Saturday, September 18, 2021

Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan: Reading Room Review


I’ve been a fan and reviewer of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s books for a long time, and not once has she let me down.  Her books are always thrilling, twisty, riveting, and intense.  Her Perfect Life continues in the tradition of her other stand-alones, too, with a title that has many applications throughout the book.  It’s one of the things I most love about Ryan’s books, the titles that morph into areas you don’t expect. 

Lily Atwood is a high-profile television reporter, whose stories have earned her Emmys.  She is in her early thirties, has an adorable seven-year-old daughter, a fantastic and well-paying job, a large following on Instagram, an amazing nanny, a beautiful home, and an ace producer.  Oh, and she’s beautiful.  Sounds perfect, right?  Well, Lily also has a secret that could destroy her perfect life.  Her older sister Cassie went missing twenty-five years ago from college, and there were rumors of Cassie being involved in some illegal activities.   Although Lily has tried to find Cassie over the years, Lily is fearful that if her sister is indeed still alive and reappears, it could destroy Lily’s carefully maintained persona of perfection, thus bringing life as Lily knows it to a screeching halt.

Greer is Lily’s producer and assistant at the news station where Lily has soared to the spotlight.  She doesn’t let on to Lily, but Greer has been building up resentment at doing so much work and Lily always getting the credit.  Greer also feels shut out on a personal level by Lily.  There’s no idle, friendly chit-chat between them, no camaraderie of sharing their lives.  Lily has put up a wall that Greer can’t get past.  Lily’s reasons for keeping to herself have to do with wanting to keep her world intact.  And, Greer knows all too well that her job security depends on keeping Lily happy and successful.

News reporters get lots of tips and information from the public about possible newsworthy stories.  Sometimes, a source wants to remain anonymous.  Lily has such a source who has recently given her and Greer some great tips to work on and resulted in major splashes in the Boston area. The man has been nicknamed the generic Mr. Smith by the two women, and when Smith calls, Lily listens.  But, Smith’s calls have started taking a personal turn, with him relaying information to Lily about her own life, information he has no reason to know.  When he also starts calling Greer behind Lily’s back, the action really heats up.  It’s a whirlwind of misinformation, betrayal, and revenge.  When Mr. Smith finally reveals himself to Lily and Greer, this whirlwind becomes a twister.

The story unfolds as the narration changes from Lily to Greer to Cassie.  I’m a fan of the multiple perspectives in telling a story.  The reader gets a more complete picture of events than with just one narrator.  The author did an outstanding job of each of the three characters bringing their unique perspective to the table.  It also shows that a lot of bad choices are made by these three, and lives were marred by those missteps. 

Speaking of characters, the characters are, as always in a Hank Phillippi Ryan book, well-developed, with layers of secrets and challenges, but I have to admit that I was a bit conflicted about who was the most admirable, or who had legitimate issues that were ignored.   Maybe, we are supposed to feel that way.  Lily is a character who I consider a “good” person, but she seems too closed-off emotionally to be a “healthy” person.  She herself talks about not wanting to get close to anyone or have friends, but in a successful team situation, I find her approach wrong-ended.  I know she lost her sister Cassie at a young age and was disappointed in her affair with a married man (except for the result of her daughter Rowan) and uses both as excuses to shut herself off, but being uncaring about the people in your life comes off as cold.  I didn’t really like Lily.  I sympathized with Greer, her assistant more than maybe I was supposed to, but anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of the “talent” getting all the accolades understands Greer’s resentment, if not her actions.  Acknowledgement of the work you do for someone can be a crushing blow when not given.  Added to that Lily’s cold shoulder personally, I’d say Greer had a reason to resent her.  Cassie was the character who gets my vote as the likeable one, the one to be admired.  Her actions were from a pure place, a selfless core to her being.  I would pass on a dinner with either Lily or Greer, but I would enjoy chatting with Cassie.  The “bad” guys in the book were well played, and there are some definite great twists there.

Her Perfect Life is another success for Hank Phillippi Ryan.  Ryan’s writing is as well-honed and detailed as always.  I enjoyed the suspense and surprises that came with it, and I’m sure other readers will too. 

I received an advanced copy of Her Perfect Life from NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge Books, and the above is my honest opinion.


Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams: Reading Room Review


              "Books show us the world; they don't hide it."  ~ Mukesh Patel

I don't know if all bibliophiles enjoy books that are about reading itself, but I can imagine that there are quite a few of us that do.  When we've read most or all the books discussed or mentioned, then the thrill increases exponentially.  Several books have become favorites for me because, either by fiction or personal experience, the books tell of how important reading is to their lives and others' lives.  Reading transports us to the stories in those books and how they so often relate to our own lives.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, and The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes are all books that show how reading books positively impacts lives.  Books are deceptively powerful.  They can be an affirmation when you need one, an escape when you need one, a friend when you need one, a learning experience when you don't realize you need one, or a bridge to others when you need that.  They can bring communities together, with programs like "One Book, One City" or just by the public library reaching out to involve the community.  The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is a rediscovery of community, started by an unlikely friendship and reading.

Aleisha Thomas is working at the local library in the Wembley area of greater London.  It's a small library with not much to do, and Aleisha is both bored and angry.  Her other classmates are off on vacation or having a summer of fun before attending uni cuts into their lives of leisure.  Aleisha's life is anything but carefree.  She needs to work to help with finances at home, where her older brother works hard, but her mother is suffering from mental problems and needs close supervision.  The mother, Leilah, imposes her gloom on Aleisha and her brother Aiden by insisting that the house be shut up, windows closed and curtains drawn, so it's hot and dark, not a pleasant place for a seventeen-year-old and a young man in his mid-twenties.  Aidan had encouraged Aleisha to take the library job, a job he had worked when he was younger and enjoyed.  Of course, Aidan is a reader and Aleisha isn't.  

So, it's not entirely unexpected that Aleisha was grumpy.  She was especially grump to an older man named Mukesh Patel, who came wandering into the library as if it were an alien space ship and he didn't know where he was or what he was looking for.  Mukesh's wife Naina had been the reader, not him.  But, after Naina being dead for two years, Mukesh had finally picked up a book, The Time Traveler's Wife, which Naina had checked out but hadn't returned to the library.  He read it, and it made him feel closer to his wife.  Just having the book in the house helped him feel her presence, but he knew he needed to return it to the Harrow Street Library and so he was now there with the book in his bag.  He thought he might ask the librarian behind the desk to suggest something else to read, as his granddaughter Priya was a voracious reader, and it might help them connect more.

The librarian or helper who is on duty is Aleisha, grumpy Aleisha.  She is in no mood for questions from anyone, even an old man who is looking for a lifeline.  Of course, Aleisha doesn't yet know he needs a lifeline.  To put it mildly, she doesn't have any recommendations for Mukesh.  To put it bluntly, she runs him out of the library.  Mukesh calls the library the next day and reports Aleisha's rudeness, which results in a dressing down from Kyle, another library employee.  Kyle reminds her that she is lucky to have the job and that she needs to engage in some reading, so that she will have actual books to recommend.  His suggestion is that she start with To Kill a Mockingbird.  She takes his suggestion and inside the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, she finds a list of eight books with the words "Just in case you need it" written at the top.  Aleisha feels bad about how she treated Mukesh, and she decides to use the list as a recommendation list for him, with her reading each book ahead of his reading.  

As Aleisha and Mukesh read through the list of books together, they talk about them, and Mukesh's insights surprise me most of all.  We discover just what a deep thinking man he is and how much he needs these books and Aleisha to reconnect to the world.  It's an eclectic list, with titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, and Little Women.  They are, of course, what have come to be thought of as classics, and both Aleisha and Mukesh glean relevance from all of them.  Mukesh starts coming out of his shell of mourning more and more, and like all good connections, his and Aleisha's reaches beyond themselves.  What's particularly eye-opening is how important this small community library is to the people who use it and those who will now discover it.

Sara Nisha Adams has written an outstanding debut.  I feel like she looked inside my mind and heart, and she wrote a book for me.  That's always the best feeling when reading a book, those little gasps of how did the author know that's what I felt.  The Reading List is a book about reading, but it's a story about people, too, people we come to care about and want the best for.  Major issues are a part of these two characters, including death, grief, mental illness, loneliness, and aging.  Adams throws a lot at these two, but there really is strength in numbers, whether they come from real life or the pages of a story.  I know I have read one of my favorite books of the year (and beyond) in The Reading List.  I do think the book is more meaningful if you've read at least some of the books on the list.  And, now I need to visit my library and check out one that I missed on the list.

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell: Reading Room Review


Lisa Jewell consistently writes books I love to read. The first book I read of hers was Watching You, and this book, The Night She Disappeared is my 5th book by this now favorite author. All books I’ve read thus far have been riveting reads, but I have to say this new one, The Night She Disappeared, has catapulted to the top of the list as my favorite. It’s a book you want to read nonstop until the end, but it’s also a book you don’t want to end. 

Tallulah Murphy is a nineteen year old teen mother in 2017, living with her mother, raising her baby boy, and going to college. The baby’s father has recently come to live with them, and Zach seems to finally be taking to fatherhood now, helping with Noah and working to save money for a place of their own. Tallulah’s mom, Kim, helps it all work, too. Kim has always held her family together, providing for and nurturing Tallulah and her brother Ryan after their father left them. 

Kim is happy that Tallulah and Zach and Noah seem on a good path to self-sufficiency. On a warm summer night in June, Kim babysits Noah as Tallulah and Zach go out to the local pub for dinner and a celebration of sorts, an evening Kim suspects might end in a proposal. But, when the teenagers don’t return by the next morning, Kim knows that something is very wrong. After asking around, she discovers that the two accompanied some other young people their age from the pub to a girl’s house. Kim goes to the house, which turns out to be a monstrosity of opulent excess in the woods, but the girl named Scarlett and her mother say that Lula (what friends call her) and Zach left the party together in the late hours. When Kim runs out of people to question, she reports her daughter and Zach as missing to the Upfield Common police. An investigation is opened, but even after a search of the woods, the question of where the couple disappeared to is still wide open. 

A year later, there’s a new headmaster at Maypole School, the exclusive boarding school located in Upfield Common for affluent students needing a second chance after flunking their GCSEs and their A levels. Shaun, the new headmaster and his girlfriend Sophie move into the headmaster’s cottage, which is on the edge of the school grounds and by the woods. These are the same woods that run by Scarlett’s house and were searched, without result, when Tallulah and Zach were reported missing. 

Sophie is an author of a cozy detective mystery series, and thus, she is intrigued when she comes upon a handwritten sign posted on the fence at the end of their cottage grounds that reads, “Dig Here.” At first, she ignores it, but after a couple of days, she at last gives in and digs. What she finds draws her into the mystery of the missing teens and leads to a meeting with Kim. It would seem someone knows something, and Sophie and Kim become determined to find out who it is and what they know.

The dual timelines, 2017 and 2018, of then and now, the year of the disappearance and a year later, reveal the story to the reader through different perspectives. There is also a 2016 timeline, which I call Tallulah's truth, as gives the readers their insight into Tallulah’s life and feelings leading up to Zach moving in with her. 2016 gives some vital information of what is honestly going on with Tallulah, not just what her mom Kim thinks, and it makes Tallulah’s character the most developed in the book. The alternating timelines are well balanced and give nothing about the ending away at all. It’s still a gobsmacking answer what happened to Tallulah and Zach.

Like the darkness slowly creeping across your lawn at dusk, this book’s pacing brings on the darkness bit by bit of two people disappearing without a trace. While some might consider the pace somewhat slow, I thought it was just right. A slow pace for sure, but one that unfolds the clues and backstory with a slow burn, a burn that explodes at the perfect moment. There’s a feeling that something big is lurking just around the corner, and I found that thrilling. The book is 465 pages, but I can’t think of anything that should have been left out. Even the epilogue served a purpose, but you might need to think carefully about why it's added and what it reveals. I actually read the epilogue twice, one more time after I'd calmed down from the fever of finishing the book.

From the creepy crawly prologue about arachnophobia and the dark to the breathtaking end, The Night She Disappeared is page after page a mesmerizing story. It is high on my list of favorite reads for 2021, and I think it is Lisa Jewel’s best book to date.