read.  

Agatha's traveling companions, Katharine and Nancy, join to make for an enchanting yet very different trio.  I was utterly diverted in flipping the pages to find out what secrets both these ladies were guarding as well as how Agatha's journey would end.  The Woman on the Orient Express, while plump with characters, is truly centered around women, strong women, and it's nice to read and see.

I can't recommend this book enough.  It was not only an enjoyable read for mystery and/or Agatha Christie fans but also for fans of historical fiction.  It's so good, in fact, that I wouldn't hesitate to claim it as one of the best books I've read this year.

The Woman on the Orient Express is available at major booksellers, libraries and on Audible.

FTC Disclosure:  I purchased this book with my own funds.  I was neither paid nor compensated in any fashion for this review.

July 13, 2018

DITCHING MR. DARCY by Samantha Whitman


What would you do if you crashed your car into a ditch and woke up as the main character of your favorite book?  What if nothing happened the way it was supposed to?  What if you met the dreamiest romantic hero in literary history and yet you fell in love with someone else instead?  What would happen if you never woke up again?  What would happen if you did?  Elizabeth Baker is about to find out.

I wanted to love this book.  I read reviews online and a trusted Austen-themed website gave it kudos.  I wanted to love it so much.  But ultimately I found myself in a back and forth relationship with it - - I enjoyed the beginning and the end but the middle left me a bit wanting.
The good.  I love, love, love books that revisit Pride and Prejudice and its beloved characters.  I really can't get enough.  With Ditching Mr. Darcy, we not only revisit them but have a modern-day girl who is transported into Queen Jane's fictional Meryton, Longbourn, Netherfield, Hunsford, Rosings, and Pemberley.  A most excellent diversion.
Our heroine's discovery, as the fan-favorite Elizabeth Bennet, that life in Regency England is not exactly as the movies showcase is quite funny.  What modern woman wouldn't be worrying about using a chamber pot, brushing their teeth with chalk and salt, performing then-popular dances and, perhaps most especially, pining for their mascara?   Reading of her floundering with daily activities (what? no underwear?) gave me a very real chuckle.  As well as the "reality" of what the P&P characters were truly like, as she found out.
Author Samantha Whitman takes creative license with our P&P standbys and I'm okay with the  majority of it.  I'm not an absolute Austen purist . . . but I found while reading this book that I do have a line in the sand (more on that later.)  Seeing some characters are more adventurous than Austen penned them, or perhaps even portrayed as inaccurately irredeemable, was an interesting twist.
And here it is.  What I struggled with.
First, and maybe most importantly, I had difficulty with our heroine.  I liked Elizabeth Baker as her present day self well enough - - although I didn't understand her very clear and quickly verbalized dislike of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth version.)  She never explained why she disliked it or held the 2005 version superior.  Everyone has their own tastes, sure, but even a throwaway line about how she saw the 2005 version first could have explained it, especially given that she stated several times how much she didn't like the 1995 P&P.  A minor gripe, really, but it still stuck with me.
Where the heroine lost me was when she found herself as Elizabeth Bennet.  This was a woman who claimed Jane Austen was her favorite author and who adored P&P and yet she got every. single. thing. wrong.  In the very beginning, I could give her a pass for her use of modern words like "okay," "guy," "jerk," etc., but not after she had been in Regency England for more than a few days.  It bugged me that the P&P characters did not take any issue with her terminology, nor question her about it for the most part.   She also continually addressed persons like Caroline Bingley as "Caroline," something that would never have been done or accepted given their (frosty) relationship.  She should have been addressed as "Miss Bingley" and any of the characters, including Caroline Bingley herself, would quickly have questioned Elizabeth's familiarity and lack of propriety.
I also began ticking off mentally how many times Elizabeth gaped, sneered, smirked and rolled her eyes.  And then quit when it became too much.  Again, the real Elizabeth Bennet may have rolled her eyes to her father over the ridiculous uproar in the Bennet household but she never would have done so in mixed company, nor been outright rude as Elizabeth Baker as Elizabeth Bennet was.  I hate to say it but she made Elizabeth Bennet downright unlikable.  I found myself feeling infuriated with her most of the time.
For someone who, again, claimed to be such an aficionado of Jane Austen and her works, she continued to make mistakes that she should not have, which resulted in a major ripple effect on the plotline.  While that can succeed (see Lost in Austen) the result here made me feel discombobulated and I found I didn't appreciate the plot change as I think I was intended to.  Maybe if Elizabeth had intentionally veered off the normal path, telling herself "it's a dream," or "it's not real anyhow," it would have been more tolerable for me.  But as she was somewhat continuously telling herself that certain characters would end up together and/or had to be together per Austen's book, her actions seemed to make little sense.  And telling Wickham upon their first meeting all of his own back story as relayed in P&P?  Just . . . no.  Again, any true Austen fan would know how the story was meant to go down.  I get that this is a variation but . .  I will say, though, that the changes made to Wickham were welcome and most interesting.
I also felt that one of the twists was very obvious to the reader and should have been a little more obvious to Elizabeth, especially given how much she was tearing up the original plotline.
While some of the creative license with characters was enjoyable and welcome, as I mentioned above, one particular change was grievous and I thoroughly disliked it.  Not only did it change the original plotline of P&P immensely but absolutely changed the very character of the person, and not in a good way.  I won't spoil it but given who the character is and the background, this just couldn't happen. Again, I don't consider myself an absolute Austen purist; if you do, you may be horrified by this change (as well as other differences.)
That said, I did thoroughly enjoy how the book came to a conclusion, with many of the P&P characters making a "reappearance."  Truthfully, the ending made me a bit warm and fuzzy, pining for my own leading man;  it did redeem both Elizabeth and the book to a good degree for me, leaving me not totally down on Ditching Mr. Darcy.  It also made me curious as to Samantha Whitman's sequel, the currently named Becoming Mr. Bingley (which I will in all likelihood read once it's released.)
I appreciate that the author took a beloved book and characters and threw a unique spin on them.  Ditching Mr. Darcy was unusual and it was a quick read.  And I love the cover artwork.
If you are looking for some escapism reading and don't mind your original story and characters being turned on their heads, Ditching Mr. Darcy is a solid choice.  Austen purists and those that believe variations should basically follow canon, beware.  It may not be the book for you.
Ditching Mr. Darcy is currently available in both Kindle and paperback form.
FTC Disclosure:  I purchased this book with my own funds.  I was neither paid nor compensated in any fashion for this review.


July 9, 2018

HUNTING CHARLES MANSON: THE QUEST FOR JUSTICE IN THE DAYS OF HELTER SKELTER by Lis Wiehl and Caitlin Rother



As Helter Skelter was the first true crime book I ever read, and one that will permanently sit on my list of best true crime books, I have a lifelong interest (sounds better than fascination) in the so-called Manson murders.  No book can truly be held up to Helter Skelter, nor should it.

Hunting Charles Manson is a notable and strong entry of the books on the infamous summer of 1969.  It doesn't cover as much ground as Helter Skelter, which gives us a lot of information on the criminal trial, but it also doesn't have its intimidating (for some) page count.

Hunting Charles Manson starts with background information on Manson himself, giving the reader an exploration of his home life, mindset and how he started down the road that would lead him to the Haight-Ashbury and the birth of "The Family."  I found the sections of the inception of The Family particularly interesting; the result is beneficial insight into why he managed to attract so many females to his coterie who remained loyal to him for years.

Many of his Family members are also given page time.  Rather than being portrayed as merely Manson's bloodthirsty minions, the authors demonstrate they were real people with real lives before becoming part of Manson's contingent.  It will make you think about what might have happened had they never met up with him; was the Family was little more than a drug-addled cult?  The authors' descriptions of daily life on Spahn Ranch are extremely well done.  I could visualize the hot dust blowing on the old movie sets and Family members grouped around, listening to Manson playing guitar.  It brings on a wistfulness -- even sadness -- that this communal living, instead of bringing love and peace, spawned violence and death.

The murders themselves are each recounted.  The details, if you are sensitive, can be agonizing to read and envision.  Gary Hinman, Steven Parent, and Donald "Shorty" Shea are often given the short-shrift of the verified Manson victims; Parent is the forgotten victim of the Tate-LaBianca crimes while Hinman and Shea are very nearly forgotten as victims at all.  More details are provided on Hinman and Shea as people versus just murder victims; it makes their loss, and the violent actions of Manson and the Family, all the more poignant and effective.  Thanks to this book being recent and published after Shea's body was discovered, a long-held legend within the Family that Shea had been "chopped up" into pieces and scattered in multiple graves can be discounted as well as providing a solid account as to Shea's final movements and day of life and who was involved in killing him.

The convicted killers' convoluted and tangled web through the legal system is also explored and this is one of two points in the book that I didn't agree with.  Sections on Charles "Tex" Watson, the man involved in every murder save Gary Hinman and the self-professed "right hand man" of Charles Manson, read almost sympathetically.  Even if you do believe that Watson is paying his debt to society and has become a born-again Christian, I cannot forget that he brutally stabbed to death Sharon Tate, who begged for the life of her unborn child, and then went on to marry and father four children while incarcerated.  I find that particular irony distasteful and revolting.  While Watson may have taken so many illegal drugs as to hinder his thinking, it didn't affect his ability to torture and kill and I simply cannot grant any sympathy to him; only to his victims.

The other point in the book that I didn't agree with - - and this is more my opinion than anything else -- is a motive for the Tate murders put forward in Hunting Charles Manson.  I've heard of the motive previously and this book does an excellent job in breaking it down and presenting it.  The problem I have with it is that it doesn't explain how and why Steven Parent became a victim, if you believe that Parent was the first person on Cielo Drive to die that night.  (And there has never been evidence to suggest otherwise.)  But again, that's simply my opinion and motive is something we may likely never get a firm answer on, especially now that Manson is dead.

Hunting Charles Manson does something that many books in the Manson library have not been able to do and that's provide a fresh look on crimes that have been written about, debated and dissected for nearly fifty years.    I appreciated the view inside Manson's life for the last ten or so years of it -- something rarely written about.  I also like that Ms. Wiehl and Ms. Rother showed the determination and strength of Debra Tate, Anthony DiMaria and Kay Martley as they attend and have attended parole hearings for years, speaking not so much of the ugliness their loved one experienced at the hand of Manson, et al. but of the precious memories they have of the precious people that were.

Hunting Charles Manson is an excellent resource for exploring the psyche of Manson in our quest to answer why.  Why did he turn out the way he did?  Why did he want strangers butchered?  Why does he continue to fascinate today?

I have been a fan of Caitlin Rother's books for years and made it a point to get this book solely based on her as an author.  As with her previous books, Ms. Rother presents the story and attempts to get into the mind of madness and answer the questions that puzzle those of us who have been fortunate enough to remain distant from the crime.  She is always respectful of the victims and their survivors, not glorifying the violence or the offender, and that is one reason I am a fan.  She's also a darn good writer.  For more information on Caitlin Rother and her books, go here.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Hunting Charles Manson for true crime buffs or readers looking for information on Manson and his crimes.  The fact the book features information from as recent as early 2018 is a bonus.

Hunting Charles Manson is available for purchase at major booksellers as well as Audible if you prefer audiobooks.

FTC Disclosure:  The review copy of this book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.  The provision of this book did not affect the outcome of my review.  I was neither paid nor compensated for this review.