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Wondering what to read next?

Hello there, reader! If you've finished all of my books and are wondering what to read next, check out some of my favorite reads by clicking on the buttons below. I love sharing my favorite reads with the world, and while I read and listen to some books that don’t wow me, I choose not to review those.

xox,

Kristan

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Fiction

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Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

I’ve never read a book like this before! Jen and her husband, Kelly, have a blissful marriage and a great son, Todd. But one night, as Jen is staring out the window, she sees her seemingly happy son stab a stranger. What? Why? Who? The next morning, she awakes, and it’s the day of the murder…again. From this point on, every time Jen goes to sleep, she wakes up earlier in the week, the year, the decade. As she time-travels backward, she tries to find the event that turns her son from a sweet boy into a killer. Was it her mothering that lacked something? What about her husband and his reclusive ways? Is their marriage as lovely as she’s always thought? How did Todd know the man he stabbed?

 

Not only does Jen get to see the events that are relevant to the crime, she sees those moments when she might have done something different. The day her father died, for example, Now that she knows the date, would she do something different? The times she was too busy or preoccupied with her son…now she gets to be attentive and loving. It’s a fascinating premise with a twisty plot, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.

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When We Had Forever by Shaylin Gandhi

 

At 22, Mina meets Michael, a charismatic, gorgeous man who sweeps her off her feet. The ensuing romance is more than she could ever hope for…but there’s a side of Michael that’s closed tight. They love each other, but real life invades their happy bubble, and when Michael dies in a car accident, Mina is left numb, wondering about what else she could’ve done to make their marriage the sparkling diamond it once was. When she connects with Michael’s estranged brother, Grayson, she starts to learn more…and feel more, too.

 

The writing in this book is just lyrical. I loved that Mina and Michael’s relationship was fraught with tension despite their deep love. Mina, like so many women, puts up with Michael’s distance and imperfections, hoping to recapture the magic from their first month together, which does emerge from time to time, though not nearly enough. Michael is a fantastic character—so full of life (at first), so disciplined and loving…and work-obsessed. When Mina meets Grayson, he’s the only person who can understand the complexity of Michael. But then Grayson drops a bomb about her marriage (one I did not see coming), and Mina’s world is shattered again. Only one person has the answers, and Mina must decide if that’s enough. A lovely debut, full of poetic prose, angsty love and a sprinkling of humor.

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Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent

 

This brilliant, dark, horrifying book was a crazy read. Trigger warnings abound—child abuse, sexual assault, suicide, kidnapping—not my usual read. But I’d heard such great things, I gave it a try.

 

Sally Diamond is a solitary woman who doesn’t remember the first incredibly traumatic seven years of her life, when she and her mother were held captive by Connor Geary, a soulless and terrifying character. When her adoptive father dies, Sally, now 43, does what he (jokingly) told her to do: set him out with the trash. They live on a small farm, have an incinerator, and Sally, who is a very literal person, does just that…tries to cremate him with the garbage. This brings national attention to her story, and she’s revealed to be Mary Norton, daughter of a girl kidnapped at 11 and held captive for years. After Denise, Sally’s biological mother, dies, Sally is adopted by her psychiatrist.

 

Sally has a new challenge now—to come to terms with her past, which she learns by reading her father’s medical notes, and to create a new life, learning to interact with people, make friends, act with compassion and generally be a person in the world. She knows she was damaged, but she doesn’t know the extent of what her mother suffered…until she does.

 

Meanwhile, we learn that Connor Geary had another, much more favored child—Denise’s firstborn, Peter, who was also kept in captivity, though with much comfort and privilege, separate from Sally and Denise. He too is a victim to Connor Geary’s sociopathy, but in a way designed to keep him separate from all other humans and completely dependent on his father.

 

I loved this book…right up until the last three chapters. It felt unresolved and wrapped up in a hurry. While a lack of resolution can be very realistic, I wanted closure. I wanted more for Sally and a proper accounting for the villains of this book. I’m sure this is why Strange Sally Diamond is a great book club choice and will spark many great discussions. Excellent writing and a twisty, dark plot not for the faint of heart.

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Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

 

I loved Nothing to See Here, another of Kevin Wilson’s books, so I grabbed Now Is Not the Time to Panic as soon as I saw it. It’s summer in 1996, and our heroine, Frankie, is sixteen, bored and unemployed except for some babysitting gigs. Enter Zeke, the new kid, as awkward and angsty as she is. She writes, he draws, they make out. Then they decide to “make art” one afternoon. She writes two very vivid sentences, and Zeke draws some disturbing images, then sprinkle the picture with their blood. They photocopy the page and post it all over town without claiming ownership. Suddenly, the town is in an uproar. What does it mean? Is it Satanic? Who did this? Copycats come out of the woodwork, and Frankie finds it electrifying. Zeke, not so much. He’s more and more troubled by the reactions, and the friendship starts to corrode.

 

Fast-forward twenty years, and Frankie is a children’s author, married and mom to a 7-year-old when a reporter calls her up and asks if she was responsible for the Coalfield Panic of 1996. She admits she was and hangs up. But now that the door to the past has been unlocked, memories of that time and its impact and meaning flood back into Frankie’s life. It was, she repeatedly says, the most important thing she’s ever done, those two sentences and the resulting culture wave.

 

The book had its moments of brilliance, and the whole premise was delicious, but I felt sorry for Frankie, having peaked at 16 (at least in her own mind). Even in present day, she’s obsessed with that poster. When she inevitably tracks down Zeke, we see that he hasn’t fared so well. Like Nothing to See Here, there’s not a happy ending as much as a resolution. But unlike NTSH, this one left me feeling a little sad.

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The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

In the winter of 1789, a body is pulled from the frozen Kennebec River in Maine. Martha Ballard, the local midwife and healer, is called to examine the body and determines that the man was murdered. This event throws her life into chaos, as a pompous doctor, new to Hallowell, contradicts her, saying he merely drowned. Martha, a smart, meticulous woman fully confident of her own intelligence, begins to investigate the death on her own. Her sons are suspects, her husband is forced to leave her alone for a few weeks, and she’s not making any friends with her questions and demands. I listened to this book and quite enjoyed not just the murder investigation, but the glimpse into the history of life in the newly formed United States. Ms. Lawhon has done an incredible job of bringing this “based on real events” story to life, while prettying it up to be less punitive and more accessible. In other words, most people have all their teeth, no one smells too bad, and a fireplace can warm an entire house in the bleak midwinter. An enjoyable, action-packed read focused around a woman who will not be silenced.

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The Fairy Tale Life of Dorothy Gale by Virginia Kantra

 

Virginia Kantra cannot write a bad book. Indeed, she’s one of those never-fail authors for me. But this story…oh, this story gave me a terrible book hangover. It’s the sweetest, smartest riff on The Wizard of Oz, full of cheeky and graceful references to the original. Our story begins with Dee Gale, fleeing to Trinity College in Dublin to finish her writing degree. She’s scarred from her last (only) relationship, since the guy used her as fodder for his runaway hit novel…and everyone can connect the dots. She is not portrayed kindly, and the novel and its author have shaken her confidence badly. In Dublin, she finds people who share a few characteristics with the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch, but Ms. Kantra doesn’t stick to the stereotypes. Dorothy in this story is well aware of her flaws and faces them head-on, not letting herself be steered by anyone else. Every adorable reference to the original made me smile (the way Dr. Eastwick meets her end had me laugh out loud). So charming, engaging and fresh and truly a perfect novel.

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None of This Is True by Lisa Jewell

I’m fairly addicted to the work of Lisa Jewell, and this one definitely delivers on the author’s skill and brand. Two women meet at a restaurant, where, coincidentally, they are both celebrating their 45th birthdays. Turns out they were born in the same hospital and live within a mile of each other in London. Alix, a polished woman with a lovely family, also hosts a podcast in which she interviews successful women who’ve overcome the odds and created great success. Now in search of another project, she’s intrigued when Josie, her “birthday twin,” pitches an idea—tell the story of a woman who hasn’t made it yet, but is poised at the edge of big changes.

 

The book is interspersed with excerpts from a Netflix documentary that’s being made about the two of them, so the reader is well aware that this story takes a dark turn. And boy, does it! What I love about the book is exactly what the title says…none of anything is a hundred percent true. Each narrator, each character, tells the story through their own lens—what they want to see, how they view the past, and how they see themselves, and how they want to be seen.

 

Absolutely gripping and filled with surprises. Another winner for Ms. Jewell, who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.

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Nice Work, Nora November by Julia London

 

Nora November is a lucky woman. For several moments, she was clinically dead after drowning, but she’s brought back. During her near-death experience, she speaks with her beloved grandfather, who died the year before, and comes back filled with joy and hope. The problem? Her life is a mess. She has a difficult relationship with her domineering father, who is also her boss. Her mother only cares that she’s lost weight while in a coma. She’s a crappy sister and cousin, and never follows through on anything.

 

Armed with her second change, Nora  creates a reverse bucket list, which includes reconnecting with the sweet guy she met during a hilariously inept robbery at a convenience store. But Nora suffers from depression, and her attempts at recreating a better life are very realistically fraught with insecurity and questions. Julia London deftly balances Nora’s mental health struggles with her determination to live life to the fullest and come through for the people she loves. Nice Work, Nora November is the perfect blend of women’s fiction and romantic comedy.

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Room by Emma Donaghue

 

It took me years to work up the courage to read this book, which is an international bestseller has been been made into a movie. The premise: a young woman is kidnapped and imprisoned for seven years in a soundproof shed, hidden in plain sight. She has a five year old son fathered by her captor and rapist, and for five years, Ma has cared for Jack, keeping him hidden from Old Nick, who has no interest in the boy. Jack’s life is happy—he doesn’t know anything but his mother’s love, attention and the things in the room. But things are getting worse, and Ma comes up with a plan for their harrowing escape. Ms. Donaghue writes with such sensitivity and kindness that this book, rather than becoming a noire crime story, is a story of the love between mother and child, and the lengths they will go to protect each other.

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Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti

What will people say about you after you die? What kind of legacy will you leave behind? This is the premise of Ms. Ramisetti’s debut novel, which was a Good Morning America Book Club pick. Set in the near future, the book follows the Shastri family over one weekend—a wealthy bunch of grown kids, their partners, four delightfully obnoxious and entitled grandchildren, and the matriarch herself. Dava Shastri was a powerhouse in life, the founder of a digital music platform, a billionaire, and most important to her, a philanthropist. If she has to be a lesser mother because of her ambition, that’s a price she will pay.

 

Now diagnosed with a brain tumor, Dava summons her children to her private island for one last Christmas. Much to their surprise and unaware of their mother’s sickness, the four adult kids find out through social media that their mother has died…though she’s sitting in her bedroom at that very moment. Dava’s obsession with her legacy has led her to announce her death a few days early so she can see who says what about her. Family secrets come to light, the four grown children struggle with the impending loss of their mom. Their feelings range from devotion to near hatred, and as the tributes pour in, Dava tries to enjoy all that she built while also realizing what she’s missed. A fascinating story of family, legacy and secrets, all set in a fairy-tale castle during a snowstorm.

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Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Like everyone else who read this book, which was an instant  New York Times bestseller,  I couldn’t put this book down. Two authors, one Asian, one white. Athena Liu is a critical darling, going on talk shows, guest editing at the New Yorker. Sure, she’s a vampire when it comes to people’s worst moments, using their pain, told to her in confidence, as fodder for her next opus. June Hayworth, the white girl who fears (and knows) her perspective is nothing original, is also published, though not with the success Athena has. They’re sort of friends, both graduates of Yale, both authors, and they’ve stayed in touch. Then comes the night when they really bond…and suddenly, Athena is dead in a freak accident, and June has taken Athena’s manuscript from her apartment. Still in shock, but realizing she’s got a diamond in the rough in her hands, June edits the book and submits it to her agent as her own. She gets a huge contract, though her publicity teams wants her to go by her Asian-sounding middle name, Song. The fact that she looks “racially ambiguous”…let people draw their own conclusions. Now she’s got it all…money, promised fame, a publicity team, advance reviews that sing her praises.

 

Oh, how wonderful and easy it is to hate Juniper Song! But of course, nothing stays secret in the digital age, and the Twitterati start to wonder if June has indeed stolen Athena’s work. But once upon a time, Athena stole something from June, too, so what’s fair? What’s fodder, and what’s theft? The vagaries of social media, where June is called out, the privileges of race and all sorts of gooey, messy themes are served to the reader in a sinfully delicious tale of self-absorbtion, ambition and disgrace.

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Boy Still Missing by John Searles

It’s the late 1970s, and Dominick Pindle is a teenager struggling to fit in and find some kind of meaning in his life. His father is a womanizer, his mom hopelessly devoted, his friends are sleazy. In this rundown Massachusetts town, how is a boy supposed to find himself? Enter Edie Kramer, his father’s mistress, who takes a shine to Dominick. When she confides that she’s pregnant with his father’s kid, Dominick is compelled to help her…both because he’s in love and also to punish his deserter of a father.

 

There’s an innocence to this novel, maybe because it’s set before cell phones and the internet. Dominick is a good kid without a decent role model, and every time he makes a wrong turn, it’s for the right reasons. When his plan to help Edie goes disastrously wrong, Dominick runs away from home, bent on revenge and aching to find himself and someone who might feel a true connection to him. Deeply affecting and beautifully written, this book is perfect for fans of Demon Copperhead and some of Stephen King’s more literary works.

 

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The Beauty of Rain by Jamie Beck

This book is a masterpiece of hope, grief and love and surely Jamie Beck’s best book yet…which is saying a lot. Amy is reeling after so many changes in her life—winning a huge lottery, then losing her husband and son in an accident shortly thereafter. Why is life still worth living? she asks herself. But her sister Kristin is determined that Amy will make it…and in turn, Amy wants to teach her work-obsessed, tightly wound perfectionist sister to revel in what she already has, not to constantly be looking down the road. Once that’s done, she’ll get on with her own life—or not. Both sisters were so realistic and wonderful, so flawed and relatable, and in Jamie’s masterful hands, the story unfolds and blossoms in unpredictable and wonderful ways. A five-star (and five-hankie) read about everything important in life.

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The Starfish Sisters by Barbara O’Neal

A gorgeous, perfectly woven story of a friendship of a lifetime, its demise and resurrection, The Starfish Sisters is a wonderful read. Two teenage girls meet on the coast of Oregon—Phoebe, who visits her grandmother each summer, a refugee of her parents difficult marriage, and Suze, who lives there year-round with her abusive, religious father. The girls are soul-mates, and one of the most rewarding things about this book was that message—family of choice and the immense power of female frienship. There’s a rift, of course, but Suze, now an iconic actor, returns to the coast after a brutal attack. Phoebe is there, waiting, helpful and hopeful that the closeness they once shared can be found again. An old flame, healing the scars of the past and present, and a message of hope make this book as soothing and welcome as a rainy day after a drought.

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Lies and Other Love Languages by Sonali Dev

Once upon a time, there were two friends—Vandy and Rani—and in becoming friends, they became themselves. From very different backgrounds, the girls find each other, and their friendship becomes the foundation of their lives. But then, Vandy asks for a favor so huge that the two women have to break up.

 

I’ve long been fascinated by the nuances of female friendship—I even host an advice podcast called Crappy Friends with my best friend. This book nailed just how important a good friend is—worth almost anything. Almost is the key word, and Sonali’s brilliant grasp of the human heart and all its complications makes this story sing. In present day, Vandy is a new widow, and her beloved daughter suddenly disappears. In the brilliantly spun backstory, we see Rani and Vandy’s youth from Rani’s perspective—a child of hardship, a recent immigrant, alone and neglected, who meets this magical, incredibly kind little girl about her own age. What tears them apart is not exactly a surprise, but how and why…wow. I was riveted, feverishly turning each page, not wanting to finish the book and also dying to get to the end so I could see how the women find their way home to each other. An utterly gorgeous story.

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The Other Princess by Denny S. Bryce

This book begins by grabbing the reader by the throat as a five-year-old African princess, Aina, watches as her village is ambushed by a murderous tribe. She is spared (for the moment), and her life changes dramatically when she is rescued by a British missionary who changes her name, converts her to Christianity and presents her to Queen Victoria. The queen makes Sarah her ward, and the girl is raised with all the luxury of a member of the royal family. What a fascinating story…and it’s true. Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies was an incredible young woman determined to leave her mark on the world, despite the constraints of being a Black woman in Victorian England, her life dictated by her godmother, the queen. But Sarah takes hold of her own destiny, too, and Denny S. Bryce transports the reader through her vivid writing into this incredible true-life journey. I cheered for Sarah, cried for her, loved her stubbornness and intelligence and finished the book with tears streaming down my face.

Gripping, vibrant and teeming with rich details, The Other Princess will leave an indelible mark on the reader.
 

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Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Ms. Kingsolver doesn’t need me to validate her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, yet here I am, telling you how much I loved it. Since I listened to the book, it was definitely a time commitment, but the narration was fantastic. Like the title character’s inspiration, David Copperfield, Demon is an orphan struggling against poverty, cruelty and, in this case, addiction in Appalachia, present day. Unable to be content, with a knack for ruining whatever good comes his way, filled with a restless anger, we follow Demon from childhood into adulthood, yelling at him, wanting to smack him upside the head and ultimately saying, “Finally!” when the lad stops sabotaging himself and gets a glimpse at what happiness looks like.

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Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Again, I listened to it, and the narration of the octopus, truly elevated the story. Marcellus, who is the true heart of the story, is counting down his days in a run-down aquarium, where he has spent most of his life. His only friend—Tova, the cleaning lady, herself a lost and sad creature. Eighteen years ago, Tova’s teenage son went missing. A recent widow, Tova is more walled-off than Marcellus. Enter a lost boy without a home, a sassy girl, an incredible coincidence, and voila! A gorgeous little book. But honestly, without Marcellus, the story would’ve just been okay for me. I found Tova irritating at times, judgmental and dismissive of her friends’ love. Cameron, our lost boy, irked me with his millennial ineptitude at all things. The incredible coincidence is so obvious that I was essentially shouting at the human characters to get on with it already halfway through the book. In that way, the story dragged. It was only Marcellus who made the story so special. But he did, and it was.

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Queen of Exiles by Vanessa Riley

Prepare to have your socks knocked off. In this gripping story of fictionalized history, Dr. Vanessa Riley tells the story of the Black king and queen of Haiti, their goals to create a country run by Blacks, saturated with education, opportunity, science and equality. King Henry is a powerful, driven man, but it is his wife (isn’t it always?) who sees the bigger picture of both the potential utopia and the pitfalls her husband ignores. When King Henry dies, Louise is forced into European exile with her daughters.

 

The magic of this book comes from the fact that it’s true. Dr. Riley, who holds numerous advanced degrees from Stanford and Penn State, has turned her intellect to historical research and breathtakingly beautiful writing. We ache for the queen, her grief, her losses—two of her sons and her stepson did not survive the turmoil in Haiti, and one of her daughters has a terminal illness. The burden she carries is massive—to show the world that the kingdom of Haiti meant more than just its short history. Her mission is to live a life of dignity, create a safe and happy life for her daughters and to keep her husband’s legacy alive. During the twenty years of her story, the queen realizes her legacy may be even more important than his.

 

A story of female strength, opulent travel, political maneuvering and a mother’s most basic desire, Queen of Exiles is absolutely unforgettable.

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Blink by K.L. Slater

A juicy British story of a missing child and a slew of people who are suspected. It’s been a hard few years for Toni, the widowed mother of Evie. Her husband was killed in Afghanistan in a completely avoidable tragedy, and she’s left with their young daughter, her mother the only person around to help. Toni relies on her husband’s anti-anxiety meds to combat her panic attacks, which make her fuzzy and hard to wake. Her lack of organization and depression are noted by the local teacher’s aide, who clearly disapproves, and by one of her coworkers, a woman who can’t have children of her own. And then, one day Evie disappears without a trace.

 

Fast forward three years, and we have a woman suffering locked-in syndrome, in which she’s aware of everything around her but can’t even blink, let alone talk. She suspects Evie is alive, but how can she communicate this?

 

Blink was a blast to listen to, and it had a couple of fantastic plot twists. But for me, the last quarter was diminished by what I call the Batman Villain Explanation—the bad guy tells how they pulled off the crime and why. I was a little irritated by Toni, who was never really able to rally when her daughter lived under her own roof, but I loved the dynamic between her and her mother. Well worth a read or a listen!

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Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

I had the very special experience of reading this book aloud to a friend during his illness, and it made me remember just how much I love Mr. Koontz’s storytelling. Like his colleague, Stephen King, Mr. Koontz writes horror/psychological scary stuff. In this story, the title character is indeed odd. He sees dead people, though they can’t speak to him, and often has to use his strange skillset to bring a perp to justice. But as in many a great book, a stranger comes to town, and he’s trouble.

 

Odd, the first-person narrator, is delightful. Probably on the spectrum, his obsession with small things (cooking a perfect omelet) and fabulous vocabulary and strange metaphors, he is unique, to say the least. The incredible cast of secondary characters is beautifully drawn, as is the heat of his California town, which is practically a character itself. Highly recommend for people like myself who love a creepy story.

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The End of Her by Shari Lapena

Absolutely creeptastic! An exhausted mother of twins, a doting husband with a tragic past, and a woman focused on disrupting their life. Why? Well, why not? Maybe she has a legitimate warning to the bleary-eyed mother. Maybe she’s a sociopath. Maybe the husband is a sociopath. How did her husband’s first wife really die? Is he lying? Is she? Aren’t they all?

 

This was a twisty and delicious domestic noir, and I inhaled it in a day. Highly recommend, and will definitely read more from this author.

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Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarity

I first found Liane Moriarity when she was writing more gentle, humorous stories with a plot twist. Then came The Husband’s Secret, which to me is the best of its genre. Apples Never Fall is a combination of the best of Ms. Moriarity’s numerous talents. Joy, a sixty-something mother of four grown children, is feeling restless and invisible, unhappy in her once vibrant marriage. One night, a seemingly vulnerable young woman appears on their doorstep, and Joy takes her in. A few months later,  Joy vanishes.

 

The four Delaney children, once all thought to be the next Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal, have settled into their not-quite happy lives when Mom vanishes. Who is the young woman Mom took in last year? No one really trusted her, and now she’s missing. What about Dad and that scratch on his face? Remember the times he used to just walk away for days at a time?

 

Not as dark as The Husband’s Secret, this book was a lesson in how different children raised by the same parents can experience childhood and beyond. It’s the study of a long marriage and the pressures of high-stakes competition (but light on tennis itself, for which I was grateful). Everyone has secrets…that’s Ms. Moriarity’s trademark…and in her masterful hands, we’re always surprised by what those secrets are.

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Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman

When Jane is arrested for public indecency (sex on her apartment building’s new rooftop terrace, as seen from the crotchety neighbor across the street), she’s put on house arrest and fired from her job as a high-powered attorney. With help from her identical twin, desperately-seeking-someone neighbor and a doorman not afraid to gossip, Jane is challenged with filling the six months of her sentence. One thing she didn’t expect—to be accused of the murder of her voyeuristic neighbor.

Every one of Elinor Lipman’s books is delightful, smart, and light-hearted, with the plot unspooling in unexpected ways. The cast is delightful, the shenanigans hilarious and the romance handled with a perfect amount of humor. Romantic comedy for smart people, this author never disappoints.

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The Sunshine Girls by Molly Fader

Clara and Abbie are sisters with nothing in common except their childhood, but when their mom dies, they’re pushed together, just for a  day or two. All that changes when a very recognizable actress, now in her 70s, shows up at the funeral and declares herself to be Mom’s best friend…a woman the daughters have never met.

 

Ms. Fader takes us back to the late 1960s, where BettyKay and Kitty are put together as roommates at nursing school. Their friend, Jenny, wants to serve in Vietnam; BettyKay wants to do anything other than go home; and Kitty is meant for something else altogether. But their friendship is cemented when one of the girls needs help.

 

This was the most engrossing novel I’ve read in ages. Flashing back and forth between the generations made the book rich and fascinating. I loved hearing about nursing school back in the day, and I was dying to understand how Kitty and BettyKay, so different in personalities and callings, could be best friends…and why BettyKay would keep that a secret from her daughters. Absolutely fantastic.

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The Bridesmaids Union by Jonathan Vatner

This is a charming, slightly disturbing book about the American obsession with weddings. Iris Hagarty, a single mom in a dead-end job, has one thing going for her—she’s a great bridesmaid. But she’s also under-appreciated, overworked and in debt thanks to that fact. She starts a private Facebook group to air grievances about snappish brides and over-the-top bachelorette weekends and finds a lot of kindred spirits out there. When her sister, who is a successful doggy-shoe designer (you read that right) gets engaged to a man totally wrong for her (and possibly right for Iris), things start to ratchet up.

 

The plot of the book is not original, but there are some delicious twists and turns, as well as pointed commentary about how much of our days are spent measured against what we see on social media. Iris’s horrible parents, her mysterious older sister and the bride-to-be are not the caricatures they could have been. Mr. Vatner has a light touch but a powerful message, too. A delicious revenge read for all of us who’ve been mired in that kind of wedding.

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The One that Got Away by Charlotte Rixon

This book is not a romance, it should be said upfront. What it is, though, is a realistic, often dark story of two people who meet in college, experience the overwhelming power of first love and mess everything up. Neither the hero, Benjamin, nor the heroine, Clara, is perfect. Far from it. Clara is bright, motivated, clingy, possessive and needy. Benjamin is depressed, unfocused, insecure, charming and intelligent. They are perfect for each other, but they’re also just kids.

 

As the two decades of their story unfold, we see just how hard relationships are, no matter the power of love. Clara and Benjamin break up, but they never get over each other. She marries a nice guy who barely seems to know her; he gets custody of his son after the boy’s mother abandons him. (The kid is the best character in the story.) But what Ms. Rixon does so beautifully is mesmerize the reader. I felt these characters, loved them, hated them, and I longed to know what had made their lives go so askew. Riveting and original and not afraid to tackle difficult topics, I loved the book…and its hopeful ending.

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The Daughter-in-Law by Nina Manning

This is a juicy story about a clearly disturbed mother who’s obsessed with her adult son. Oh, the creepiness of it! If Annie had her way, Ben would live with her forever, just the two of them, her making his bed and meals, him doing nothing other than breathing. Unfortunately, Ben has other plans…like knocking a girl up and marrying her without telling his mother, and Annie is convienced this jezebel has seduced her son and is going to destroy him. After all, she recognizes Daisy from somewhere, she’s sure of it.

 

Daisy, though smitten with Ben, is keenly aware that her mother-in-law is off. However, after a freak accident that kills her friend and destroys their apartment, Ben and Daisy have nowhere to go but Annie’s large house on the ocean. Unfortunately, Ben has to leave for work in order to support his new family. Numb with grief and shock, Daisy lets her suddenly kind mother-in-law take care of her. And that’s when it starts getting really creepy. This was a very fun read, though I did want to kick Daisy from time to time when she bordered on idiocy (taking tranquilizers despite being six months preggers, never reaching out to the one friend she has left). But Annie is a wonderful sociopath of a villain, and the plot twists kept a-coming.

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The Maid by Nita Prose

A brilliant but unusual young woman, Molly Gray loves her life’s work as a hotel maid. Cleaning is her joy, and the posh hotel where she works is her cathedral. Though she knows she has difficulties interpreting people’s intentions and often comes across as innocent, Molly is no fool, either. With her incredibly charming vocabulary, her unusual friendships, grief over her late grandmother and her attention to detail, Molly is fascinating…and even more so after she finds a body in the hotel’s finest suite and soon becomes the prime suspect. The police are eager to pin this high-profile murder on her, but Molly’s disarming honesty and role as an observer make her hard to pin down. At times, poignant at others, The Maid is an incredibly satisfying book.

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Billy Summers by Stephen King

Oh, Steve, how I love you! I feel like we’re old friends, you and I, especially that you yelled, “Yankees suck!” at me because I wore an NY cap to a Red Sox game, and I told you to get a life. Nevertheless, I love you, sir, and you owe me months, if not years, of lost sleep since I first picked up The Shining at age twelve and was forever scarred.

 

 I loved two-thirds of Billy Summers, this assassin with a good heart, this man pretending to be slow, this lonely guy who has been so damaged by his horrifying childhood and stint in the Marines. Like any good sniper, Billy becomes an assassin upon coming home. It’s a living. When Billy has to move into a small town months before an assignment and assumes the identity of (what else) a writer, he finds himself unwillingly connecting with his neighbors and fellow office rats. How crushed they will be to learn he’s actually a cold-blooded killer! 

 

But once the job is done and Billy is stiffed on his payment, the book veers off into a familiar Stephen King pattern. The first, perfectly wonderful story is hanging around, waiting for resolution, when suddenly, here comes a new story, loosely tied to the first but full of clichés. The damaged, very young woman Billy rescues from the gutter, literally. She falls in love with him (shocker!) and he with her (no!). She has no one to turn to in this cruel world (gasp), so follows him on his journey of revenge. But he doesn’t want to taint her with his bad mojo (of course), and even her love can’t save him (or can it?). They go to his crusty old mentor who lives off the grid in the mountains (you don’t say!) and the mentor knows and supplies all they’ll need for more assassinations. Then there’s shooting! Things go wrong! Wait, the bad guy isn’t really that bad, there’s another, way worse guy! More things happen, and more, and more, and then some more, until the plot has turned to mush and the book just won’t end. Seriously. At least five times, I thought, “This has got to be the last chapter,” only to find there were four or five more. 

 

And yet, Billy Summers has the Stephen King magic, which is a book that grabs you by the throat, gives you all the feels and paints a clear and visceral picture. Do I wish I’d been his editor? Yes. Do I regret listening to the book? Not a bit. The narration was stellar and added a lot to the book, especially in the last third. I don’t usually post reviews of books that I don’t love 100%, but I figured old Steve could take it. (And the Yankees don’t suck, sir. Not at all.) If you have some time to kill, not a bad investment.

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By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley 

This book grabbed me so hard and so fast, I read it in one sitting. What an amazing novel—well, fictionalized history, really. This is the story of the legendary Black clothing designer Ann Lowe, who made (among other things) Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. The thing is, she wasn’t a legend in her own time, or at least, not enough. Being a Black dress designer in the 1950’s and 60’s, she was “society’s best kept secret,” and her lack of accreditation hurt her business. This didn’t stop her, and that wedding dress was not the only iconic look she designed. Dr. Huguley tells this story with such intimacy, it’s like you’re in the shop or helping Jackie get dressed just before her wedding at Hammersmith Farm.  A must-read for anyone who loves clothing design, American history, the Kennedys and a heroine who never stops reaching for her dreams.

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The Vibrant Years by Sonali Dev

Three generations of women come together for a crisis in this delightful, funny, heartwarming book. Bindu, the glamorous grandmother, has just moved into a posh retirement community, thanks to an unexpected inheritance that both delights and horrifies her. Aly, once married to Bindu’s son, is struggling to be seen at the news station where she’s a producer, still a little stunned that her husband left her to go back to India. Her daughter, Cullie, a whiz-kid in Silicon Valley, has her back against the wall as she’s promised a new app to her company…an app she hasn’t invented yet. The three come together after an unexpected twist in Bindu’s complex. This book is all about female relationships, the challenges and thrills of standing out, and the love that binds these women together. Funny, intelligent and filled with emotion, THE VIBRANT YEARS will delight readers.

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The Other Wife by Claire McGowan 

Just when you think you know a character, Claire McGowan blows your mind. This is the story of three women—pregnant Suzi, bored out of her mind in her beautiful home; Nora, the widowed neighbor, always peering out the window, obsessed with Suzi and her wretched husband, Nick; and Elle, an uppercrust woman in London whose only job seems to be waiting for her dashing husband to come home. But each woman is fascinating, and Ms. McGowan doesn’t pull punches at revealing them to be flawed, sometimes strange and completely relatable. The way their lives intertwine is masterful, and the entire story is told in a tense, exciting tone that leads to the crescendo of the ending. So good.

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Dear Child by Romy Hausman

A brilliant thriller, Dear Child is the story of a triangle of people—a woman who’s escaped from the cabin where she was held captive, only to be hit by a car; the little girl who claims to be her daughter; and the father of a missing woman, hoping this Jane Doe is his daughter. So twisty and turny! Who held “Lena” captive? Where is the little boy? Whose body is lying in the living room? What I loved about this book, aside from the sheer genius of the plot, was that it was scary without being gory. No graphic details, which is perhaps more unsettling than too much information. All the characters were so well developed, and the writing was fast and sharp. Kudos to the translator who brought this to life from the original German, too. Can’t wait for more from this talented author with the twisted imagination.

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Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

A gently humorous story, AGATHA OF LITTLE NEON tells the story of Agatha, who became a nun at age 22. When her parish in upstate New York goes bankrupt, Agatha is transferred to Rhode Island with her three fellow nuns. Once, the nuns were daycare providers. Suddenly, they’re working in a halfway house for recovering addicts. Ms. Luchette has a quiet, calm way with the point of view of Agatha. The story is a bit slow to start, and I have to admit that I was distracted by the notion of four young American women turning to the religious service a bit farfetched, as a New England Catholic myself. (Does anyone actually know an American-born nun under the age of 75?) But this is a work of fiction (proven again with two white American-born males under the age of 43 who are Catholic priests), and it’s infused with a gentle wisdom. Agatha is a thinker, not a speaker, someone who joined religious life in order to be accepted, rather than because God called her. The glimpses into the sisterhood and community are told in short vignettes, and whether it’s the car breaking down or a visit to a wind farm, the story is gently propelled forward. When Agatha takes a job as a math teacher in the nearby Catholic school, her worldview starts to open, and she starts to question her choices. Agatha is delightful, honest, wry and intelligent, and this novel was a quick and delightful read, as light and sweet as a glass of prosecco.

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The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

A beautiful woman (sigh) becomes mute after murdering her husband, and her (male) psychologist is obsessed with getting her to speak. It sounds cliché—the tragic, mysterious woman who loved her husband and yet killed him, the young doctor devoted to unlocking her mysteries. But it’s not! It’s so good and twisty and turny, and the ending will make your head explode in the very best way, and you’ll want to read it again immediately. Told from alternating points of view—our first person male narrator and the journals of our silent patient—it’s a fantastic book. Fans of Gone, Girl and The Girl on the Train will love it.

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The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff 

 

An edge-of-your-seat masterpiece based on real events in Poland during World War II. Pam Jenoff has done it again with a harrowing and somehow beautiful story of Sadie, a Jewish girl who must hide in the sewers of Krakow in order to avoid being sent to the camps or murdered in the streets by the Nazis occupying the city. She finds an unexpected friend—a lonely Christian girl named Ella who feels compelled to help…first by bringing food, then in a series of escalating steps to get Sadie and her family to safety. It a is heartbreaking, agonizing, wonderful, uplifting story about the best and worst of humanity.

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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

A lovely, creative story about the roads not taken in our lives. Consumed with depression, Nora attempts suicide and finds herself caught in between lives, in a library staffed by her childhood school librarian. Each book Nora reads sucks her into the life she didn’t choose—glaciologist, musician, marriage to the boyfriend she rejected. It’s a Wonderful Life meets Groundhog Day. The ending was a bit easy, but the book left me feeling bright and optimistic. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the brilliant Carey Mulligan, which added considerably to the experience.

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Falling by T.J. Newman

Want a book you’ll read in one sitting? A book whose entire plot takes place in five hours? This is your fix. The story of a pilot who takes off, only to find his family is being held at gunpoint by a terrorist. The terrorist gives him an order: Crash the plane, or your family dies. Tell anyone, and your family dies. What’s a guy to to do, except turn to the head flight attendant and tell her to take care of the passengers in whatever way she chooses.

 

I loved that there were so many protagonists in this book and not just The White Captain as Played by Brad Pitt. Jo, the head flight attendant, is just as much the tortured hero as Bill, and arguably with more difficult decisions to make as she tries to protect the passengers. “I’ve got the plane,” Bill says. “You have the passengers.” (I paraphrase). Bill’s wife, Carrie, is something of a bad-ass hostage negotiator, trying to protect her ten year old son and toddler daughter. The young FBI agent, the air traffic controller and the other two flight attendants all play critical parts in the story. And even the “bad guys” are believable, their motives understandable even if they’re still willing to kill hundreds of innocent people. 

 

My biggest problem with this book was the prologue. Ms. Newman tells us immediately how the book will end, so the suspense element was erased from the beginning. How it ends, though, kept me ripping through the book. The writing is just okay, but the story is wicked fun, and it will make a great movie one of these days. Kudos to the former flight attendant turned mega-hit author! A great book for those who love action-packed, James Patterson-style pageturners.

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Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

 

Imagine having to buy yourself out of slavery—the slave holder being your biological father. Imagine having to buy your mother and sister their freedom. And imagine doing this as a woman of color in colonial times. This is the real-life tale of Doll Kirwan, told by master storyteller Vanessa Riley, who captures the strength, intelligence and power of Doll, an entrepreneur, hotelier and landowner who refuses to be defined by anyone but herself. The book is not only a one-sitting read, it’s a slice of history that needs to be told. Utterly brilliant, powerful and inspiring, it will take your breath away.

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The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

 

Kristin Hannah is one of the best authors alive. My review could probably stop there, but good golly, what a book! What a book! As with what is perhaps my favorite book of all time—The Nightingale—The Four Winds is a story of survival against the odds. Starting in 1930, Elsa Martinelli was doing well enough, despite a marriage she didn’t particularly want. But she finds a sense of family with her in-laws. Then comes the Dust Bowl, the stock market crash and the Depression come crashing into her world, and Elsa must choose between staying and striking out for California to carve a better life for her children, facing incredible hardship, bleak poverty and sickness.

The Four Winds, which came out this past spring, is also oddly prescient of today’s struggles in America. A pandemic in the form of “dust pneumonia,” a divided nation suspicious of outsiders, unemployment, poverty…this is not an easy read. But it’s a magnificent read, a story of resilience, endurance and friendship and the amazing, indomitable power of a woman on a mission.
 

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The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs

 

A lovely story about a woman who leaves her corporate job to try to save her late mother’s San Francisco bookshop and care for her grandfather. Starting over is one of my favorite themes in a book…reinvention, going after something new, taking chances. I loved it, as I love all Susan Wiggs books. 

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(Im)perfectly Happy by Sharina Harris

 

What a great read! Four college friends reunite ten years after graduation to remind each other of their dreams of the future. Now that they’ve had time to become fully-fledged adults, they have to assess if those goals are still viable, if they’ve made excuses for why they haven’t achieved them, and how they want to spend the next ten years of their lives. I loved each friend so much; strong, funny, hardworking women I’d love to meet for a glass of wine. Highly recommend!

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Judge's Girls by Sharina Harris

 

When beloved Judge Joe dies, his daughter, stepdaughter and wife all struggle with the sudden loss…and each other. Maya, Joe’s biological daughter, is a talented attorney. All her life, her dad told her she’d have to work harder as a Black woman, and she has…to the point where she refuses to accept help or support from anyone. Joe’s wife, Jeanie, has always been cast in the role of white trash, but her love for Judge Joe was everything. Alcohol gives her the escape she wants, but it’s ruining her. Her teenaged daughter, Ryder, has never known another father other than Joe, and having always been a bit of an outsider in high school, starts hanging with a bad crowd to escape her suddenly horrible home life.

What I loved about this book was that Sharina Harris doesn’t pull any punches—each character, including the sainted Joe, is flawed, layered and complicated. And Sharina includes an element that was present in (Im)Perfectly Happy as well, something rarely seen in women’s fiction—a solid, loving relationship that won’t budge under pressure. Refreshing, intelligent and completely relatable, this book is a winner.

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The Peacock Emporium by JoJo Moyes

 

This is the story of an unusual family and their broken dynamic, and I loved every minute of it. (I listened to this one, and the narration by Elizabeth Sastre was utterly fantastic.) Susanna Peacock is the main character, and her transformation from unhappy misfit to a fully realized person was so believable and interesting. With a complicated past, a too-stoic father and a few secrets about her heritage, she has reason to feel like she’s never quite belonged in her own life. The charming set-up of her shop, her coworkers and regular customers was perfection.

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Beartown by Fredrik Backman

 

This is the story of a town that has one thing going for it—hockey. I don’t know the first thing about the game except it happens on ice, but as was true for Friday Night Lights, this book is not really about hockey…it’s about life in a small, cold town and the chance to get out. Trigger warning—a girl is raped. At this point, I almost stopped reading, but I’m glad I didn’t.

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Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra

 

I don’t know of another author who could do justice to Little Women. In a warm, realistic, and humorous voice, Virginia Kantra knocks it out of the park with Meg & Jo in this rich retelling of the beloved classic.

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How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

HOW TO WALK AWAY by Katherine Center tells the story of recovery and falling in love when you least expect it. On the day her boyfriend proposes, Margaret has a bad feeling. She’s right. An accident leaves her in the hospital, and no one wants to tell her how bad things are. I loved the intimate writing and cast of imperfect family members, friends and professionals who have to help Margaret adjust to a new way of life. Plus, there was a really believable love story, and that was the icing on the cake.

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You Were There Too by Colleen Oakley

A hypnotic, slow burn of a book about what our lives are and what we might want them to be, and how those two ideas clash. Deep emotional insight, no easy answers and beautiful writing made it a fast and delicious read.

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Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

The woman can do no wrong. She is nothing short of a national treasure. No one can write about childhood with as much poignancy and insight.

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I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella

Reading a book by Sophie Kinsella is like visiting with an old friend. This book delivers on everything that’s made Sophie’s books so wonderful—a heroine struggling with self-worth and family pressure, a charming job in a family home-goods shop and a hero with depth and heart.

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The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

Read it one sitting, and I can’t remember the last time I did that. Sally doesn’t make any cheap choices in this novel; every character is nuanced and relatable. Side note: my two moms loved it, too, and we’re having a special lunch just to discuss it.

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Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

 

Gah! It’s terrifying in the most wonderful, creepy, believable way! Hanna is a seven-year-old girl who chooses not to speak. Her mother, Suzette, senses something is off about her daughter’s selective mutism…and her daughter’s obsessive love for her father. Suzette loves her kid, even when she fears her. Is the story over the top? Sure! Give me an evil child story any day for escapist chills and thrills. (Waves to Damien, who still terrifies me.

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Pretty Revenge by Emily Liebert

 

Two female anti-heroines struggling to shed their pasts, seek revenge and recreate themselves against the backdrop of the obnoxiously rich of New York. Juicy and delicious fun. You really don’t know which woman to pull for, since no character is just one thing.

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We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

 

An amazing, heart-pounding story of a Jewish family’s struggles to survive in Poland during World War II. Two parents, five grown children, their spouses and babies…the odds are not in their favor. I read it on one day.

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The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

For all of us who prefer to stay in and read, who like our lives tidy and uncomplicated, this is our story. Except, of course, Nina’s life becomes uncomfortably messy…and fascinating…when her biological father, a stranger to her, includes her in his will. A celebration of those of us who love trivia, reading, bookstores and home. Absolutely lovely.

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Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

This book was a gentle, beautiful story filled with yearning, loneliness and self discovery. I ached for Ellie, so alone in her marriage, wanting to be seen and valued yet not really knowing her own worth. Seeing her journey, her small defiances and her slow realization that she deserved better was incredibly satisfying. Gorgeous writing.

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Promises of the Heart by Nan Rossiter

 

A multi-leveled, beautifully written story that will glow in readers’ hearts long after the last page is turned.

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Flying at Night by Rebecca L. Brown

Raw with emotional honesty, this book is a fearless, graceful and compelling look at family, marriage and parenting. Utterly captivating. I loved it!

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Little Big Love by Katy Regan

A beautiful, wrenching, joyful story about family, loss, love… and one intrepid little boy. This book will steal your heart.

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The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewel

I bought this book in the airport. Three hours later, someone said, “Ma’am? Are you going to get off the plane?” That’s how gripping it was. Libby Jones inherits a house when she’s 25 from her birth parents. She’s always known she was adopted, but when she sees the once-grand mansion on the Thames, she’s stunned. What happened here? All she knows is that her birth parents committed suicide with an unidentified other man, and there were four other children who lived there and disappeared. Who were they? Why have they never come forward? And who are the people who think of her only as “the baby”?

 

Told from three points of view, this story is dark, twisty and utterly brilliant. Probably the best book of its genre I’ve ever read.

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