The House Across the Lake

By Riley Sager

Wow, this one sure took a turn. I thought it was one kind of book, and then it turned into another!

It is a dual-timeline story. In the “Before”, We meet Casey who is staying by herself in her family cottage on Lake Greene in Vermont. She is a well-known stage actress, who is recovering from the tragic drowning death of her beloved husband, a successful screenwriter, which took place at the same lake. She was fired from her last gig because of her drunken behavior and the ensuing bad press. She had been in despair since her husband died and has continued with her heavy drinking. The lake is very secluded, and her only neighbors are few. There is the newcomer Boone, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic whose own wife died a while back. Directly across the lake are the Royces, who live in a modern house with lots of windows. He is a successful tech entrepreneur and she is a famous model. Next door to them is 70-year-old Eli, a longtime resident and family friend. He is the one who keeps her in alcohol (why?). Casey spends her days on her deck with a pair of binoculars surveying the lake, watching the doings of the Royces across the water, and drinking to excess. She really likes Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. One day, she sees someone struggling in the water, rows out, and ends up saving Katherine Royce’s life. They become friendly. The more she gets to know Katherine and the more she guiltily continues to spy on them with her binoculars, the more concerned she gets for her friend’s well-being. Then one day, Katherine disappears. Meanwhile, she has gotten to know Boone, who has reason to have the same concerns about Katherine’s welfare. They team up together to investigate and hopefully find Katherine, or at least find out what happened to her.

Interspersed are the “Now” sections, in which it becomes clear that Casey has someone secretly imprisoned and tied down in one of her upstairs bedrooms and is trying to force them into revealing what became of her friend. Sometime between “Before” and “Now”, the police have become involved.

Right about in the middle of this book, I thought I had the twist figured out. Since I was so smart, my sense of urgency to turn the pages faded a bit. It was still a very well-written book, and there were still other mysteries to uncover, so I continued with it happily. I was invested in the fates of Katherine and Casey, despite Casey’s constant drunkenness, which got on my nerves. I feel there were way too many references to her struggles with alcohol. Especially when Katherine’s fate, if she wasn’t already dead, may have depended on Casey’s ability to think and function. She was consuming so much booze that I honestly didn’t see how she could get out of bed every day. She was so committed to helping Katherine (if it wasn’t too late,) that her prioritizing drinking over even trying to remain lucid didn’t make sense and was frustrating. I felt this aspect of Casey really wasn’t even necessary and has become a cliche for the genre, so it brought the book down a bit for me.

I had one small sliver of the twist correct, but nothing could have prepared me for the full truth of what was going on with the Royces, and unnamed others. After the first twist, the shocks continue to come thick and fast. Some were so incredible, that I had to look back and review to make sure the author had played fair and didn’t lie to us. But he did play fair. I could see no plot holes. I did have a few questions at the end, but the author did a great job of tying everything together. So great that I was willing to ignore some aspects.

This book is a wild ride, and part of Sager’s talent is getting the reader, me anyway, to be willing to jump on the crazy train and hang on.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Garden Spells

By Sarah Addison Allen

“Business was doing well, because all the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tea cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise… The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms, and rose-hip soup …Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies… dip made from hyacinth bulbs… the salads made with chicory and mint.

At the 60% mark, I decided I was done. I quickly skipped through to the end. I’m just a nacho and pizza type of gal at heart.

I guess magical realism just isn’t for me. Neither is self-consciously lush simile-laden prose. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I wasn’t that interested in the characters and there really wasn’t much of a plot. The concept was intriguing, but in the end, it was all about the magic, and it just wasn’t enough for me. Too much form and too little substance, maybe? The one aspect I was kind of anticipating and why I wanted to skip through and not just quit was a big dramatic showdown between the two Clark women, Sydney, and Hunter, and some conflict resolution. But after all the buildup and time spent on that aspect, it just didn’t materialize. After Emma had a breakthrough did the right thing it was by an answering machine message that was not even listened to. So that just spluttered to an end. Like the dreaded arrival of Sydney’s abusive ex.
Gorgeous cover though.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

January 21, 2022

The Book Charmer

by Karen Hawkins

Jane, a softhearted child who loved animals, cried at the thought of all the thirsty farm animals. As her tears fell, clouds gathered, and it began to rain. From then on, every time Jane cried, it rained. It was said that whenever local farmers wanted it to rain, they would bring Jane onions. And when they wanted sunshine, they brought her cake.

(From page 1)

I loved the way this book began! It had a whimsical fairytale-like aura that was charming. After a few pages, I was hooked. In 2001, The eccentric youngest of 7 daughters who loves the library discovers a grouchy old 18th-century book about the history of her town that is demanding she read it. Literally. I loved the way she just took this in stride and even would not let the book boss her around. There was even a promise of future romance in an exchange with an awkward schoolmate who overhears her answering back to the book. And it turns out that at least some of her sisters also have special powers. I was thinking “Oh, Great! more to come once the intriguing Sarah’s story is told!–Lot’s of possibilities!” Then we meet Grace, a hostile young girl, seeming unrelated, trapped in the foster system whose only care is protecting her beloved and beautiful younger sister. She is finally taken in by her “last chance”: a feisty, wise, no-nonsense woman who strangely seems to take to her, instead of her pretty and seemingly sweet sister. This was all in the prologue.

Unfortunately, starting in Chapter 1 when we meet them again as adults, it started to go downhill. Grace turns out to have made a successful career as a financial advisor, her spoiled sister is dead, and she has become the ersatz parent of her 8-year-old niece as well as the parent of her parent, “Mama G”, who has Alzheimer’s. The depiction of that tragic disease and its effect on the victim and their family was handled beautifully. Not so the depiction of the 8-year-old girl, who acted more like a difficult teenager. Instead of feeling sympathy and caring about Grace’s growth from an angry closed off sour old biddy, I just didn’t like her. Plus, she is not an old biddy, she is only around 25 years old. That just didn’t track with me. Actually, how she overcame her difficult childhood with the help of Mama G would have been an involving journey. But I still liked and was interested in Sarah. Unfortunately, she devolved into a side character and her “book charmer” capabilities were only a sidelight and a catalyst to Grace’s story.

At about a third of the way through the book, it got very slow and dull. And though I kept reading, it lost me. And the reason was the writing. The author kept circling back and going over old territory without doing much to advance the plot and deepen the character development. It’s as if she was circling back to ensure understanding like she was a 4th-grade teacher whose class is not keeping up. We got it the first time, Karen Hawkins: Grace has a lot of anger, She does not want to be friends with anyone, Daisy is struggling, Sarah is nice and wants to be friends because she believes Grace is the key to saving the town. Travis is hot, a good guy, damaged, and he and Grace are fighting their mutual attraction but are meant to be, even though Grace is determined to move back to Charlotte.


It picked up a bit when Grace unraveled the town’s neglect of finances, took the negligent townspeople by the scruffs of their necks, and reconstituted the beloved Apple Festival to revitalize the town. She also did a 180 personality-wise. After all the turmoil and hurt feelings she is turned around after a short conversation with Kat, the local femme fatale. After the build-up to the all-important festival which took over more than half the book, we don’t even get to go! She skipped right over it! I was also grateful (yes, grateful) that we didn’t get any more of Grace’s determination to leave town once her neighbors saved Mama G’s life, made Daisy a nice little girl, and brought her love and friendship. **end spoiler**

I won’t go into the idyllic southern town where black people go to the same 2 churches as their white friends. And a prominent character, Zoe, looks like a “black Audrey Hepburn” whose family owns the bank and is so powerful and popular that the Mayor lives in fear that she will run for office because she would win in a landslide. The other black person that we get to know a little is Aunt Jo who has a dog named “Moon Pie”. I’m just not going to go there. I looked up Karen Hawkins’ biography because I was sure she had never been within two states of the South. I guess Tennesee is really different? I liked the magical realism when it popped up from time to time, but I’m not sure feeding into this kind of fantasy of what it is like in small-town southern America is helpful. It would be wonderful, but unfortunately not remotely recognizable.**a rounded up 3 stars**

Rating: 3 out of 5.

December 16, 2021

Five More Minutes

No Beer, Trucks, Guns, or Jesus

I approached this one with a lot of misgiving. I mean, a story based on a country song? By Scotty McCreery? But to my surprise, it was pretty good. Nikki Deloach, who is good as always, is a dedicated Art teacher who is losing her job and is having doubts about her relationship with her boyfriend. She wishes she could have just five more minutes with her beloved late Grandpa who always gave her great advice.

When she goes home to celebrate Christmas(?) Thanksgiving (?) I don’t remember, she finds a journal written by Grandpa when he was a young man detailing his first lost love.  She gets together with an old ex-boyfriend, and they decide to try to find her. Or was that another movie, Christmas Together with You?  They’re already starting to run together a bit. At the same time, a young man shows up for a job at her store because he said her grandpa was going to hire him. He turns out to be a wonder and is the best employee ever. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that something spooky is going on. There are lots of clues, which I’ll keep to myself.

Sherry Miller plays Bonnie, Clara’s mom, who lost her husband about a year ago. She looks great. I always think of the actress with fondness because she was in one of my favorite TV romcoms, This Matter of Marriage, back in the late ‘90s when she was a young whippersnapper. Highly recommend. She has her own romance along with her daughter finding love with her ex, Logan, and dumping her current beau. I liked that Bonnie did not approve of the ex, who behaved badly dumping Clara when they were teens, and kept giving him the stink-eye. She came around though.

There were a couple of things I did not like. Despite both Clara and Logan being established as Hallmark paragons of niceness, they both behaved badly. Logan kept putting the moves on Clara even after she said she had a boyfriend. And Clara totally dumped Logan and canceled an invitation for the family-less guy to spend Thanksgiving (?) Christmas (?) with her family just because he was called back to active duty. This was really low behavior and hardly patriotic or compassionate. Also contrary to the Hallmark ethos.  The third thing I didn’t like was the under-use of Leanne Lapp who played Clara’s sister and a favorite of mine.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

December 22, 2021

Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-and Couldn’t

By Steve Volk

“We are, as a species, neurologically uncomfortable with ambiguity. Imaging studies of the human brain in action demonstrate that the fussy little onboard computers in our skulls send out anxiety messages when confronted by conflicting or confusing information. As a consequence, we have a natural, internal impetus to settle on an interpretation that removes any perceived conflict.”

“When someone advances an idea inconsistent with our own worldview, we don’t just disagree—we start painting a mental picture of the person we oppose as somehow deficient, all higgledy-piggledy in the temporal lobes, perhaps, or just an outright villain.”

The most eye-opening thing about this book is its well-supported position that scientists, skeptics, and atheists can be just as pig-headed and closed-minded and irrational as believers in religion or the paranormal. When faced with evidence of the paranormal or, perish the thought, that some things are beyond human know-ability, they react as fearfully and defensively as those on the other extreme. I learned a lot from this book, most of all that atheists and skeptics have no call to put themselves on some kind of intellectual high ground.

I found the author very even-handed in balancing his book between support for reasons to believe in paranormal activity, and support for reasons to be skeptical. Particularly compelling is his story of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her quite tragic end. Hers is a cautionary tale. But she also cannot just be dismissed by skeptics. The section on lucid dreaming was of particular interest to me. He concludes the book with a personal account of his own which happened in a house he lived in when he was a kid. It’s good he saved it until the end once he had demonstrated his level-headedness!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

August 20, 2013

Suspense and Sensibility: Or, First Impressions Revisited (Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mysteries, #2)

by Carrie Bebris

I’m a sucker for anything based on Jane Austen if it is well done. And sometimes when it is not. This is evidenced by the fact that I’ve read all of these Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries, though this is the only one I have actually written anything on. It starts off pretty well; the characters seemed pretty true to the originals, though Kitty is given a more positive spin. It is an improvement over Pride and Prescience. I actually chuckled a few times. Sadly, it degenerates pretty quickly once the mystery kicks in. Unfortunately, it is another paranormal mystery and it is positively outlandish. It was nice to see the Dashwood women again. Lucy Ferrars nee Steele starts out true to form, but her ultimate fate is positively ludicrous and cringe-worthy. The resolution has some tragic aspects considering the fluffy way it starts out. I was considerably less patient with the rest in the series, just skipping through the mystery part. I remember looking forward to more of Georgiana as she was pretty intriguing, and also an appearance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unfortunately, I do not remember anything about any of the other stories, which I guess is a review of the whole series in and of itself.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

September 15, 2014

My Best Friend’s Exorcism

By Grady Hendrix

“The devil is loud and brash and full of drama. God, he’s like a sparrow.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about the friendship and loyalty of Abby towards Gretchen. Of course Gretchen was Abby’s friend too, as we see especially in the concluding pages, but for almost half of the book, Gretchen wasn’t there. She’d been replaced.
I loved the humor in the face of the horrific. Not especially the gross details of some of the fates of the teens involved and of course the possession and exorcism, but really the uselessness and terrible behavior of the adults. That was the scariest evil in this book.

“Families like that don’t listen to other people,” Mrs. Rivers said. “You get in the middle of whatever this is and you’ll be giving them an excuse to blame you for everything.”

Mrs. Rivers, Abby’s mother, was not a good parent and was a bitter person although not without good reason. But she was right in all of her observations. Her portrayal was fascinating and unpredictable. One of many gripping characterizations in the book.

Of course, some of the events just could not have played out the way they did for real. When confronted by the sights and smells and devastation that Gretchen’s possession caused, including what happened to one friend in particular, surely at least one parent, teacher, doctor, law enforcement, or clergyperson, would have stepped in, Like in The Exorcist. Denial caused by cognitive dissonance can only continue to a certain point. But that would have defeated the purpose of the book, I guess.

Someone had to do something. Someone had to say something. Teachers weren’t doing it. Her mom wasn’t going to do it. The Langs wouldn’t do it. That left Abby.

This was a real page-turner and one which was emotionally satisfying as well.

P.S. As I always do, I went on Google Earth to find some of the stomping grounds of the characters. Amazingly, Gretchen’s street not only exists, but her exact house is right there too. As are all of the other locations as well. I loved that authenticity.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

May 20, 2020

Just One Damned Thing After Another (Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1)

By Jodi Taylor

I wasn’t all that blown away by this. Considering the enthusiastic reviews, and how much I loved The Nothing Girl, I was disappointed. It’s a great idea, but I think she bit off more than she could chew. A select group is tasked with observing and documenting pivotal events in history. They are sent back in time after extensive training. It is a very high concept intriguing plot line, but like many reviewers, I thought the many many characters were just sketched in and I didn’t feel like I knew them, so I wasn’t invested enough. I will probably try another in the series, because I have reason to believe her writing might improve as she writes more books.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

August 4, 2017

The Nothing Girl

By Jodi Taylor

“Jenny, I’m so sorry. I think I may have encouraged you to marry a madman.’ ‘Yes, we’re going to be discussing this later. Oh.”

In reading The Nothing Girl, I have discovered a fresh funny voice in relationship fiction. And heaven be praised! She has a back list! I already had The first volume of The Chronicles of Saint Marys on my Kindle for some reason, and, to my surprise and excitement, she has written a sequel to The Nothing Girl, which I quickly bought as well. Hopefully she will fulfill the promise of the first book I read by her. I laughed, I cheered, I cried, I sighed in satisfaction.

I always thought donkeys said, ‘Hee-haw.’ That’s how you always see it written. Nice and neat. And brief. Hee-haw. Wrong. Our donkey goes: ‘EEEEEEEAAAAAWWWOOOOAARGGHHH,’ pauses briefly for the echoes to die away and then continues with: ‘EEEEEEEEEAAAAAWWWWWEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAWWWWWOOOOORRR. And it was loud. Good God, was it loud. Birds fell from the trees. The windows rattled. A low-flying jet did a quick U-turn and returned to base….

Rating: 5 out of 5.

July 25, 2017

The Sherwood Ring

By Elizabeth Marie Pope

“A gentleman can hardly continue to sit,’ he explained, in his serenest and most level voice, ‘when he asks a very remarkable young lady to do him the honor of marrying him. And – ‘he somehow contrived to grin at me wickedly, ‘I usually get what I want, Miss Grahame,’ he added, and pitched over in a tangled heap on the floor.”

This was a lovely light read involving friendly helpful ghosts and 3 charming love stories. I would have been so captivated had I read this as a young teen. I was pretty captivated as an adult. I would recommend this for any romantic teen who loves innocent love stories and history. Peaceable Sherwood was a wonderful character who provided a good portion of the gentle humor in this tale. He reminded me of Geoffrey Delavale in Patricia Veryan’s Journey to Enchantment

Rating: 4 out of 5.

September 27, 2019