The Visitors

The Visitors

The Visitors by Catherine Burns (Literary Fiction, Thriller)

For all of her life, Marion has been the object of ridicule from her peers, her older brother, John, and her highly opinionated mother. Now a spinster in her 50s, she lives with John in the big old house where they grew up. Timid and out of touch with the world, she stays in the house and does her best not to irritate John. But John keeps “visitors” in the cellar, and while Marion manages to put them out of her mind most of the time, she can’t ignore them forever, especially when John becomes disabled and she’s the one who must take care of them.

This debut novel is less of a thriller and more of a chilling character study, with its creepiness coming from the fact that basically “invisible” people like Marion and John could be your neighbors just down the block. I was immediately drawn into Marion’s world where her dead mother’s haughty voice continues to regale her with judgmental observations, and strangers who show Marion the most basic kindness populate her daydreams of having normal relationships and a meaningful life. Then there are the occasional references to the visitors in the cellar, the backward glances at pivotal incidents in her painful childhood, and her daily ups and downs as the slovenly, not-so-bright woman living in the decrepit mansion with her creepy bachelor brother. Together they add up to a story that brings Marion to life. I came to like her and feel for her and couldn’t help but wonder how she would cope with the visitors in the cellar, when that time came.

The reader sees everything through Marion’s eyes and Marion’s way of thinking, and it’s a fascinating journey. While what’s going on in the cellar may seem potentially off-putting, it’s handled well and does not become the focus of the tale. Instead, we’re with Marion as she melds her past and present in an effort to create her own future. And, of course, to take care of the visitors.

Grandma gives The Visitors five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Visitors will be released on September 26, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

The Art of Hiding

The Art of Hiding

The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse (Women’s Contemporary Fiction)

The missing husband with a deep, dark secret and a clueless wife has become a familiar trope in women’s contemporary fiction. (See The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall.)

Something terrible takes the husband out of the picture — be it death, a trip from which he never returns, or accusation of a heinous crime. The wife, accustomed to an idyllic life of upper class ease and opulence, is suddenly faced with harsh reality: she has been married for decades to a man she doesn’t really know. To make matters worse, their finances — of which she has always remained blissfully ignorant — are a mess. Her high-society friends turn their backs.  Now, fraught with anger and disillusionment, she must struggle to remake her life, come to terms with his deceptive behavior, and figure out why he did this to her and the kids. At the same time, she mourns his loss and must protect her children from the truth about their father so as not to taint his memory.

In The Art of Hiding, Nina is a socially stunted stay-at-home British mom who has always let her husband, Finn, take care of everything. When Finn dies in a fatal single-car accident, she learns they are penniless; his formerly thriving construction business has gone belly up, and she never knew. He owes an exorbitant amount of money to creditors, and every family possession, except for the clothes on their backs, is being taken by court order — the huge house in a posh neighborhood, all of its expensive contents, their luxury car. Nina’s two boys can no longer go to their expensive private school, and they are not welcome in the homes of their former friends. Her sister, Tiggy, from whom she has become estranged, comes to help, even though she has always disapproved of Finn’s influence on Nina.

Thrown out on the street, with no car and no work experience, Nina is an emotional, incompetent mess. She has no skills; she has lived her entire adult life within her husband’s shadow, letting him take responsibility for everything. She’s in tears a lot, and she’s at loose ends, afraid of trying anything. Her teen-aged son is understandably sullen and angry; her pre-teen son is more resilient and forgiving. For much of the book, we watch them struggle until finally Nina gets a job, and the family comes to terms with its new life.

The story is told solely from the point of view of Nina, and, to be honest, I skimmed much of the middle while she languishes in grief and confusion. I found myself less than sympathetic to her dilemma. We’re shown glimpses of her sad, somewhat abusive childhood, but instead of making her tough and self-sufficient like her sister, it apparently left her eager to let someone else take care of her. Her total lack of awareness regarding her husband’s stress-filled, apparently suicide-inducing daily existence seemed unrealistic. The one character I truly enjoyed was Tiggy.  I didn’t know the boys well enough to have more than a cursory interest in their story’s outcome, and I was pretty sure what it would be anyway.

The writing, for me, was uninspired and at times, the dialogue seemed stilted and unnatural.

Grandma gives The Art of Hiding three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Art of Hiding will be released on August 22, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

The Best Kind of People

The Best Kind of People

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall (Women’s Contemporary Fiction)

The missing husband with a deep, dark secret and a clueless wife has become a familiar trope in women’s contemporary fiction. (See The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse.)

Something terrible takes the husband out of the picture — be it death, a trip from which he never returns, or accusation of a heinous crime. The wife, accustomed to an idyllic life of upper class ease and opulence, is suddenly faced with harsh reality: she has been married for decades to a man she doesn’t really know. To make matters worse, their finances — of which she has always remained blissfully ignorant — are a mess. Her high-society friends turn their back. Now, fraught with anger and disillusionment, she must struggle to remake her life, come to terms with his deceptive behavior, and figure out why he did this to her and the kids. At the same time, she mourns his loss and must protect her children from the truth about their father so as not to taint his memory.

The Best Kind of People is just such a book. Joan is a trauma nurse with a long career in emergency medicine. Her husband, George, is a highly respected teacher who, years before, tackled a school shooter and kept tragedy from occurring at the elite private school where he teaches and his daughter is a junior. Now, however, he has been accused by students of inappropriate behavior and attempted rape. He’s arrested and imprisoned without bail, and, in an instant, he goes from town hero to villain. Neighbors and co-workers turn against Joan, her daughter, and her grown son. Her sister, Clara, from whom she has become estranged, comes from New York City to help, even though Clara has never been a fan of George. Joan soon learns that family money she thought she could fall back on in George’s absence is mysteriously missing from his personal account.

The story is told from the points of view of several key characters other than George, and it kept my attention from the get-go. Each character became a real person to me — realistically flawed, likeable, plausible. Their reactions to the charges against their husband/father/brother-in-law are believable and understandable. Their lives drastically change over the year it takes for George to come to trial — their personal relationships suffer, they do questionable things and make mistakes, they experience a range of evolving emotions. Through it all, even as more damning evidence surfaces, George swears he’s been set up, so an element of mystery remains — did he do it or didn’t he? I found my own feelings about the case changing over time. I knew how I wanted the trial to come out, and I kept reading, wanting to know the answer because I wanted to know how each family member would ultimately fare.

The ending, frankly, was a disappointment; it felt like the author took the easy way out.

Grandma gives The Best Kind of People three and a half stars. 3.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Best Kind of People will be released on September 19, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

 

The Rules of Magic

The Rules of Magic

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (Fantasy)

This is the prequel to Alice Hoffman’s novel Practical Magic, which was made into a very popular movie in 1998. As one who had no knowledge of either the novel or the movie prior to reading this book, however, I can attest that The Rules of Magic is a stand-alone story that needs no previous awareness of the Owens family or their house on Magnolia Street in order to be enjoyed.

In true Alice Hoffman style, the characters are engaging individuals who draw you into their unique world, quickly involve you in their lives, and make you want to know that they’re going to be okay. While one can tire of the tales of young people discovering their magical abilities, the Owens girls have always known they were different; witchcraft has been in their bloodline for centuries. They are used to being shunned by neighbors, whispered about in school, and finding themselves so buoyant while swimming that they can’t dive deep to save a loved one in danger of drowning. They do their best to hide their special abilities, whether it’s seeing the future, reading minds, or communing with birds, while trying to fit in with townspeople who simultaneously fear them and seek them out for magical remedies to their problems. They also must face the centuries-old curse that says loving someone means losing that person, sometimes tragically. Dare they love someone if it portends the beloved’s doom?

As a prequel to Practical Magic, this story begins in the 1960s, when sisters Jet and Franny are children living in New York City with their parents and younger brother, Vincent. Vincent — a rare wizard in a long line of witches — has his own approach to dealing with the curse, and the example he sets inspires his sisters to find their own courage. That’s not to say that all will go well, but what is living really about and when is fate just fate and no one’s fault?

Whether or not you knew of Jet and Franny before, The Rules of Magic will make them people you care about as they navigate their way through the complexities of life as Owens girls and as human beings.

Grandma gives The Rules of Magic five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Rules of Magic will be released on October 10, 2017 and is available for pre-order.

Maya: Thirty-Five Years & Three Continents in the Remarkable Life of Maya Sian

Maya

Maya: Thirty-Five Years & Three Continents in the Remarkable Life of Maya Sian
by Teren Hanz (Non-fiction)

I love it when a book combines a riveting story with immersion in another culture. Dew Angels was that sort of book, and so is Maya.

This true story begins with nineteen-year-old Maya, born and raised in India, attending college in the 1970s, working toward her dream of independence and self-sufficiency. Her parents, however, are traditional Sikhs, and when the opportunity for an arranged marriage suddenly presents itself, they commit her to an older man totally unknown to them or Maya. The marriage takes place within a week, giving neither her family nor Maya time to learn anything about the man, who is not the person they have been led to believe he is. What follows for her are years of psychological abuse and isolation in a dysfunctional marriage, life-threatening illnesses, and three children who are basically ignored by their maniacal father, even when their welfare is at stake.

What sustains her throughout is her own strength of character, her belief system, and her sense of duty. Eventually, she realizes that her husband will never change, and only she can make the decision to change the course of her life and the lives of her children. For a woman in her culture and circumstance, breaking with tradition takes incredible courage and is not without risk, but she finds the strength to do so. The last chapters of the book are her take on finding the power within and achieving inner peace in the face of tremendous adversity.

Grandma gives Maya five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Everything We Left Behind

Everything We Left Behind

Everything We Left Behind by Kerry Lonsdale (Suspense)

This is book two in a series that began with Everything We Keep. Unlike the first book, which was told from the perspective of Aimee, a young woman whose fiancé, James, was buried on what should have been their wedding day, this book is told from the perspectives of James and his alter-ego, Carlos, the personality who “replaced” James for six years due to a mental condition caused by trauma.

In book one, Aimee discovered that James was alive and well and living in Mexico as Carlos, with no memory of his pre-Carlos existence. In book two, the story-telling involves a re-emerged James in present day alternating with flashbacks to Carlos in the past and James in the past. Aimee makes a tiny appearance, but the focus is on present-day James’s angst over losing her, losing six years of his life, and gaining two traumatized young sons who suddenly have a stranger for a dad when James resurfaces and Carlos disappears. Can James be the father he should be to two children he doesn’t know? Should he try to win Aimee back after all this time, or should he let her be and try to make a new life for himself and his sons?

As in the first book, we have to contend with James’s highly unlikeable biological family, including his incarcerated brother, Phil, who is the product of incest between their mother and her brother. James’s abusive father has died, but we learn details about his nastiness, and we find out more about older brother Thomas who choreographed James’s disappearance and hid his survival from those who loved him. We also have Claire, the mother who treated James badly as a child, but once she learned of his existence as Carlos, traveled to Mexico to surreptitiously look after him as the benevolent neighbor he and his sons called Senora Carla. Now that he’s James again, how will that relationship work out?

Had I published a review for Everything We Keep, I would have given it three stars. At times it seemed too far-fetched to take seriously, plus I found myself annoyed by repetitive descriptions and phrasing; if Aimee dipped her chin one more time, I was going to scream. Everything We Left Behind has improved in those areas. However, the constant flipping back and forth between personalities and time periods became overwhelming so that I began skimming to move things along and get to the conclusion. The conclusion, as one might expect, left openings for book three, including the out-of-the-blue reappearance of a book one character who didn’t make sense then and made even less sense now.

As long as they don’t mind Aimee’s absence, readers who loved Everything We Keep will probably love this book, as it continues the saga of James/Carlos and his sister-in-law and answers the question of what happened to James six years before. Readers with no prior knowledge of James’s and Aimee’s situation, however, may have a harder time finding this tale compelling or suspenseful.

Grandma gives Everything We Left Behind three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Dark Designs

Dark Designs

Dark Designs by Stefanie Spangler (Urban Fantasy)

I have to admit, the first thing that drew me to this book was the cover. The second was the description – being a twin is always fun to think about when you’re not a twin, and I’d be okay with having some magic powers now and then.

Being urban fantasy, the story veers away from reality, which is what I expected, and that part was fine. The girls being twins, however, was never explored. They’re fraternal, not identical, which we don’t know early on because no description is given, even though the simple fact that Ivy is a redhead and Violet a brunette would have sufficed. We know Ivy is more reserved than Violet, but I never felt that I got to know either one very well, and there was no indication that their psychological connection was any different than my connection with either of my sisters. So much for the significance of twinness.

Each has magical powers to some degree, but they learn about their powers off-stage. We don’t know how they react to finding out they are different from their peers or how (or if) they hone their skills. Instead, the story abruptly jumps from the girls being clueless eight-year-olds to the day that Ivy comes home from college, back to the family farm that Violet now manages. We’ve had no opportunity to get to know them, to watch them grow in any way, and now they are adults about to be thrown into a magical dilemma.

Considering that this is a short novel, some fleshing out of the characters could have been done. Instead, we have the immediate jump into action with danger entering their lives, but since I hadn’t really become invested in the girls as people, it left me feeling detached. The author is in everyone’s head – both the good guys and the bad guys – so there is little opportunity to experience a whole lot of emotion with any one character or to learn more about someone through the eyes of a single person.

The story itself is entertaining; one always wants to know how the main characters are going to get out of a predicament. For the YA urban fantasy reader, this book delivers the good guys and the very scary bad guy, some magic, and a little budding romance. There are the young witches embarrassed by their unusual skills, the suspicious neighbors, and the disbelieving cops. There is some tension, some danger, and a creepy monster to give the reader the willies. And, for some reason, there is the angst of the missing mother who abandoned her twins in infancy without explanation. It does little to move the story along, however, and I have to wonder why it’s even in there, since no one actually makes any attempts to find out more and nothing changes regarding Mom.

One final point: the time jump from eight years old to college graduate would have made more immediate sense to the reader if Chapter One had been called a prologue. It sets the stage for the rest of the book and occurred more than a decade before the rest of the story. Ironically, the book does have an epilogue which didn’t feel significantly different enough to be an epilogue and could have simply been the final chapter. Unless, of course, it’s meant to portend Book Two.

Bella gives Dark Designs three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.