The Shadow Box by Luanne Rice

Rating:                              9

General Rating:  A mystery that captures your attention in the beginning.

Skip factor: I skipped 5%, possibly a bit more, in the last third of the novel.

Who should read:  Anyone who enjoys mystery novels or books about the greed of the wealthy.

Summary:  On the day of artist Claire Beaudry Chase’s art exhibit, someone attacks her and hangs her in the garage of her home, leaving her for dead. But when the board she is strung from breaks, and she wakes up on the floor, the reader slips inside her head and hears her thoughts. Griffin Chase, her husband, is running for governor and has the backing of their entire community—the wealthy, police force, everyone. The man who struck and tied her from the rafter wore a mask. Could it have been her husband?

She crawls out of the garage, meanders through the woods, and falls asleep at a cabin she knows from childhood. There, more of Claire’s thoughts are sporadically revealed to the reader about Griffin and the people who have a hand in backing him for governor. Who can she trust?

Years before, Griffin’s girlfriend, Ellen, died suspiciously. Now Claire has disappeared. Is he a murderer and if so will he get away with it? Or will someone find the clues of Ellen’s death in Claire’s shadow box art exhibit?

Characters:  This author has a true gift for character development—of both those loved and of those a reader loves to hate. Her opening has readers pulling for Claire immediately. I’m not spoiling the story by saying, equally, readers do not like her husband. The main investigator, too, catches a reader by surprise. You want to like him. Can you? And while there are a plethora of other characters, the story will have you guessing who are the good guys and who are the bad.

Storyline:  The representation of the upper class seemed realistic and interesting. Beginning with a murder attempt will keep readers turning pages throughout. The unfolding of the story, a woman who cheats death and hides away to mend and then revenge herself, is grabbing. There are some surprises in the last third of the book and while I usually like surprises, a few twists and turns seemed a bit unrealistic.

Writing:  The first half of this book reads like a bestseller. It was tremendous. A 9.5. The second half slowed but not enough to discourage me from reading. This book held my attention. If, like me, you are a fan of white space, you might skip some of those long paragraphs toward the end to get to the meat of the mystery.

Read this author again? Yes. This is my first Rice novel but it won’t be my last.

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 InstagramTwitterFacebook, GoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Open House by Katie Sise

Rating:                              9

General Rating: A fast-moving crime story about the disappearance of a college girl.

Skip factor:  1% I skipped very little.

Who should read:  Mystery and crime fiction lovers who enjoy novels that provide lots of suspects.

Summary: Katie is a medical student attending a school close to her hometown. Ten years earlier, her older sister, Emma, disappeared during a college party. Katie remains friends, somewhat, with her sister’s best friend, Josie.  When a hiker discovers a bracelet with Emma’s name on it in the area where she was last seen, the closed case is opened and a flood of the past rushes Katie.

Characters:  Oddly, I had to ask myself if I liked the characters to write this. The mystery of the story captured my attention from the beginning, and the clever way Sise introduced the characters had me suspecting everyone. It was a “Maybe it’s her. Oh, wait, maybe him. Oh, no. It has to be her. Or him,” sort of novel.

Katie is the medical student. Although this story is told from the perspective of several characters, Katie, Emma’s sister, is the main character and the most likable.

Josie was Emma’s best friend and roommate. I spent most of the novel trying to figure her out, which I loved. I never trusted Josie but couldn’t figure out if she was a good or bad person until well into the novel. Loved that.

Noah was Emma’s boyfriend at the time but is now married to Josie. I went back and forth about whether he was good or evil.

Brad is the bad teacher who is charismatic but untrusting. He had an affair with Emma. He is suspect right up front—almost too suspicious. But Sise constantly brings other guilty-looking characters in then leads back to Brad to keep you guessing.

Priya is Brad’s wife. She was pregnant with her son and engaged to Brad when Emma disappeared. Although seemingly too frail to commit murder, Priya takes medication for her nerves which quickly forces readers to check her off as a suspect, too.   

Minor Characters are introduced throughout. All add to the story.

Storyline: The is a typical disappearance story but written better than many. Sise introduces suspicious characters at exactly the right pace so as not to be confusing. She also infuses the past into the story smoothly, providing hints that slowly mount until the end. The storyline is believable. I found only a few questionable spots, one three-quarters of the way through and the other at the end. Generally, I couldn’t put it down. Any slow spots paled in comparison to the thrill of the read.

Writing:  Not too wordy and not overly descriptive, which I like. Sise engages readers by constantly pointing an accusatory finger at different characters, her writing clean. She jumps back and forth between POV in each chapter, adding Emma’s past story from ten years prior here and there. It works. As a reader, I wanted to figure out who the murderer was before Emma’s backstory revealed too much. Loved.

Read this author again? For sure. Already downloaded We Were Mothers.

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. See the video of Zahner’s inspiring paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here which inspired her Dream books. 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.

Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing by Allison Winn Scotch

Rating:           8

General Rating: Strong female characters win me over every time. They will you, too, in this insightful yet humorous story of a woman running for president.

Favorite line: “Emily shrugged as if, well, it was what it was so she became the full-time parent. Not because he was better at his job than she was, not because she was dying to pack lunches and fold laundry and run all the soccer carpools, but because in the default of the gender hierarchy, for some reason, the man’s needs came first.”

Skip factor:  2%. Maybe? I skipped little.

Who should read:  Feminists, single mothers, politically-aspired, or career-driven women. (Have I missed any women? If I have, add them, too.)   

Summary: Senator Cleo McDougal’s parents died when she was young, but before her father passed, he inspired her to keep a list of regrets—so she could learn from her mistakes. Now she is a contender for a presidential nomination, and when an estranged high school friend writes a damaging op-ed, Cleo must face some of the regrets on her list.

Cleo’s chief of staff, Gaby, detests Cleo admitting mistakes. But when she realizes Cleo has maintained a list of regrets all her life (thirty-nine years), Gaby decides surviving the op-ed and future revelations a presidential candidacy will evoke might fare better if Cleo makes amends with the high school friend—publicly. Though not completely sincere, Cleo’s public apology receives favorable feedback, and Gaby encourages her to address all of her regrets. Cleo explains she has over 200 on her list so they agree upon fixing ten, and the story cascades into the various situations that any woman, who has even the slightest of ambition, might face.   

Characters:  Scotch developed her characters into true-to-life people.  

Cleo is a single mother who is well-liked, hard-working, and competitive. She worked her way up the political ladder through sheer determination. I didn’t love her. I’m sure the author would not take offense. Cleo had a journey to make. She is the main character and, as in all novels, had a lesson to learn.   

Lucas – Is a typical fourteen-year-old with an atypical life. Through no fault of his own (isn’t everything a mother’s fault?), he is living within the political arena. To make matters worse, his birth father’s identity has been withheld from him. He floats in and out of the story adding to Cleo’s guilt load because, well, don’t all teenagers?

Gaby –  Is an intelligent, mostly loyal, feminist, and long-time friend of Cleo. She makes the hard decisions for her boss. Unlike Cleo, Gaby has a side fling going on which continually reminds Cleo that she does not.

Arianna – Is Cleo’s assistant. She is also a smart, hardworking woman (I love the strong female characters in this novel) but has one major drawback. She apologizes profusely, which adds much to Cleo’s story.

Georgie – Is Cleo’s much older sister whom she is not close to. Georgie comes in at the final hour to help.

The guys – Is it bad that I don’t remember much of them or care that I remember much about them? There is an important politician, Wolf, an ex-boyfriend, Matty, a biological father, Doug, and a newscaster, Bowen. Each is placed in the story to highlight the different standards applied to women in life as opposed to those expected of men.

Storyline:  This is the story of womanhood, the struggles they face today, the mistakes they make, the insecurities they have, and their ultimate strength and resilience. Cleo McDougal needed to learn a lesson. She had to accept her imperfectness. And while she may be a presidential candidate, everyday women, especially working mothers or single moms, can relate to her life. While society is hard on us, we are sometimes our hardest critics.   

Writing:  The writing was easy, interesting, and balanced. Just enough white space for someone like me who loves dialogue but not too much.

Read this author again? Absolutely.  

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 Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Rating:  4

General Rating:  Kidd amalgamates narrative and dialogue to perfection in this  touching tale of a motherless girl who runs away from an abusive father.

Skip factor:  1% I skipped little. The writing was just too good.

Who should read: All women, all ages.

Summary:  This is the story of Lily Owens who must come to terms with the death of her mother. Lily, abandoned by her mother for a short time before she died, remembers the day her mother returned—the same day her mother was shot and killed. Now Lily is a teenager, feeling confused and unloved. Raised by an abusive father, she finds some affection in Rosaleen, the African American woman whom her father hired shortly after her mother’s death. When Rosaleen attempts to register to vote, she finds trouble with white men and she and Lily end up in jail. Lily’s father, T. Ray, bails Lily out, but she returns and helps Rosaleen escape.

They flee to a town called Tiburon because one of the few items Lily had from her mother was a picture of a Black Madonna. Tiburon, South Carolina was inscribed on the back. Lily asks around Tiburon about the picture and ends up at the house of three African American sisters—the very house her mother had run to when she first left T. Ray and abandoned Lily. The story is of Lily’s time spent there and her journey to come to terms with her mother’s abandonment and death, and her feeling of being unworthy of love.

Characters:  I loved this book partially because of the strong female characters Kidd created. They are flawed but loving and strong. I like every single one, loved a few.

Here they are in the order I liked them:

August – The strongest of the African American sisters, August has a deep understanding of life. She is a beekeeper and teaches Lily the craft of collecting honey from bees. August knew Lily’s mother, but she understands when and how to relay pieces of information to the girl. She is an old soul, and I came away wishing I had an August in my own life.

Lily – Kudos to the author in the creation of Lily. It took some time for me to like Lily. Raised by T. Ray, who never showed her affection or love, she herself was lacking in these elements. She had a flat personality that slowly came out through the novel, making the story real to me.

Rosaleen – Lily’s caregiver was also a hard character to figure out, although I liked her gumption right away. She’s enamored by the thought of registering to vote, and spits at prejudiced white men who insult her with no regard for what they would do to her. She’s tough. But because of that toughness, Lily often wonders if Rosaleen loves her.

May – Another of the three sisters is May, who brightened the story with her unique personality. Her twin sister died years before and left her in a nervous state. To calm her anxiety, her sisters encouraged her to write her fears/anxieties down and in doing so, they created a wailing wall for her made of stone. Every time May had an episode, she led was led off to leave a note in her wall.

June – The third sister, June, does not initially get along with Lily. She also has a beau who keeps proposing to her despite she constantly turns him down. June has a journey to make on her own. I enjoyed this character, too—another strong woman.

Minor characters – Kidd successfully had me liking minor characters (like Zach) and hating the bigots.

Storyline:  This is not a fast-paced, page-turning novel. It is contemplative—simple language with deep meaning. The story flows, and I found myself looking forward to reading more.

Writing:  Lots of white space makes me happy and this book, while having much narrative, never labored on. Paragraphs were short, clean, and interesting, so I never realized when there wasn’t dialogue for several pages. She writes simply and profoundly throughout. Like this: “I filled a bowl with Rice Krispies and milk, trying to think over the snap-crackle conversation it was having with itself.” And “…people can start out one way, and by the time life gets through with them they end up completely different.”

Read this author again? Absolutely.  

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 InstagramTwitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

 

Educated by Tara Westover

Name:      Educated
Author:    Tara Westover
Rating:     4.5    This book challenged me. Yet, once I got past the Westover’s junkyard and herbal world, I was mesmerized by Tara’s journey.

Skip factor: 8%    At around 30% I called a friend and asked if the story improved. I did not like the junkyard or herbal lore at all. However, I hung in there and once I worked through that beginning section, I couldn’t put it down.

Who should read? Deep-thinkers, people inspired by education, hard-workers who themselves have risen out of poverty, and lovers of the English language—young and old.

Summary: This is the memoir of Tara Westover, the seventh and youngest child of Val and LaRee Westover. She was born in her childhood home which sat on the side of a mountain in Provo, Utah. The month of her birth was September of 1986, but the actual date is unknown. Her birth was unrecorded, as were most of her sibling’s births. She grew up in a Mormon family littered with racism and anti-Semitism. She worked in her father’s junkyard for much of her youth and often encountered dangerous, life-threatening tasks at his direction. She had no formal education until she was seventeen years old and received no home-schooling from her family. Her mother was well-versed in and revered for her herbal remedies and mid-wife expertise. Her father, along with her older brother Shawn, suffered mental illness and Tara and her siblings were often abused.

This is the story of a young girl’s metamorphosis, her rise from the ashes of her parent’s scrapheap despite all odds. Her father believed the end of the world was imminent and the government against him. His mental illness led to many hardships over the years, for not only him but his wife and children as well.

Inspired by a brother who left the family to attend college, she accepted a friend’s offer to teach her to read. She enrolled in college against all odds and was forced to choose between her family and her education. Despite her passion to learn and the education she eventually received, her mind sometimes led her back to the rudimentary fundamentalist viewpoint of her father, making her question much throughout her educational journey. She had never even heard of the holocaust until she was in college.

Characters: Lots of great books have unlikeable characters, and while I found myself rooting for Tara throughout the book, I wasn’t in love with any of the characters. I was shocked by many. Disgusted with others. Westover created very “real” people, but many confound me. I was baffled by them more than like them. Yet, they interested me. The characters that stood out the most to me were:

Tara: Of course, I rooted for her all the way, but I never felt close to her. She had an aloofness about her. Because of her upbringing, her personality held a protective emotional shield that prevented people from knowing her well—even, to some degree, her readers. Simply, I couldn’t get close.
Her mother: Simply put, I did not like her for the fact she sided with her husband, who had mental challenges, over her children. Period.
Her father: I couldn’t understand and felt no compassion for him whatsoever. Lots of people have a mental illness, but they are not as evil as this man. He hid his sins behind religion.
Shawn: The abusive brother I felt differently about. Although I adamantly disliked him at times for the pain he caused family members and women, every once in a while you’d see a spark of kindness. Confusing, as the results of mental illness can be.
Minor characters I liked: Brothers Richard and Tyler were compassionate. I was fond of both of them along with Tara’s Grandmother who offered to take her to Arizona and enroll her in school. I felt disappointed Tara didn’t leave with her. Just that she offered made me like her.
Other minor characters: I wasn’t drawn to any others, not one. (And especially not to her only sister, Audrey, who in the end hurt rather than helped her.) Because many of the minor characters were introduced to me through Tara’s eyes, they seemed impersonal. Toward the end of the novel, a softness seemed to develop in Westover. She looked at later roommates and people more compassionately, seemingly letting her guard down and consequently, I liked those characters a bit more.

Storyline: The story does come across as a bit unbelieve. I did read several online articles that stated fact-finding had been extensive. That the author herself included footnotes when her memory differed from one of her siblings, gave credibility to her story. That there is a Tara Westover, who was born without record, attended college, completed her master and doctorate degrees in England, further substantiates her story—at least in my mind it does. I’ll let the rest of you decide for yourselves.

Writing style: This woman’s writing is exquisite. Not much more to say. That she rose out of such poverty to champion the English language is remarkable.

Read this author again: Maybe. I’m not often fond of non-fiction, but Westover’s writing is superb, so I may attempt another.

Read on!
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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, and Dream Wide Awake and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a paranormal element. 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 Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.