Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan

Rating:                              9

General Rating: Keeps your attention throughout.

Skip factor:  0% which doesn’t happen too often.

Who should read:  Any woman would like this story. But those who enjoy great writing will love.

Summary: The story starts off with a bang. When Libby Miller arrives home to break the news to her husband that she has terminal cancer, he announces he’s gay. W-w-w-what? (I was as shocked as she was.) So she doesn’t reveal she’s dying to Tom, the hubby, but instead tries to grasp that their marriage has been a lie.

Immediately, Libby decides to live the remainder of her life on her terms. She refuses to answer the doctor’s calls about treatment. Years ago, her mother died of cancer, and she’s determined to enjoy the time she has left rather than exhaust it with treatment. She quits her job—doesn’t tell her egotistical boss, Jackie, the truth—and leaves her house in the hands of a friend who is a realtor to sell.

Because she has nothing to lose, she sets off on a month-long vacation to an island and—here comes my favorite part—strikes up a relationship with the pilot who flies her in.

Characters:  I am new to Camille Pagan and enjoyed this book, partially because of her great character development. I fell in love with all of the island people, and although I didn’t love Libby at the start, I grew to like her. I also loved Libby’s brother, but my favorite character was, by far, the pilot, Shiloh.

Storyline: The storyline is great. Of course, you can’t stop reading because you want to see if Libby will live or die, but I found myself reading for other reasons, as well. There are enough peaks and valleys in her story to maintain your interest, but what kept me reading, was how Pagan told the story. Simply, her writing is wonderful

Writing:  Pagan is a new favorite author. (Don’t you love when that happens!) Her writing is fabulous. 5-star good. Maybe 5+-star good.

Read this author again? Yes, yes, yes.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise

Rating:                              9.5

General Rating: Need a can’t-put-down read? I read this in a few days. Get past the first chapters, and you won’t be able to put it down. It gets better and better.

Skip factor:  0% I skipped not a word.

Who should read:  Readers who don’t mind multiple characters. Mothers and grandmothers.

Summary: The story opens at a birthday party for two-year-old twins, Lucy and George. All of the major characters are in attendance. The twins’ mother, Cora, finds someone has left the diary of her babysitter, Mira, on her bed during the party. The diary has one entry, and it is about Cora’s husband, Sam.

While Cora delves into the truth of the entry, the story turns to Mira’s parents, neighbors Laurel & Dash, who have a secret of their own. A bedroom secret—Dash is more than a little rough during love-making.

Switch to Jade & Jeremy. Jade’s best friend Maggie (Cora’s sister) was killed in an automobile accident. Jade is now close with Cora and Maggie’s mother, Sarah. Jeremy is the hunk of a guy whom every woman at the party secretly watches. Both Jade and Jeremy hide secrets, too.

As if those storylines aren’t enough, the day after the birthday party, Mira disappears.

Characters:  As in many beginnings, it was hard to keep the characters straight. Here’s a key to help readers keep the main three couples straight:

Cora & Sam
              Kids Lucy & George
              Sarah is Cora’s mom. Her dad, Clark, is remarried to Abby.
Laurel and Dash
              Kids Anna & Mira
Jade & Jeremy
              No kids. Jade was best friends with Maggie. Jeremy is hot.  

8

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

Rating:                              8

General Rating: A page-turner that all begins with a game. Then gets worse.

Skip factor:  5% I skipped a tad of description and protagonist thoughts between pages 150 and 280. Up until then, nothing. After, just a tad as I dashed toward the meat of the story.

Who should read:  Mystery and thriller fans, and writers who enjoy good writing/description.

Summary: A sexy new neighbor, Angelica Roux, turns up on Amy Whey’s doorstep on book-club night. She completely obliterates the night’s agenda and initiates a game…Never have I ever…seems she knows a little bit about the book-club members. The game resembles truth or dare, only with a handful of adult women who are hiding more secrets than thought possible in one upper, middle-class neighborhood.   

Characters:  Here’s a first. I grew to dislike the main character, Amy. Fond of her in the beginning, by page 150 I’d decide I didn’t care for her at all. I actually loved this about the book! Here are a few of the characters and for the first time ever, I’m beginning with those I liked the least.

Roux is the antagonist, who is blackmailing several women. She’s beautiful, fit, and cunning. She rents a home in the neighborhood with her son Luka. Readers quickly gather the only reason for her rental is to blackmail Amy. She’s abrasive and curt. You dislike her instantly.

Panda and the other neighbor ladies are interspersed throughout. I didn’t care for any of them. Snobby and uppity, when the story reveals a few of them were being blackmailed, too, I could have cared less, which is what I’m sure the author intended.   

Amy is the main character. She is the wife of decent and kind Davis, mother of eight-month-old Oliver, and stepmother of fifteen-year-old Madison. From the beginning, she is a loyal friend to Char, but as the pages slip quickly by, you realize she has a coldness about her, a detachment.

Char is Amy’s best friend. She’s pregnant, a tad matronly, and the perfect organizer of the book club. Strung a bit too tight, right off the bat you know her gorgeous husband might cause her some strife.

Luka and Maddie are the teenagers who drift in and out of the story. Luke is Roux’s son, nice-looking, fairly respectful but you’ll worry about his intentions. Maddie is Davis’s daughter and Amy’s stepdaughter. She portrays a too-kind-to-her-stepmother teenage girl, affectionately referring to Amy as stepmonster, hardly ever defiance in her. (Having raised two daughters of my own, this was unbelievable to me.)

Davis and Tig are the men in Amy’s life. Good guys. I liked them both.   

Storyline: This is a book you spend dissecting, trying to understand the characters. Everyone has a past they’d like to sweep out the front door, and Roux knows it. She’s a professional blackmailer and infiltrates Amy’s world because, well, you just know Amy has a secret. Roux also gathers dirt on several of the other neighbor ladies and uses the information to blackmail them. However, the entanglement at the end—revealing Roux’s own sordid past–will surprise even the best mystery solvers.

What kept me reading, was Jackson’s unveiling of Amy’s backstory. I read the first half of this novel quickly to decipher what her secret was.

Writing:  I absolutely loved Jackson’s writing. She uses metaphors for description to perfection. The story too, is infectious. Once you’re exposed to the characters’ plights, you become thirsty for more. So thirsty, that in the second half of the book, despite loving her writing, I found myself skipping all of that wonderful metaphor-laden description, which seemed too weighty when all I wanted was more clues to the suspenseful storyline.

In the end, I juggled the 5-star good writing and great storyline against the unlikeable characters and believability factor (could there be that many dark secrets in a circle of friends?) and I landed on a solid four stars.   

Read this author again? My response may be a little odd for my 4-star rating…hmmm…probably yes.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Rating:           9

General Rating: Ng is an author to watch. The writing is fabulous—the best I’ve seen recently.

Favorite line: “Everything seems worse in the darkest hours of the night.” (So true!)

Skip factor:  2%. I skipped little.

Who should read:  While I believe this is more for women or young females, anyone who has experienced discrimination or who would like to understand the suffering of those discriminated against, should read. Because the novel includes a suicide topic, I would NOT recommend for YA.

Summary: The beginning reveals Marilyn’s and James’s oldest child, Lydia, is not alive, but the family doesn’t know it yet. An interesting premise, which hooks you immediately.

The novel tells the story of the Lee family who attempt to survive the devastating death of the favored child, Lydia. Each struggle with regrets. The mother, Marilyn, is an American who disappointed her family by marrying a Chinese man. James, a college professor, could not secure the type of position he wanted due to his Chinese ethnicity. Though they were in love when they married, Marilyn is disappointed that she never fulfilled herself. She leaves her husband and two older children to pursue her dreams but then returns, when she realizes she is a few months pregnant with a third child.

James and the two older children, Lydia and Nath, never mend from her leaving them, and when Marilyn returns, feeling she will never reach her full potential in life, she transfers her hopes and dreams to Lydia. Lydia works wholeheartedly to please her mother for fear she will leave them again.

Despite being the center of her parent’s hopes, Lydia is not the student Nath is. Overshadowed by his sister, Nath attempts to win his father’s support but always feels second to Lydia.

Both Nath and Lydia are ostracized for their ethnicity in school and learn to rely on each other. When Nath is accepted to college, Lydia has a hard time fathoming what her life will be like without him. Hannah, the youngest child, adores Lydia but hides in the shadow of both of her older siblings. She notices everything around her, possibly knows more about the family than anyone.

Characters:  

Lydia – I loved this character. Ng shows the inner struggles of teenagers who are discriminated against through this character.

Hannah – The sweet, youngest Lee child is ignored by the family. I wanted to know more about her throughout the entire book.  

Nath – Through Nath, Ng clearly depicts the cruelty of discrimination, because of both his and his father’s Chinese heritage.

Marilyn – I felt sorry for this character. The author makes her out to be a monster. And herein lies the reason I did not give this a 9.5 or even a 10 for the writing. This woman, clearly conflicted, was unintentionally too hard on her daughter. Yet she loved her. There was good and bad to her of course, but, maybe because I am a mother myself, I felt the overtone of the book conveyed only bitterness, no empathy toward her. (I wondered if the author had a rocky relationship with her mother and would love to see how she feels about Marilyn twenty years from now when she herself has grown children.)  

James – I liked the father but couldn’t connect with thim. James was hard on his son, adored Lydia, and ignored Hannah. He was a bit too business-minded for me. However, he too deserved empathy. He was a product of his past.

Other characters – Ng brought a few other characters into the mix when needed to enhance the family’s story.

Storyline:  This novel depicts the hardship and discrimination of an American Chinese family. The suffering of the Lee parents impacted how they raised their children. Neither were bad people, but they allowed their past to influence, harm really, their children—a characteristic often present in many families. While that family dynamics may be common, the effect that discrimination has on a family is explicitly told here.

Writing:  I cannot express how well written this novel is. The writing is possibly the best I’ve seen in years. I dawdled over it. The author told the story from an omnipotent view, which is tough and often frowned upon in today’s literary world. She makes the transition from POV to POV appear easy. This is one of those books that is so well written, you wish you had bought rather than loaned.

Read this author again?  Absolutely. I’ve already begun Little Fires Everywhere. Ng writes flawlessly. I’ll read anything she writes.

To find more good books click here.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Friends Who Move Couches by CJ Zahner

Rating:           ?

General Rating: Strong female characters and Evy. Hope you love them. (Disclaimer: I had to put my own novel in the can’t-put-down category. You’ll have to decide for yourself!)

Favorite line: “Sometimes families rise out of the ashes together. Maybe with a smidge of dirt on their wings.”

Skip factor:  0%. Of course.

Who should read:  Any woman who values friendship.   

Summary:  This is almost a memoir.  

Nikki Grey’s idea of living dangerously is not wearing a seatbelt, yet calamity always seems to find her.

Married to a workaholic, mothering three rebellious kids, and feuding with neighborhood friends, Nikki forgets her problems one afternoon by smoking marijuana. That blunder ignites a lifelong yet dormant medical condition, and she loses her driver’s license. Suddenly stranded in her home, she’s forced to stare out the window at women who have ostracized her.

Her true friends encourage her to concentrate on her health, but Nikki is her own nemesis. She embarks on a scheme to win back neighborhood friends and plunges into efforts that only end in muddying her reputation. She becomes the butt of neighborhood jokes. Foolishly, her ache to mend her broken relationships escalates.

Not until her two-timing husband asks her a question that catapults her frivolous suburban life into a tailspin is she forced to stop reaching for others and stand on her own.

Storyline, characters, and author’s note:  

While my life, friends, family, and true-life quotes at the beginning of each chapter inspired much of this almost memoir, many aspects differ. 

First, it’s true I come from a small family and am frivolously addicted to friendship, but thankfully, I married Jeff Zahner, not Mark Grey. Throughout my thirty-eight-year marriage to Jeff, I often wondered how many men would so easily smirk and shake their heads at my escapades. In other words, I married a Blake the Pro right off the bat. Jeff and I have been faithful to each other since the day we met. (He assures me I can state this. He does not want to end up a character in one of my thrillers.)

Second, I’m not a cute, little blonde like Reese Witherspoon. I did this for your reading enjoyment. Imagine the same story with a frumpy, old, nagging brunette?

Third, I have one sibling, a brother, Mike. He is married to Barb. Mike is eleven years older than me. He began dating Barb when he was thirteen, and I was two, so Barb has been like a sister to me throughout life. This is a girly book, so I made Barb my sister. The hard, tragic, almost unbearable truth is Mike suffers from early-onset dementia, and Barb, from early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I do have three children who were rambunctiously mischievous throughout their childhood and teenage years, but I am happy to announce they have surpassed their father’s and my wildest expectations, superseding us in education, strength, courage, and character. My oldest daughter earned a master’s degree and has a resume grown men would kill for. She worked in the professional sports arena (Phillies, Nationals, Orioles, Capitals, Wizards, and Rams). My son is an attorney. (He is also a poker player and pretty good golfer.) My youngest daughter grew up to challenge her father and I as much (if not more) than her two older siblings. She did become a teacher and is currently completing her doctorate in Special Education. Yes, I remain a royal pain in the butt to them, but no one will ever love them like their mother.

Finally, Jody and Val do not live by me. They were my first friends. Val and I played together in the nursery of St Luke’s Church in Erie, Pennsylvania alongside our mothers who attended mass there. Jody moved into my childhood neighborhood when she was two, and I was three. These two women are both brilliant, yet so interestingly opposite in nature that I transplanted them into my adult neighborhood. They remain the greatest of friends from afar. I love them both.

All other friend characters, from Carol and Carolyn to Doctor Jim, are real except for Evy and Ellie (who are the culmination of all my friends), and Janice Everglade (whom I hope I never meet). Reah and Natasha are not the real names of the two friends who broke my heart. Our parting was exaggerated for interest, but I do still struggle over the loss of their friendship. I have come to realize we were friends at a time when we needed each other most. I must trust God’s wisdom, wish them the best in life, and carry on.

One final note, I am truly a girl’s girl and wonderfully blessed with great friends. The one thing I am sure of in life is that the friends I do have would move bodies for me—and I, for them.   

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

The Truth About Forever

Name:                               The Truth About Forever

Author:                              Sarah Dessen

Rating:                              9.5

General Rating:               A perfectly sweet book to make you forget the pandemic.  It ranks as one of my favorite YA books.

Skip factor:        >1% I barely skipped anything. A few times I was so engrossed in the story I speed-read through several paragraphs to find out what would happen. I couldn’t wait to see what was around the bend.

Who should read:           Women, young and old. This is clean and appropriate for any age. Young girls will identify with the main character, and older women will fondly remember days past.

Summary:          No spoilers. This is the story of a high school girl, Macy, whose perfect suburban world is suddenly tainted by the death of her father. She is the youngest of two children and while her older sister is a bit wild and outspoken, Macy is quiet, smart, and sensible. She was close to her dad and after his death, she folds inside herself and tries to become the perfect daughter for her mother. She has a relationship with an intelligent boy, who is driven by his life’s career goals. When he goes away for the summer to “brain camp,” Macy’s mother hires a catering service for an event, and Macy becomes enamored by the owner, Delia, and her employees. She begins working for Delia and hanging around with some of the workers, in particular, a boy named Wes. Macy’s mother believes this is the “wrong” crowd for Macy. But is it? This is a lovely story about life and growing up.

Characters:        Dessen creates simple characters, some who immediately win you over, and some who take the normal route of progression and capture your heart over time. I loved most—actually—all of them. Helplessly. I was a quarter through the book before I realized certain characters brought a smile to my face every time they walked onto a page.

Here they are in the order I liked them:

Kristy – My favorite character had a scar on her face that never inhibited her. The personality Dessen creates in Kristy is clever and vivacious. She has an extraordinary attitude and is witty. Her take on life will make you smile.

Wes– He’s cute and doesn’t know it, a talented artist and doesn’t flaunt it, and he is unimpressed with the scads of girls who “swoon” over him. Unrealistic, I know. But despite his impeccably perfect personality that seems unlikely, his simple nature has you loving him almost the moment he appears. Dessen is that good.

Macy – Macy is the type of character you want to pull out of the book and wrap your arms around. She is quiet, kind, and never speaks her mind. She is painstakingly shy, even afraid to show anger toward her mother. I routed for her from the beginning.

Minor characters – I liked the minor characters more in this book than any other novel I’ve read.

Delia – Delia is my favorite minor character. She owns the catering business. An old soul with a good grasp on life, Delia lacks the organizing skills of a normal business owner. Still, somehow, things always work out for Delia in the end. She is positivity, kindness, and chaos wrapped in one. If her charm doesn’t make you love her, her pregnancy will. She’s the perfect minor character who jumps in, flaws and all, with a perfect splash.

Caroline – Macy’s sister flits in and out. Macy mentions her “sneaking out” as a teenager so the reader gets the impression, she is a bit wild. For me, I wasn’t sure about her at first, but when she reappeared later in the book, I loved her. You see Caroline from Macy’s perspective only, which is how it should be. However pulling this off is sometimes hard for an author. Not Dessen. Caroline is one character (as is the mother) whom I learned to love over time.

Monica – This is the sister of my favorite character, Kristy. So how could Dessen make her stand out when Kristy has such a magnanimous personality? Dessen made her painfully laid back—the total opposite of Kristy. People could barely get more than an uh-huh or umm from her. It worked. I loved Monaco, too. When she finally spoke, I felt like applauding.

Bert – Brother of Wes is a nerd. He has a silly little game that he plays with his older brother, is forever awkward, and is enamored by some Sci-fi group waiting for the world to end. He adds flavor to the story. You’ll be saying, “oh boy, here he comes.”  AND. He makes you like his big brother, Wes, even more for putting up with and loving him.

The mother – You see Macy’s Mom through Macy’s eyes. She, too, evolves throughout the book, adding an unusual, almost silent, side-story to the coming-of-age plot. The woman has lost her husband and Macy doesn’t quite understand her. The mother doesn’t understand herself. She progresses in the background until she finds her own truth.

Storyline:            There are no slow parts. This story flows, page after page, flawlessly. Even the middle, which I usually struggle with, kept my attention. This is an old story dressed up by unique minor characters. Not my usual genre, but I loved.

Writing:              Dessen’s writing is superb. Not much else to say. Her plot and characters keep your attention. This is the first novel I’ve read by this author and honestly, I googled her to find out where she went to school. How she learned to write so well.

Read this author again? Yes. Three-fourths of the way through this book, I realized I would be done soon, panicked, and took out another Dessen book from my library online. I can’t afford to buy them all!

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.