Book review: ‘The Heiresses’ by Sara Shepard

The HeiressesIn the wilds of Manhattan are four wealthy women — all heiresses to the sizable Saybrook diamond fortune. When their grandfather returned from World War II with a rare, valuable gem, he couldn’t have known how his empire would expand . . . or how his granddaughters would someday work to either protect or squander it.

Corinne, Poppy, Aster, Natasha and Rowan are differing cousins with one major bond: the Saybrook name. Though Natasha has renounced her claim to the family fortune, the others spin around the sphere of the successful jewelry company with varying definitions of success. But when tragedy strikes, grievances are aired — and it’s obvious not everyone thinks the Saybrooks walk on water. In fact, someone wants to bring them all down.

Sara Shepard’s The Heiresses is fast-paced rich-people voyeurism at its finest. Manhattan addresses, fancy clothing, scandal, intrigue, mystery . . . and death. It’s basically a nonstop ride as delicious as settling in with your favorite candy, and its serious cliffhanger has me eager for more.

Though I initially feared this story of five powerful women would be stricken with a vicious case of Too Many Characters-itis, it didn’t take long to learn the quirks and foibles of the Saybrook heiresses. Each has a secret they’re guarding: a scandal that could break their famous family wide open. Though I can’t say I really loved any of the ladies, they were certainly entertaining to read about.

I bonded best with Corinne — a woman planning a wedding to the man she’s “supposed” to marry: Dixon, a preppy dude with a trust fund, square jaw and respectable family. Though her fiance was a bit of a caricature (just picture any polo-wearing jock in your life), I found her back story — and one-time love affair — very compelling. In the weeks leading up to her nuptials, Corinne held my attention as I wondered how she would deal with so many conflicting emotions. It was tough — but realistic, I think.

Poppy was a control freak, Rowan a mess. Aster was the stereotypical socialite bent on destroying her father for something he may or may not even have done, and Natasha was a bit of an empty shell. But compiled together? The Saybrook women were an entertaining lot, if only because they led such vastly different lives from my own. Mystery surrounds two unexpected deaths, and the bent of a blogger to expose their every movement keeps them on edge. As readers, we’re compelled to keep going if only to learn — Clue-style — whodunnit.

In the background are a bevy of relationships, lovers, complications and family troubles — as well as a family secret so dark it has the power to destroy them all. I sped through this story like lightning, invested in the plight of the Saybrooks and curious as to who was trying to wreck them (the options seemed endless).

Fans of women’s fiction, New York-based mysteries, contemporary fiction and wealthy family fiction will find The Heiresses to be a worthy addition to their beach bag this summer. I’m already looking forward to the next installment!

4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Peach Keeper’ by Sarah Addison Allen

Willa Jackson has finally settled down. Though known as a prankster in high school, the time came for Willa to let go of her constant need for an adrenaline rush, move back to her hometown and run a store in Walls of Water, North Carolina’s popular tourist area. Growing up in a place known for its nature and beautiful cataracts, Willa was eager to get away — but family, more than anything, pulled her home again.

In another part of town, Paxton Osgood has never left. Born into a wealthy family and destined to continue the Osgoods’ reputation for class, excellence and poise, Paxton never considered leaving the only home she’s ever known — especially when her twin brother, Colin, seemed so eager to go. Someone had to stay with her parents, entertaining and helping and supporting them. Someone had to foster their reputation for charity in the community. Somebody had to remain the backbone and brace of Walls of Water’s vibrant citizenship. And guess who that was?

Though cordial to one another, Willa and Paxton were never good friends — unlike their aging grandmothers, Georgie and Agatha. In the 1930s, the two women came together to form the Women’s Society Club of Walls of Water, an organization established to protect and support one another. Paxton has continued their traditions while Willa has shunned them, even ignoring Paxton’s recent invitation to celebrate the club’s anniversary with a giant party at the restored mansion the Jacksons once owned.

But Willa might not be able to ignore Paxton much longer . . . especially after a body is found buried beneath the peach tree that grows on the site of the Blue Ridge Madam. Who was he? And how did he get there?

And how will they find out the truth?

Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper, a luscious slice of Southern fiction, was every bit as scrumptious and delightful as I’d expect from a woman who is quickly establishing herself as one of my “no fail” authors. Infused with a touch of magical realism so light and airy that it seems wholly believable, her latest novel is a treat from start to finish.

At the heart of The Peach Keeper are the ladies and friendships that sustain them, and I found myself relating most closely to Paxton. At 30, she lives in the guesthouse of her family home and sags beneath the weight of trying to please her parents, community and — in last place — herself. I felt her sense of familial obligation keenly, and the scenes in which she expresses her love for Sebastian, her best friend, were heart-wrenching. Sebastian was the perfect male lead: handsome; sincere; hardworking; endlessly supportive. If Paxton couldn’t have him, I thought, maybe I could.

Though neither woman is painted as “the bad guy” here, Paxton is the more uptight and high-strung of the two — but Willa, more of a free spirit, still struggles with maintaining her isolated life in the home she once shared with her father, now deceased. I felt for Willa, too, as she tried to reconcile the adventurous, rebellious young woman she was with the stable, boring person she’d become. Though Colin’s arrival back in town shakes all of that up, too . . .

And the mystery! Oh, that mystery. I was intrigued and invested from start to finish, wondering who had been discovered beneath the Madam’s peach tree. Though obviously linked to their grandmothers, the truth is revealed gradually — and each morsel is tantalizing. Allen’s pacing was exquisite, giving readers just enough to stay interested without spilling the whole truth. I was dying to know what happened.

Romance and love are palpable in this story, too, which are the fishhooks used to snare me in any novel. Of the two developing stories, Paxton’s was the most interesting to me — and I was on the edge of my seat with the suspense of knowing whether or not her feelings were reciprocated. She was so deserving of happiness.

A fabulous, unpredictable read from one of the masters of the magical realism genre, and one I would happily recommend to fans of contemporary or women’s fiction. Allen fans will delight in a cameo made by one of her Garden Spells characters, too.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0553807226 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Violets of March’ by Sarah Jio

Bainbridge Island has a way of calling people home. It’s just that way for Emily Wilson, a recent divorcee timidly moving forward when she gets a wedding invitation — from her ex-husband. With the support of her best friend, Annabelle, Emily journeys from New York to Washington to see her aunt Bee, a sassy woman in her eighties who happily welcomes her niece to the beach house they once shared.

But life on Bainbridge Island isn’t exactly how Emily remembers. On one of her first nights home, she discovers a red velvet journal — and inside, the enthralling, romantic and heartbreaking story of a woman named Esther. Intrigued, Emily questions Aunt Bee and other residents about her — but never gets a straight answer. And no one admits they know Esther or what became of her . . . though Emily has a sense that it’s up to her to discover the truth.

Sarah Jio’s The Violets of March combines contemporary fiction, historical fiction and romance into one alluring read. Emily is a strong-willed character who loves her family fiercely, but not even Aunt Bee’s cagey responses can keep Emily from wanting to know the truth. It seems like fate that the diary has landed in her lap — and she’s not about to ignore it. Fresh from New York and her heartache there, the journal’s sad tale provides a respite and distraction from her real life.

Though occasionally mired by unrealistic dialogue, Jio’s novel kept me reading quickly. As a heroine, Emily is likable and authentically flawed. She knows she’s not the teen girl who once visited the island and makes no bones about it — not even when she runs into Greg, her summer crush and first love. I liked watching her interact with the men of Bainbridge, especially Jack — and the chemistry between them was palpable. As a male lead, Jack was pretty great: kind; family-oriented; intelligent; handsome. I didn’t fall for him quite the way Em did — quickly, and with few reservations — but I didn’t feel that their story was rushed.

The real crux of the novel, though, is the mystery: who is Esther? What did she mean to the people who loved her — and what is her connection to Emily? I pieced together parts of the story before Emily did, but there were a few surprises left for me by the end! And I was satisfied with how Jio explained the saga and wrapped up loose ends, and didn’t feel like the story was wound up too neatly. Also, we got plenty of back story — and explanation after all was revealed. Once the “mystery” is solved, many books end too quickly — and The Violets of March didn’t suffer that fate. I’m glad.

An intriguing family drama that was a truly pleasant read. Grab your copy April 26.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Clarity’ by Kim Harrington

Clare Fern is used to stomaching the dubious looks of classmates and residents of her tourist town in Cape Cod. Labeled a freak by the bullies who have taunted her since childhood, Clare works hard to ignore the skeptical looks and taunts that come with being a known psychic. With just a touch, Clare can see other people’s secrets — including ones that end in murder.

When a teen girl is found dead in a nearby hotel, the residents of Eastport, Mass., are up in arms. Like the entire town, the Fern family thrives on tourism — and depends on wealthy visitors dropping dough to stay afloat in the off-season. But everyone’s fear of losing business is nothing compared to the sadness and terror of having a murder committed in their tiny town . . . and who killed Victoria, an out-of-towner?

The situation moves from serious to grave as Clare’s brother, Perry, becomes implicated in Victoria’s death, and Clare is called in by a new detective and his handsome son to assist with the case. Still scorned but now necessary to the investigation, Clare agrees to help find the killer . . . but this case is anything but predictable.

Kim Harrington’s Clarity, a new young adult novel with a paranormal twist, kept me on the edge of my seat from the very beginning. I loved that, in contrast to so many weak-willed, boring heroines, Clare was a fiery teen unwilling to let anyone boss her around. Her psychic abilities — and everyone’s knowledge of them — made her strong, and it was her love for family that kept her grounded.

Perry, Clare’s older brother, is a pretty unlikeable dude. More interested in hooking up with tourists because there’s “no commitment” than working on anything resembling self-improvement, Perry flirts with beautiful girls as a way of coping with his psychic gift: he sees dead people. But it’s hard to hate the guy, especially because he’s so devoted to his little sister. Their bond was the strongest part of the novel — the things they would do for one another; the lengths they would go to protect each other. That resonated with me.

Though the book occasionally borders on Too Many Characters-itis territory, Harrington successfully introduced scads of people and actually made me care about them. We have Detective Toscano, a New York transplant who arrives in Eastport just before the murder. Gabriel Toscano is the detective’s son — a brooding loner who takes a shine to Clare despite his immediate skepticism of her “abilities.” Throw in Justin, Clare’s ex-boyfriend, and we have ourselves a good ol’ fashioned love triangle, friends, and I totally bought it. Furthermore, I had no idea which guy I was rooting for — they both seemed lovable in their own ways, even if Justin was once a dirtbag.

Nothing in Clarity came easy. A murder mystery at its core, Harrington threw enough plot twists in to keep me guessing until the very end. Every easy answer was eventually turned on its head, and I never saw the ending coming. But, more than anything, it was all somehow believable. I liked the Fern family and never doubted their pure intentions to help others . . . even if they used their skills to turn a profit. I mean, they’ve got to eat, right? Starla, Clare and Perry’s mother, is a single mom trying to help and protect her children. Can’t fault her there.

Fans of young adult fiction with a paranormal bent will find plenty to devour in Clarity, a novel outside my usual genre but with a haunting cover. I read it quickly and am eagerly anticipating the sequel, which is due out next year.

Just a word of caution: the story incorporates plenty of sex and violence, though not in a graphic way. Definitely mature themes better suited to older teens and adults. Steer clear for anyone younger than 14, as Harrington suggests on her website.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss

A giant writing desk with an illustrious history unites many narrators in this stunning work of literature, a book that left me breathless. Nominated for the Indie Lit Awards, Great House was my first read as a literary fiction panelist. And if it’s any sign of the caliber of the other four nominated novels, I’m in for a treat.

To say author Nicole Krauss has a way with words would be akin to stating the sky is big, or the sun is hot. If I sat down to quote every memorable passage of this unique, intricate story, I’d never finish writing.

Along the same vein, I don’t quite know how to describe the plot . . . except to say that, amazingly, everything (and everyone) is connected — although in most cases, it’s not immediately clear how. Told in alternating viewpoints, we’re introduced to characters from around the world — New York, London, Israel — who all have something in common: their connection to a desk, by turns a piece to be revered or reviled. Writers populate Krauss’ rich landscape, taking turns figuring out why they write — and what. And those who love them — or misunderstand them, or injure them — are left to make sense of the giant caverns swallowing their loved ones’ lives.

I could introduce you to some characters, share a bit of their back stories. I could give examples of Krauss’ stunning prose and share the meanings I think I found within the text. But I think Great House is best discovered on your own. It’s not a pleasant saga — more than once, the grief was crushing — but it felt important. Once I closed the final page, still teeming with unanswered questions, the first thing I wanted to do was find someone with whom to discuss it. It’s a book you’ll want a friend to read, too, so you can bounce ideas and challenges off each other, nudging the puzzle pieces of the story around until you think you sense a pattern. But then again, maybe you don’t.

It’s also a book you could read twice . . . or maybe should read twice. Inside the somber prose is a sense of mystery, of finding something hidden for you and you alone. Like the last Easter egg buried in a cubby hole until fall, I feel like I could open Great House to any number of pages for the rest of my life and still not find everything Krauss hid there. At the end, knowing what I know about the characters and the desk prompted me to flip right back to the beginning.

It’s about family, loss and what is taken from us — and how we get it back. It’s about secrets and grief and love — who can give it, who can take it away. It’s about mystery, and whether we can truly know another person. It’s about the inevitability of death and our slow climb toward the end of it all . . . and what’s on the other side.

It was often confusing, yes. The separate narratives didn’t seem to fit together at all, and I often felt annoyed that just when I thought I’d really gotten to know one narrator, I was introduced to another — but those are minor issues compared to the overall beauty of the writing. Rarely uplifting but more than worthwhile, Great House isn’t a book I’ll forget.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0393079988 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Jennifer Crusie

It’s been ten long years since Andie Miller stepped foot in the law office of North Archer — and only then to let him know she was on her way out the door. But now it’s 1992, a decade since she and her ex-husband crossed paths, and she’s finally ready to let him go. She wants to throw his alimony checks back in his face and start over . . . with Will Spenser.

But North has other plans. Now the appointed guardian of a distant cousin’s two young children, North desperately needs help — especially since the kids have already cycled through three nannies. Something strange is happening at Archer House, a property for which he’s responsible, and someone has to figure out what’s going on. Someone North trusts to tell him the truth — and get those kids out of there and ready for school. Kind but firm, Andie seems a logical — if unexpected — choice.

And, surprisingly, she’s up for the task. Andie makes her way to the old Victorian home in Ohio, transported stone by stone from England more than a century before. Complete with a moat and one surly housekeeper, Mrs. Crumb, Archer House has a distinctly creepy vibe — and meeting the two children does nothing to alleviate that. Young Alice’s pastimes include screaming for no reason, demanding unreasonable things, giving angry looks and being as uncooperative as possible. Her brother, Carter, is a quiet 12-year-old who loves art — but is rumored to have a thing for fires. As in, starting them. Everywhere.

And did we mention the ghosts? It doesn’t take long for Andie to begin feeling unexpected drafts in the home, not totally ridiculous given the size and nature of an old house like that . . . but how can she explain the visions and figures she sees lurking around the pond and Alice’s bed, or up in the old tower? And what’s frightening the children so that they refuse to leave Archer House — on risk of death?

Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time is a hard novel to classify — mostly because it’s such a conglomeration of many (awesome) genres. Part romance, part mystery, part thriller, Crusie’s latest — her first solo work in six years — was a suspenseful, entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny look at woman grappling with the past not really being the past . . . and the unexpected feelings of devotion she suddenly feels for two young children. And, you know, surviving the vengeful natures of a few murderous ghosts.

Andie is a resourceful, strong and quick-witted character, and there isn’t too much not to like about her. She manages to walk the fine line between speaking her mind and being honest while not being a raging jerk, and I can respect that. North, on the other hand, comes across as cold and steel-hearted — until you get to know him and see past the lawyerly facade. And recognize the undeniable soft spot he has for his ex-wife. It’s not difficult to see what would draw her to him, a woman with such confidence — a woman he let slip away while he slogged away at his law firm, losing himself in nothing but work and old family drama.

What I loved about Maybe This Time were these two realistic, relatable characters — and the kids, too, who you can’t help but feel close to after spending so many pages here with them. Alice comes across as a borderline nutcase when we first meet her, but I absolutely adored her by the close of the book. She and Carter both act the way you’d expect children to act, complete with intelligent but still child-like dialogue, and I really appreciated that. Plus, I couldn’t help but giggle when she referred to North as “Bad Uncle,” or just plain ol’ “Bad” for short.

For as much as this is about Andie and North reuniting (perhaps?) or Andie caring for and helping the kids, it’s also a real ghost story — complete with mystery and a few bone-chilling scenes. In particular, one features an old nanny, Miss J, and Crusie makes reference to the gaping black holes in her head where eyes should have been. When a seance is held to try and rid Archer House of the apparitions, I got genuine goosebumps. But for a scaredy cat like me, the frightening aspects weren’t overwhelming — and only served to enhance an otherwise very entertaining story.

Fluid, witty and undeniably skilled, Jennifer Crusie has crafted a romantic and very readable story in Maybe This Time. Fans of contemporary fiction, ghost stories and romance will love the unique combination she’s created here — and I’ll be happy to share this one with the other fiction readers in my life.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312303785 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Best Friends Forever’ by Jennifer Weiner

Life for Addie Downs — overweight, from a weird family — changed dramatically the day Valerie Adler showed up on her small street in Illinois. The two young girls, misfits in their own ways, became fast friends — and stayed together through the teasing and taunts they endured, relying on one another for support.

Until one night in high school.

Jennifer Weiner’s Best Friends Forever opens as the ladies, now in their thirties, reunite following a high school reunion. Needless to say, Addie wasn’t interested in attending. Though she’s since shed an enormous amount of weight, she’s still guarded and sequestered in her childhood home — empty save her since her parents’ deaths many years before. A successful artist, Addie has made a small fortune painting art for greeting cards and nursed a quiet, ill-fated love affair in the time Valerie has been gone.

Val, conversely, is just as loud, quirky and brash as ever — and is now a fixture on the news in Chicago, where she’s an on-air weather personality. Since the time she turned her back on Addie and escaped Pleasant Ridge, she’s worked to put the past behind her — including a sordid one involving Dan Swansea, their school’s golden boy. Following the reunion and too many drinks, Val decides to seek revenge on the man who helped wreck her friendship with Addie — and try to find a little solace for herself. But she just might need Addie’s help to do it.

As a tremendous Weiner fan who loved Good In Bed and Little Earthquakes, one of the first novels I ever reviewed on write meg!, I had very high hopes going into this story — despite the silly title. (C’mon, you know it’s a little kitschy.) And while I wasn’t bowled over or even won over by any of these characters, Best Friends Forever is a fast-paced novel with a mystery and family drama at its core . . . and that’s enough to keep me turning the pages.

The novel’s strength came from the detailed flashbacks making us privvy to the mostly-happy childhood Addie enjoyed — which came in sharp contrast to that of Val, whose free-spirited and irresponsible mother, Naomi, failed to provide the stability and comfort she desperately wanted. And saw across the street, at the Downs’ home.

Many reviews I’ve read lately question why, after all this time, Addie would open her arms to a crumpled Val and offer to help her. Val publicly betrayed, then abandoned her best friend in high school — some of the most formative, and painful, years for anyone to overcome. Since Val was such a raging jerk, why would adult Addie welcome such a menace back into her life?

To which I answer: because she was lonely. Since Val disappeared and Addie was left alone with her grief over the quick passing of both her parents and an accident which left her brother severely brain damaged, she’s had no one — hardly a friend, definitely not a lover. And Val reminds her of the feeling of belonging that was once so strong. When her old friend blows back into her life like a tornado, the promise of friendship and comfort is intoxicating. Addie can’t resist.

At its heart, for me, Best Friends Forever was definitely about loneliness — and was, in turn, a lonely story. Not the funny, quick-witted Weiner we’re used to — and definitely not a humorous, light-hearted tale. The novel was shockingly dark and twisty with plenty of uncomfortable developments and, as a reader, I found myself wrinkling my nose a time or two.

For all her preening and selfishness, Val wasn’t particularly likeable — and for her tendency to be a pushover with tons of pain, Addie wasn’t endearing, either. But there was something about the book — something — that kept me engaged. Maybe it was the unconventional structure, skipping through time and filling us in on the past in scraps. Maybe it was the rollicking ride of the mystery. Maybe it was the idea of Val “repenting” and making up to Addie the hurtful things she’d done.

Whatever it was, I barely paused as I tore through Weiner’s latest book, out in paperback on May 4. I just wish it had a little more heart.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385532520 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist