The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie


The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Fiction, Mystery/Suspense, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (405 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Can you hide a secret with the whole world watching?

When an explosion rips apart a Chicago building, the lives of three women are forever altered.

A year later, Cecily is in mourning. She was supposed to be in the building that day. Instead, she stood on the street and witnessed it going down, with her husband and best friend inside. Kate, now living thousands of miles away, fled the disaster and is hoping that her past won’t catch up with her. And Franny, a young woman in search of her birth mother, watched the horror unfold on the morning news, knowing that the woman she was so desperate to reconnect with was in the building.

Now, despite the marks left by the tragedy, they all seem safe. But as its anniversary dominates the media, the memories of that terrifying morning become dangerous triggers. All these women are guarding important secrets. Just how far will they go to keep them?

The title of this book pulled me in. . . I had a feeling it would be suspenseful, and this one was.

One thing I’ll warn you about straight away is that its narration can be initially jarring. It’s a mix of first person, third person, and interview transcripts. It sort of threw me off at first but the more I read on, the more I understood why the author had chosen this format for the story.

All three women in this story are interesting characters. Cecily is the one you identify with the most because it’s through her first person narration the story begins and mainly continues. Did that make me like her more? I think so and as the story unfolds you realize she’s the real victim in the story but then the author makes you wonder… is she? I won’t give away the ending but let me just say it picked up tempo and intrigue as the tale unfolded. We get a clear picture of what secrets each women is hiding and how the three lives slowly mesh together.

I thought the dialogue was natural sounding and the pacing perfect. The last third of the story really flies by as all lives and backstories begin to merge. It’s also a story that gets you thinking about what you’d do if faced in similar circumstances. Is it ever a good idea to hide things from loved ones or to run away from things we’re not happy about?

It’s a fun read and if you like suspense and secrets in your stories then this is definitely one to check out.

The Wake Up by Catherine Ryan Hyde


The Wake Up by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: Full Length (362 pgs)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Something has been asleep in forty-year-old cattle rancher Aiden Delacorte for a long time. It all comes back in a rush during a hunting trip, when he’s suddenly attuned to the animals around him, feeling their pain and fear as if it were his own. But the newfound sensitivity of Aiden’s “wake up” has its price. He can no longer sleepwalk through life, holding everyone at arm’s length. As he struggles to cope with a trait he’s buried since childhood, Aiden falls in love with Gwen, a single mother whose young son bears a burden of his own.

Sullen and broken from his experiences with an abusive father, Milo has turned to acting out in violent and rebellious ways. Aiden can feel the boy’s pain, as well as that of his victims. Now he and Milo must sift through their pasts to find empathy with the innocent as well as the guilty, to come to terms with their deepest fears, and to finally discover the compassionate heart of a family.

I’ve never read a Catherine Ryan Hyde book I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, and this one was no exception.

What I like most about this author’s stories is she lets you connect with the characters from page one, you feel for them, you cheer them on, and the lead character, Aiden, made me feel that way. The other characters are just as well created but it’s Aiden that you feel yourself empathizing with the most as he struggles with his new found ‘gift’, that of feeling others pain. Well, not just humans but animals too which isn’t a good thing for a man who’s a cattle rancher.

This story is a page turner and not just because of its plot but it you feel the essential emotional pull that makes you want to read more and read on to see how Aiden’s new life evolves. Another interesting character in this story is Milo, the young son of Aiden’s new love interest. Milo’s got his own issues, his own pain from the past and it’s all brought out beautifully when he and Aiden start to interact and gradually begin the healing process.

The dialogue is wonderful and the pacing spot on for a book of this length. I don’t think I’ve ever read any book by Ms. Hyde that hasn’t left me a bit teary eyed. You might not have experienced the same thing as the characters, but you, like Aiden in this story, can feel what they’re going through which for me is the trademark of a book that lives on in your heart.

This is a story I highly recommend for your winter reading list.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: Full Length (337 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

An interesting book that wasn’t what I expected, but worth the read.

Initially, I wasn’t fond of this book. I’ll admit it. Ove got on my nerves. I am not the very factual, very direct kind of person that Ove is. I have grey areas. He doesn’t. Honestly, two-thirds of the way through the book, I still wasn’t converted. I didn’t see the point. I kept expecting something nasty to happen to ‘cat’, too. I should note that the book takes place in Sweden and there are references to Sweden. It adds to the story, absolutely, but should be pointed out.

But then about the two-thirds point, the book changed. Okay, maybe the book didn’t change, but my perception did. I got to see the man, Ove, become more than he was. I understood him better and quite honestly, I rooted for him. I liked his interactions with the neighbors and ‘cat’. There was a sweet man under that curmudgeon facade. I won’t give away the ending, but I did cry. I felt like I’d known Ove all along.

The secondary characters are great and while some are a tad irritating, they round out the story well. They needed to be there. Plus, they’re more than I thought and it was great to see them grow along with Ove.

If you want a book that might take some getting used to and some endurance to get through (you’ll be rewarded), then this might be the book for you. I’m glad I picked it up.

In The Light of The Garden by Heather Burch

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In The Light of The Garden by Heather Burch
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: Full Length (352 pgs)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

In the Light of the Garden is a novel about unearthed family secrets, the enchantment of past loves, and the indelible power of forgiveness.

Inheriting her grandparents’ island estate on Florida’s Gulf coast is a special kind of homecoming for thirty-one-year-old Charity Baxter. Raised by a narcissistic single mother, Charity’s only sense of a loving home comes from childhood summers spent with Gramps and Grandma. But piercing her fondest memories is her sharpest grief—the death of her beloved grandmother, when Charity stopped believing in the magical healing power of the weeping willow that still casts a shadow on their property.

Now that Charity has returned, she’s full of longing and regret, until she befriends her neighbor Dalton Reynolds, who has come to Gaslamp Island carrying his own heartache. As other exiles arrive—a great uncle harboring secrets, a teenage runaway—Charity begins to reconsider what makes a family. When her own estranged mother shows up in crisis, Charity is challenged to search her heart for forgiveness. But forgiving herself may require a little magic from the last place she’d expect to find it.

Lately I’ve been discovering all these wonderful new to me authors, and Heather Burch is another one of them.

I really enjoyed reading this story. The main character Charity Baxter is someone who you both like and can relate to. She’s shaken by the death of her grandpa who along with her grandma played a huge part in her early life. The book starts almost at the point where she inherits her grandparent’s house and it’s there Ms. Burch does a wonderful job revealing bit by bit Charity’s childhood and her relationship with her estranged mother.

This story has everything, childhood dreams about fantasy and magic, the baggage we carry with us into adulthood, finding yourself, and stumbling upon a new love. And best of all, finding somewhere in your heart to forgive someone who hurt you in the past. I think Charity finds that it’s part of the process of growing up and it was great taking that journey with her as the story unfolded.

I also liked her love interest, Dalton, who’s got some hurt of his own. I felt like these two were made for one another.

If you love stories with a realistic setting, dialogue and theme, and a fan of books that focus on the meaning of family, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Olivier The Cat Who Saved Christmas by Sheila Norton

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Olivier The Cat Who Saved Christmas by Sheila Norton
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Contemporary fiction, Holiday
Length: Full Length (315 pgs)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

A friend who brings light at the darkest of times…

Oliver the cat is a timid little thing, and rarely ventures from his home in the Foresters’ Arms.

Then his life changes dramatically when a fire breaks out in the pub kitchen and he is left homeless and afraid. But, with the kindness of the humans around him, he soon learns to trust again. And, in his own special way, he helps to heal those around him.

However, it isn’t until he meets a little girl in desperate need of a friend that he realises this village needs a Christmas miracle…

Who doesn’t love a story with a main character who’s an animal? In this story, it’s a ginger tabby named Oliver and he’s the narrator of the tale, too. As a cat owner, I was completely won over from page one and things only got better as the story progressed.

This story has something of everything, humor, some sadness, a wonderful setting that compliments the Christmas theme so well, and some down on their luck inhabitants whose lives are to be quickly transformed.

As all Christmas stories should be, this one is about finding joy and miracles when you least expect it. The sick child grows strong; the young couple without enough money to heat their home find dream jobs, and even kittens find perfect homes. All things are possible in this story but it’s not without the help of Oliver who seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

I loved the way Oliver interacted with his fellow cats and his frustration as he struggled to get humans to understand what he was showing them. I ended up reading this story in two sittings and I think it’s perfect for all ages, young and old. Also, the perfect book to read aloud on Christmas Eve or give as a gift.

Don’t miss this fun Christmas story that will have you believing in miracles.

Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room by Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: Full Length (321 pages)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Strap in…it’s going to be an interesting and gut-wrenching ride.

Room isn’t a book I would’ve picked up normally. This story is told from the perspective of the child and that’s not generally my cuppa. That said, once I started the book I couldn’t stop. The situation Ma and Jack find themselves in isn’t anything anyone would want to be in. Ma – her name is never mentioned – is kidnapped at the age of 19 by Old Nick. While I had moments I wanted to know more about him and his motivations, mostly I just hated Old Nick. The author did a good job of making me ill from reading about him. Yeah, he’s bad.

I can’t imagine being a kidnapping victim or the things Ma and Jack had to go through to survive. To be locked in an 11×11 room… the very thought makes me shudder. I have to say I was emotionally invested in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, even Old Nick. I wasn’t disappointed. While it’s not a feel-good read, there were moments I simply couldn’t put the kindle down.

That said, there were trigger moments for me. Jack, although five years old and smart as a whip, is emotionally behind. How can he not be? He hasn’t ever experienced the outside world and has no idea how to interact with other people beyond Ma. One of the things she does to keep him close is she still nurses him. This was a trigger for me in that it put me off of the story. I get it. She nursed him to ensure he’d get the proper nourishment and to keep that bond. She had to be sure he’d grow up right. But the nursing made me uncomfortable. Then there was the incident with the tooth. Ma has bad teeth and some fall out. One in particular does and Jack nabs it. It’s his connection to Ma. What made me uncomfortable about Tooth – as he calls it – is something kids do. He sticks it in his mouth. He sucks on it, carries it around and puts it in his sock…then sticks it back in his mouth. The germ factor was more than I could handle. If you’re not wild about kids who stick things in their mouth or the older child nursing issue…then this might not be the book for you.

But honestly, while this wasn’t something I’d have picked on my own, I’m glad I read it. Anyone could be that girl who is kidnapped. She thinks she’s helping someone. Who hasn’t done that? It’s a plausible story. Interesting, intriguing and fascinating since the story is told from Jack’s point of view, Room might be just the book for your reading list.

The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson

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The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: Full Length (400 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Three women, three lives, and one chance to become a family…whether they want to or not.

Newly orphaned, recently divorced, and semiadrift, Nina Popkin is on a search for her birth mother. She’s spent her life looking into strangers’ faces, fantasizing they’re related to her, and now, at thirty-five, she’s ready for answers.

Meanwhile, the last thing Lindy McIntyre wants is someone like Nina bursting into her life, announcing that they’re sisters and campaigning to track down their mother. She’s too busy with her successful salon, three children, beautiful home, and…oh yes, some pesky little anxiety attacks.

But Nina is determined to reassemble her birth family. Her search turns up Phoebe Mullen, a guarded, hard-talking woman convinced she has nothing to offer. Gradually sharing stories and secrets, the three women make for a messy, unpredictable family that looks nothing like Nina pictured…but may be exactly what she needs. Nina’s moving, ridiculous, tragic, and transcendent journey becomes a love story proving that real family has nothing to do with DNA.

One of the perks of being a book reviewer is stumbling upon new authors you might not have found on your own. And yes, I hit pay dirt with this one.

Some of my favorite books are those that are both bittersweet and funny at the same time. Sounds like an oxymoron but those are the stories that pull on your emotions and make you think what you’re reading is actually real.

While I didn’t like all the characters at the very beginning…and yes, I did cheer for Nina from the first page, I did end up wanting all good things for the three women featured in this story. None of them are perfect but it’s those imperfections that made them come across as people I meet on any given day.

The story, as the name suggests, is very family centric and while not all us search for our birth parents or have children we gave up for adoption, show up one day, we call can relate to what family really means. The dialogue is wonderful and the pacing spot on. Even though this is a 400 plus page book, you find yourself easily gliding through it.

What I took away from this book is that we’re all work in progress and to coin the cliché, that no man is an island. I’ll definitely be reading more books by this author and recommend this family drama as ideal fall reading.

A Christmas Home by Greg Kincaid

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A Christmas Home by Greg Kincaid
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Fiction, Holiday
Length: Full Length (242 pgs)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Todd McCray, hero of A Dog Named Christmas, is now twenty-four years old and working at a local animal shelter, where he meets and quickly becomes best friends with Laura, a young volunteer. Laura, like Todd, has disabilities of her own, but her struggles are more physical than developmental. Their friendship is sealed when Todd — with the help of his trusted companion, the tenacious Labrador retriever named Christmas — trains a beautiful dog named Gracie to help Laura with the day-to-day life tasks that are difficult for her.

Life seems good for Todd, but all is not well in his hometown. Struggling families unable to make ends meet are abandoning more and more dogs, and the shelter is swelling to capacity. The local government is struggling to meet its obligations too, and in early December, on the cusp of another holiday season, Todd’s boss delivers the bad news. Due to funding problems, the shelter will close its doors before the end of the year. But what will happen to all the animals?

As the Christmas holiday approaches, Todd has limited time to find homes for all the dogs. Not to mention that he needs to secure a new job and figure out what to do when his friendship with Laura takes an unexpected romantic turn. All this seems overwhelming unless you’ve got a loving family, dedicated friends, and a couple of very special dogs behind you. In which case, nothing is impossible.

I know this is a little late to be reviewing a holiday themed story, but A Christmas Home is such an uplifting and heartwarming read, I think it’s the perfect read any time of the year.

I stumbled upon this book by accident and didn’t realize there was a previous book called A Dog Named Christmas published prior to this one. This book also features two reoccurring characters, Todd McCray and the Labrador named Christmas. You’ll have no problem getting into the story, if you hadn’t read the first one.

I liked every single character in this book. The author did a wonderful job making them three dimensional. Todd came across as a real life character and I loved his interaction with Laura who begins working with him at the animal shelter. They both have issues and needs. I felt myself being pulled more into the story the further I got into it.

I also loved the setting, and who doesn’t love an animal shelter and all the furry creatures? However, when the shelter’s in danger of being closed down, I really started turning the pages, somehow knowing that Todd’s going to come to the rescue but wondering if this is going to have a happy ending.

This story made me laugh, brought me close to tears at times, but most of all, like all good books should, it tugged at my heart strings and made me want more as I finished reading the last word.

I’ll definitely be going back to read A Dog Named Christmas and be on the lookout for more books by this author. This is one I highly recommend you put on your to read list.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Recent Historical, Fiction
Length: Full Length (278 pages)
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

It’s a whole new world and it’s a scary place, but please don’t ignore it.

Confused by that statement? Go Set a Watchman is set twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird and presents the world as a bit of scary, confusing place. But don’t let the perceived fear of the unknown keep you from reading this book.

I already know I’ll take some heat because I rated this book five stars. Many people disliked the book and claimed it needed editing. Yes, the book has some editing issues. That said, the author didn’t want the book edited – that’s the claim anyway. Yes, my inner editor had some issues on those few points. Yes, I found them. But while I had to reread a few places (less than five), I couldn’t put the book down.

I loved Atticus, Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird. This was a book that shaped my teenage years and the movie is part of my growing up. Atticus was the father figure I always wanted. I was afraid I’d dislike the book because I’d heard some pre-release buzz.

This is my take. Read the book. Read the book all the way to the end. Don’t give up part way through. Got that?

I’m serious. The payoff is worth it.

Scout is, but isn’t, the same little girl from the first book. She’s the same girl, but her views and opinions have changed because she’s lived in New York for a while. There she can be the bohemian of sorts woman, not tied down in marriage and not really caring what others think. Her free-spiritedness is refreshing.

But this story is a story of the times. In the 1950’s, there were pervasive problems with racism and sexism. What needs to be kept in mind while reading is that this book is truly a product of its era, but it’s also a learning curve and growth for Scout. Haven’t we all had a person in our lives whom we looked up to, then found out the person is human after all?

No spoilers, but this is Scout’s story. A lot of loose ends are tied up and sorted out. Scout comes into her own.

Yes, there are things in this book that might make some readers upset. Atticus turns out to not be the man on the pedestal like he was in Mockingbird, but as I’ve said before, read to the end. Everything will be explained and has a reason.

If you’re a little interested in or wondering about the book, pick it up. If nothing else, it may make you think. I sure did. I recommend Go Set a Watchman