The Widow // by Fiona Barton

//published 2016//

I usually find it moderately annoying when books told in 3rd person insist on heading each chapter with the name of perspective.  Like yes, I KNOW we’re hearing this from Josh’s point of view because the first sentence is, “Josh turned his head and saw Ellie coming down the hallway.”  I don’t need “JOSH” at the top of the chapter, sheesh.  But in this book, for some reason I loved the way that each chapter stated who it was about – but instead of names, it used their roles:  The Widow.  The Reporter.  The Detective.  While each of these main characters developed into individuals, the truth of the matter was that in this story, their roles were the most important part of who they were.

The Widow is one of those thrillers that I felt like I saw everywhere when it was first published (at the end of the post I’ll link to multiple reviews I read at the time), but since I rarely read ARCs, I’m always a couple of years behind everyone else.  :-D  (But that’s the way I like it…  ARCs are just too much pressure!  I don’t like all those deadlines and feeling bad if I don’t like a book someone sent me.  What I do like is if I feel like reading nothing but trashy Pride and Prejudice variations for a week like I have recently, it doesn’t matter!  No obligations!  Freedom!  :-D)

The pacing in this book was excellent, and was a huge part of why the book worked overall.  We start in June 2010, from the perspective of both the Widow and the Reporter, but after a few chapters, we pick up with the Detective in October 2006.  The Widow’s perspective is first person but everyone else is third person.  It seemed like this should have been annoying, but I actually liked it.  It meant that the Widow’s perspective was still the most biased one, and while I wouldn’t exactly term her as an unreliable narrator, she trended a bit that direction (don’t we all), and I was never exactly sure where the facts ended and her interpretation of the facts began.

At first, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between the case the Detective is working on in 2006 and the story the Reporter is trying to cash in on in 2010.  (Aside:  Don’t worry, everyone has real names in the book, and are only referred to by their titles in the chapter headings.  But for the simplicity of this review, I’m going with titles instead of names.)  But as the two timelines start to merge, bits and pieces come together, and it was done quite well.  I genuinely had no idea if the Husband was guilty or not – like I was pretty sure he was because he’s obviously a manipulative piece of trash, but then something else would come to light and I would wonder if he really was just a victim of circumstance who also happened to be a crappy person.  Why else would the Widow have stayed with him?  I can’t imagine staying with my husband if he was accused of such a crime – unless I was completely certain of his innocence.  Throughout the story, I was never sure if the Widow stayed with him because she knew he was innocent or because she didn’t know what else to do.

In some ways, the Widow was a frustrating person, because she had allowed the Husband to control her for so long.  But  like so many people in emotionally abusive relationships, she just didn’t see what he was doing.  And it’s one of those things – some of what he does isn’t exactly wrong, but then he goes a step too far.  Like it isn’t a bad thing to check in on your loved one and make sure things are alright… but double-checking her stories with other people to make sure they match is a bit creepy.

Pornography is also a big part of this story, and I really, really appreciated that it wasn’t presented as a harmless “private matter” like it so often is.  Instead, the dark truth about pornography was brought forward – how it’s quite addictive, and becomes something that people not only want to see more of, but to see more and more extreme examples of.  I personally feel that pornography is such a huge blot on our society, and it horrifies me how it’s so brushed off as not that big of a deal.  For a modern society that claims to be oh-so concerned about women’s rights, it’s kind of mind-blowing that watching endless hours of women being beaten and raped online is just a “personal choice” that other people shouldn’t get all judgy about, apparently.  While this book wasn’t remotely preachy, parts of this story showed how genuinely harmful pornography can be (and more often than not IS), how the images and concepts that we feed into our brains constantly start to become something that we see as a potential reality.  Anyway, that’s just my interpretation of a thread that’s running through the story, never something that’s explicitly discussed or analyzed in the actual book.

I will say that I felt like the weak point of this book was the actual investigation.  While I liked the Detective as a character, I wasn’t particularly impressed with his detecting skills.  It felt like he just jumped from one random suspect to another without a lot of proof, and there was a witness whose word they took entirely too seriously without any other collaborative proof.  Instead of working through the clues to find a suspect, he would find a suspect and then start trying to make the clues match, and the whole thing made me hope that he wasn’t ever in charge of finding out what happened to one of my loved ones, should I have need of a detective in my future.

Still, for me, this was an easy 4* read.  It was a sad book and in many ways difficult – it’s not a book that I would necessarily read again, but I would definitely be willing to read whatever else Barton brings to the table.  I recommend The Widow if you like your thrillers on the somewhat slow-burn side, examining different sides of a relationship and bringing dark secrets to light.

For some other perspectives, please check out all the reviews from blogs that I follow!  This one was recommended by –

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The Girl With a Clock for a Heart // by Peter Swanson

//published 2014//

This is a book that has been on the TBR since Cleopatra reviewed it in 2016.  As regular readers know, the TBR is a massive thing that continues to grow, rather than shrink, but I do eventually tackle books that have been on there for years, and I’ve started to make more of an effort to note who inspired me to add it in the first place, so that even if it takes a while, I can still give a good review credit!  :-D

I was quickly drawn into this book, and really had no idea where it was heading most of the time.  I finally set aside a bit of time on a quiet Sunday afternoon to just sit and devote myself to reading the last third of this book because I HAD TO KNOW.  In retrospect, this book definitely had some weak points, but it definitely gets high marks for keeping me thoroughly engaged while I was reading it!

Our story opens with a prologue in which George enters a house that has been marked as a crime scene, looking for a message that “she” left for him, some clue that the police would have overlooked as insignificant to their investigation.  He finds a postcard.  And then we go to chapter one.

Basically, throughout this book kept kind of reminding me of something, and when I finished it and was skimming through a few reviews on Goodreads, I came across someone describing this book as “old-school noir” and I realized that that was what I had been thinking of.  In some way, this book reminded me of the Phillip Marlowe books that I read last year – George is the traditional serious, steady guy who gets caught up in circumstances beyond his control because he is drawn there by a beautiful and irresistible femme fatale.

With that in mind, I think this book becomes more enjoyable.  There are, frankly, multiple points in time where I simply could not believe that George would yet again do something crazy for this woman, but I still found myself going with it because even though it’s set in modern times, it had this flavor that felt like they ought to have been in a smoky bar in the 1920’s.

The information throughout the story is revealed at just the right time.  We are following the current events in the present, but also learning of when George first met this mysterious woman – so his reasons for both his loyalty and hesitancy are being presented at critical moments in the current storyline.

In the end, this is a book that I hovered between a 3.5 and a 4.  Ultimately I settled on 4 because I do definitely see myself reading more of Swanson’s books in the future.  While The Girl With a Clock for a Heart wasn’t the most amazing thriller I had ever read, I did find it completely engrossing at the time, and the excellent pacing made me willing to overlook what felt like ridiculous judgments on the part of George.  It was a book that made me race to the conclusion, and then reread the prologue, and then reread random chapters throughout looking for the clues that I had missed now that I had the key.

While I don’t heartily recommend this book, I do recommend it to people who enjoy quick, snappy thrillers that may have a few gaps in character actions.  There was a lot to enjoy here, and I look forward to checking out some more of Swanson’s books in the future.

Royal Wedding Series // by Rachel Hauck

  • Once Upon a Prince (2013)
  • A March Bride (2014)
  • Princess Ever After (2014)
  • How to Catch a Prince (2015)
  • A Royal Christmas Wedding (2016)

This series has been on my radar ever since I got the first book as a free Kindle book.  Last year, when I was reading through the novella series A Year of Weddings (by various authors), I realized that A March Bride was actually a follow-up to Once Upon a Prince.  I kind of enjoy the concept of modern fairy tales (after all, The Princess is still a go-to fave of mine), and that’s basically what this series does.  Hauck has created a kingdom, Brighton, which is a small island in the North Sea.  Conveniently, English is their first language, so everything works out when, throughout the series, several Brightonian princes fall for American girls.

Overall, I really enjoyed these books.  They were relaxing and fun little love stories, with some good character development and some thoughtful questions.  They are definitely Christian books, with strong (although not misplaced) Christian themes/conversations without, and this also means that they are delightfully devoid of graphic sex.  For the most part, Hauck does a good job of creating likable female characters who are strong and independent without being obnoxious, and creating male characters are kind and thoughtful without being weak and stupid.  There were times that the angst factor was a little too strong (especially in How to Catch a Prince… I mean, COME ON, STEPHEN, MOVE ON WITH YOUR LIFE), but for the most part, the amount of angst felt realistic for the complicated problems!

However, the further along the series went, the more Hauck depended on basically supernatural encounters to further her story – angels, small miracles, etc.  I wasn’t exactly against this, and as a Christian I  believe these things can happen, and I felt like it was consistent with the rest of what Hauck was saying.  BUT it also felt like sometimes she was able to use this as a way to just sort of tidy things up.  This seemed especially evident at the end of Princess Ever After, where conveniently God has apparently just kept this entire barn full of Important Things hidden from human eyes for a hundred years, and now it reappears and has everything they need to fix all their problems.  In that instance, it felt more like a plotline cop-out than proof that God still works in our lives today.  (That book definitely had the weakest ending anyway.  Guy spends the entire book being a political enemy, and then in the end one short conversation means he’s suddenly on the other team??  That didn’t seem likely at all.)

I did appreciate the way that A Royal Christmas Wedding not only told Avery’s story, but also kind of wrapped things up for the other couples I had met along the way.  It had a very happily ever after vibe that I totally could get behind.

This ended up being a 4* series for me for the most part.  I enjoyed reading these books and liked most of the characters.  There were times that they were a bit slow, or where the use of supernatural forces felt a little heavy-handed, but I could usually get behind it.  While I’m not sure this will become a go-to series for me, they were very enjoyable for a one-time read, and I can definitely see myself picking up other books by Hauck in the future.

Under Suspicion Series // by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke

  • I’ve Got You Under My Skin (2014)
  • The Cinderella Murder (2014)
  • All Dressed in White (2015)
  • The Sleeping Beauty Killer (2016)
  • Every Breath You Take (2017)

A while back I read The Ex by Alafair Burke.  While it wasn’t the best thriller I had ever read, it was solid enough to make me add several of Burke’s other works onto the TBR.  However, when I added this series I didn’t realize that Burke was a co-author.  Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading any of the famous Mary Higgins Clark’s books, so I was actually pretty intrigued to delve into this series.

The first book was written by Clark on her own, and it sets the premise for the rest of the series.  The story opens when Greg, a young doctor, at the park with his three-year-old son, Timmy.  A stranger appears and murders Greg – and only Timmy sees his face.  Timmy remarkably is able to remember that the man had very blue eyes and also that he said, “Tell your mother she’s next, and then it’s your turn.”

Five years later, no further progress has been made on the Blue-Eyed Killer.  Greg’s wife, Laurie, has done her best to move forward with her life, even with the constant threat made by a murderer hanging over her.  Her father, Leo, took an early retirement from his job on the police force in order to help Laurie take care of Timmy.  Laurie works as a television producer, but her last few ideas haven’t done very well and she knows that her next pitch could be her last.

But it’s a doozy – her idea is to have a sort-of reality show that revisits cold cases.  But instead of just talking about them, she wants to pull together all the main players and reenact some of the scenes.  She wants her main focus to be on cold cases where the witnesses are also the suspects – where the fact that the case is still open means that multiple people are still under suspicion – which is exactly what she wants to title her new show.

Although her boss is at first reluctant, she manages to hook him with a cold case that received a lot of media attention at the time, and soon production for the first episode of Under Suspicion is underway.  Meanwhile, the reader is privy to the fact that Blue Eyes is back on the fringes of Laurie’s life – with definite plans for finishing the job he started five years earlier.

I really enjoyed this series a lot, and gave basically all of these books an easy 4* rating.  It felt a little obvious that Clark didn’t originally intend for the first book to be the first in a series – Laurie’s mystery is neatly wrapped up, she’s given a potential love interest for the future, and things overall get tidied – but it works really well as a series nonetheless, with each book being another episode of Under Suspicion.  Laurie is a really likable protagonist, and the other characters grew on me as well.  I was moderately frustrated with the slow speed of her romance with THE PERFECT GUY, but overall that was also a nice thread running throughout.

It did seem as though the endings were sometimes rushed – I especially felt that way with the first book, where things are tooling along and then suddenly ACTION!  DEATH!  MURDER!  SUICIDE!  CHAOS!  And then the end.  Other than that, though, the pacing was good throughout.  The chapters are SUPER short – some of them only a couple of paragraphs long – which I find incredibly addictive.

A new character is introduced in The Sleeping Beauty Killer, and he really brought down my overall enjoyment of that book and the next.  Ryan ended up being THE most stereotyped character in the whole series…  let’s create a male character who is a caricature of every stereotypical negative male trait ever!  It was so annoying, especially since everyone else grows and changes, but Ryan just stays completely stagnant in order to emphasize how EASY it is for men ALL THE TIME, blah blah blah.

But overall these were great thrillers. They had enough twists to keep things interesting, good premises, likable characters (except Ryan), and decent character development over time (except Ryan).  The most recent was just published last year, so I’m hopeful that there may be another addition to the series at some point.  4/5 for the Under Suspicion series on the whole.

Understood Betsy // by Dorothy Canfield

//published 1916//

Every once in a while I come across a book that I read when I was a lot younger, and I reread it, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why it took me so long to reread it.  Understood Betsy was definitely one of those books – I probably last read it in junior high, and I loved it so much during this reread that I couldn’t believe that it had just been sitting on my shelf for so long!

Originally published in 1916, this isn’t a tale of high adventure or great drama.  Instead, it’s a fairly simple story about a young orphan girl who goes from living with a hovering, over-indulgent pair of aunts to live with her down-to-earth cousins in the country.  At its heart, it is about Betsy learning to be more independent and confident, and, in the process, learning some life lessons.  In some ways, the story is almost polemic, as Canfield obviously feels quite strongly about the importance of letting children experiment and live their lives, having them spend a great deal of time out-of-doors, and letting them learn at their own pace.

The story begins with Elizabeth Ann, and the description of her current life.  Canfield tells us of her circumstances in a very wry tone of voice that I found quite funny.  Canfield is never mean about Elizabeth Ann’s aunts, who are portrayed as loving Elizabeth Ann very much and wanting the best for her.  Indeed, that very desire is what makes them rather smother her with care.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity.  She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear.  When they were out walking … the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann.  If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily, “There, there, dear!  That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure.  I don’t believe he ever bites little girls.  Mercy!  Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him!  Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so.”

In fact, Aunt Frances is so good at protecting Elizabeth Ann, she sometimes knows that something will frighten Elizabeth Ann before Elizabeth Ann does!

But life changes drastically when the other aunt, Aunt Harriet, develops a worrisome cough and has to be taken to a warmer climate to recover.  The doctor doesn’t think it is wise for a child to be around this cough, and, through a series of events, Elizabeth Ann ends up being sent up to “the Putney cousins” in the wilds of Vermont.

Here, no one seems to think that Elizabeth Ann – immediately called Betsy by these relatives – ought to be scared of much of anything.  She’s expected to do terrible things, like chores.  She goes to a one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher has her reading with children older than her, but doing arithmetic with children younger than her.  She’s expected to help with the young children at school.  The cousins have a HUGE DOG!

These small adventures are just an absolute delight.  I could have read ten books about Betsy and been perfectly happy.  Watching her grow in independence is wonderful, not just because she becomes more confident, happy, and healthy, but also because she is learning about genuine love, loyalty, and independence.  I love the sections where Betsy is expected to do something, and she has to make decisions for herself.

Somebody had always been explaining things to Elizabeth Ann so industriously that she had never found out a single thing for herself before.  This was a very small discovery, but an original one.  Elizabeth Ann was as excited about it as a mother-bird over the first egg that hatches.

What surprised me, just a smidge, was how relevant so much of this book still is.  In this day and age, children are smothered and coddled more than ever, with every whim catered to and every moment filled with activity – so little room for allowing them healthy independence, exploration, and creativity.  The so-called education system is more concerned with test scores and getting kids into colleges than it is with actually teaching them the basics of understanding.  And on the whole, our society is becoming more and more disconnected from the simplicity of being outdoors.  (No joke, when I was a kid, I spent hours outside playing with a stick, which was my favorite possession, as it could become so many, many other things in my vivid imagination.  It was a very nice stick.)

Understood Betsy is one of those delightful books that stands the test of time very well.  It’s over a hundred years old, yet the story is still a delight to read, the characters real and relatable, the story thoughtful and challenging, but not aggressively so.  If you are looking for a story that is warm and happy, with just enough grit to keep you thinking about it for a while, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

‘Love Inspired’ // Part 5

A while back my great-aunt passed away, and somehow my grandpa ended up with two boxes full of books.  Almost all of them are ‘inspirational’ romances published by Harlequin as ‘Love Inspired’.  At one point (not sure if you still can) you could subscribe and have a new book mailed to you every month.  Aunt Darby did just that, and now I’m in possession of somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 or so of these ‘Love Inspired’ titles.  Most of them are pretty cheesy but alright for a one-time fluff read.  I’m sure that I’ll binge through some of them periodically.  They’re perfect to grab out of the crate when I’m just looking for a quick, no-brainer book.  However, most of them will probably end up exiting this house after that one-time read, because they just aren’t worth the shelf space to me.  So if there’s one that sounds especially appealing to you… let me know, and I’ll be quite happy to mail you a gift!  ;-)

I guess the real question is – why do I keep reading these??  I can’t seem to help it.  Somehow, I feel like I owe it to Aunt Darby!  This  batch of five was just as mediocre as the rest, although I’m getting better at just DNFing the really terrible ones.  :-D

Cattleman’s Courtship by Carolyne Aarsen

This one wasn’t too bad, with a likable pair of main characters.  Cara and Nicholas were engaged a few years ago and broke things off due to some misunderstandings.  Now their best friends are getting married, so Cara and Nick are back together for the wedding planning.  All in all, this would have been a pretty decent story, except it went off the rails at the end – Cara is a veterinarian and is trying to decide whether or not she wants to join her uncle’s practice.  In the meantime, her uncle has hired this other guy… who kind of turns out to be arbitrarily a terrible person??  He felt like this really random evil villain who swoops in and decides that Nick’s entire herd has TB and has to be slaughtered.  It just felt like there should have been a lot more research done before making that kind of decision, and the whole thing felt superfluous to the story which was otherwise basically finished.  Still, 3.5/5 for what was overall not a bad story.

Fresh-Start Family by Lisa Mondello

This is one of those tales where there is an emotionally wounded man who meets a sweet widow and her son.  All in all, I really liked Tag and Jenna, but felt like their relationship was really choppy.  Another 3.5/5 for a decent story.

Their First Noel by Annie Jones

DNF.  Not even sure why exactly.  Just boring.  I skimmed the rest to see what happened.

The Marine’s Baby by Deb Kastner

DNF.  This actually seemed like one I should enjoy, where a dude inherits a baby and needs help taking care of it, but I was immediately put off by Nathan’s family, and there were already these huge jumps in logic in just the first couple of chapters.  (e.g. the baby is running a really high fever and instead of “rush her to the hospital,” Jesse is like, “oh, let’s just try to bring her fever down ourselves” – huh??)

Rocky Point Reunion by Barbara McMahon

Not a bad little story, although sometimes it really just felt like these two needed to sit down and talk.  I understood why Marcie was wary of Zack, but it felt like that part just went on and on.  Like did she really think he couldn’t change at all in ten years?!  3/5 for a story that was alright for a one-time read.

April Minireviews // Part 2

I keep thinking that I’m through my blogging funk and am ready to write some solid full reviews… and then I start to write and realize I just don’t wanna!  :-D  So here’s another batch of minireviews from this month…

Red Riding Hood by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

//published 2011//

Before I picked up this book and read the introduction I didn’t realize that it’s actually a book based on a movie.  I’m not completely sure I would have bothered checking it out of the library if I had known that before, as it’s not something I generally enjoy.  And, like other movies-to-books that I’ve read, this one felt a little flat.  There wasn’t a lot of character development, and the third person POV jumped around between characters in a manner that was very choppy and confusing.  There was a lot of potential with this story, but instead it just felt like it dragged on and on and created more questions than it answered.

Why have the villagers been offering sacrifices to the werewolf for years but now all of a sudden decide that it must die?  That was the biggest one for me.  These people have been living with this situation for decades, but all of a sudden it’s this huge emergency/crisis and everyone is flipping out about killing the wolf.  I hated the blend of religion/paranormal in this book, as the “good” guy, who is a bishop or something, is also a total jerk + arrogant + stupid, and goes around proclaiming how he is “working for the power of God” etc etc and it really felt like he could have been the same character minus the constant blathering about God and wouldn’t have been nearly as offensive.  The main character, Valerie, basically sucked and was completely passive and also inconsistent and we had to spend WAY too much time listening to her dither about which guy she should be with; she and everyone else just kind of ran around like a bunch of sheep, making every stupid decision possible.

THEN, the final kicker – there’s no last chapter!  The book just stops!  Apparently, the book came out just before the movie, so they didn’t want the ending spoiled and didn’t post the lats chapter until after the movie appeared.  Now you can go online and read it (and I did, and it genuinely was a terrible ending that STILL didn’t really make the story make sense), but it seems like a pretty obnoxious marketing device to not put the ending in a book.  All in all, a 2/5 for this one – I did want to see how things came out, so I feel like I can’t justify only 1*, but it’s close.

The Foundling by Georgette Heyer

//published 1948//

It had been way too long since I had indulged in the sheer joy and relaxation of a Heyer book, and I was excited to read this one for the first time.  I genuinely loved the main character, Gilly, and laughed out loud on more than one occasion at his ability to get tangled in some genuinely ridiculous situations.  It was funny to read a Heyer that was more about a guy than a girl, but Gilly was so completely likable that I really enjoyed it.  I wish there was a sequel to this book that was nothing except Gilly and his new wife and all of their adventures because I shipped them SO HARD.  4/5.

Ride Like an Indian by Henry Larom

//published 1958//

A while back I read the Mountain Pony series by Larom and really enjoyed it, so I checked to see if he had written anything else.  I found a copy of Ride Like an Indian on eBay and took the $5 splurge.  This was aimed at younger readers than the Mountain Pony books – it’s almost a picture book – but it was pretty adorable, even if it wasn’t very exciting.  I enjoyed the reading, but it wasn’t really an instant classic for me.  3.5/5.

The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillup

//published 1988//

I’ve had kind of mixed results from McKillup’s writing.  Everything I’ve read has been good but they have not all been magical.  That was the case with this book.  The story was a pleasant and engaging one, but didn’t have that magic that made me want to add it to my permanent collection.  3/5.

Don’t Believe a Word by Patricia MacDonald

//published 2016//

I read about this book over on Fictionophile’s blog a while back, and thought I would give it a whirl.  While I enjoyed reading it and definitely wanted to see how everything came together, it wasn’t a book that I loved, and it didn’t particularly inspire me to find more of MacDonald’s writing.  For some reason, this book just had a negative vibe for me, and I’m not even sure exactly why.  There is also this weird plot twist where it turns out that two of the characters are actually half-siblings and have been having an incestual relationship.  That was never really addressed as a negative thing and it made me kind of uncomfortable that the conclusion was just that it was basically their business and they should be able to do whatever they feel is right.  Still, that was a minor part of an otherwise decent story.  3.5/5.