Category Archives: Books

Book Buzz: There Was a Fire Here

We’ve all played the game, the one where you consider what you would grab if your house was on fire and you had no time to pack. When your life literally depended on your getting out of there ASAP.

Risa Nye and her family faced that decision, but it was no game.

It was less than a month before Nye’s 40th birthday. She was musing over the passage of time and her lost youth when the unthinkable occurred.

Book Buzz: There Was a Fire Here

There Was a Fire Here

In her beautifully told but wrenching new memoir, There Was a Fire Here, Nye recounts the trauma and the aftermath of the devastating fire that destroyed her home.

It happened on October 19, 1991. A grass fire was reported and quickly contained by fire crews. Or so they thought.  The next day gusts of wind quickly spread pockets of fire still burning in the grass. Within a short time flames destroyed the local power station, obliterating eight pumping plants. Water pressure dropped. The smoke and fluttering ash were heavy enough to cause residents’ eyes to sting.

And the fire spread like … wildfire.

Nye and her husband Bruce told their two young children that they would wait out the firestorm at the home of Bruce’s parents nearby. They gathered what they thought was important at the time: changes of clothing, jewelry, photo albums.

In fact, they never returned to their beautiful home. It was the Great Oakland Fire that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 25 people.

Their home was leveled to its foundation. It would take two years to rebuild.

Nye skillfully builds the tension and horror, the feeling of surrealism, as she and her husband absorb the extent of the destruction.  Belongings and keepsakes that remained in the house were gone forever. Articles of clothing, photos of great-grandparents, children’s toys, were never to be seen again. The blue baseball glove Nye’s father had given her; a gorgeous pink party dress — a consignment shop steal — she had worn just twice; a baby blanket. She grieves their loss. In chapters titled “Artifacts,” Nye shares the sentimental significance of these items, and it is heartbreaking.

She writes, “There was a fire here that wiped out not only things, not only people, but memories–a past with nothing left to mark its presence.”

Haunting and sobering, yes, but inspirational with dashes of humor as well, There Was a Fire Here is one woman’s story of catastrophic loss and the will to move on.


I received a copy of There Was a Fire Here from She Writes Press for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Writing a Book Made Simpler in 1-2-3

This book writing stuff. It’s really hard.

My novel has been a work in progress for a good year and a half, and I wish I could say it was almost done. I realized, however, during three days of writing workshops at the Philadelphia Writers Conference that I have much to do before calling it a day.

Book writing isn’t just the writing.

A key part is the planning, the structuring. There are mechanics to novel writing that can not be ignored. Each character, for example, must have a story arc comprised of the situation, the spark and the conclusion. A character must have a goal and obstacles that must be overcome to reach that goal. And once that is established, the character’s arc must intersect with the other characters’ arcs.

Dialogue needs a context and a subtext. Dialogue must be authentic but not mundane. It can be reported or condensed, and it needs to propel the action.

I could have done this differently.

There is another way, a better way, that writer and editor Stuart Horwitz presents in his new book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love it, the third book in his Book Architecture Trilogy.

Writing: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts

Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, RI ( whose clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction.

I was fortunate to meet Horwitz at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference, and his keynote was one of the highlights for me, so much so that I approached him after his presentation to tell him how much I enjoyed it. Not only is Horwitz a smart guy, he is down to earth and has a great sense of humor. As a writer, he totally gets the frustrations we writers experience with endless revisions. He’s been there himself.

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts gives writers, fiction and non-fiction alike, a practical way to get through the revision process with minimal consternation. Horwitz proposes that a book can be completed in three drafts:

  • The messy draft: which is all about getting it down.
  • The method draft: which is all about making sense.
  • The polished draft: which is all about making it good.

“I think about the people who don’t publish their books, and too often it’s not because they lack the writing skills. It’s because they got lost along the way. One draft isn’t going to cut it, but neither is twenty,” Horwitz says. “All you need is three drafts, and the tools to know where you are in the process.”

What’s more, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts is interactive. The book is nicknamed “3D” because it contains nine stop-motion videos that bring the concepts to life through the use of action figures, and nine PDFs for when you want more detailed information and instructions about topics such as “How to Find Your Theme,” “The Five Definitions of Scene,” and “How to Construct Your Book Proposal.”

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts is available in both print and digital editions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

I’m taking a look at my novel through a different lens now, and it is so worth the extra time.


I received a copy of Finish Your Book in Three Drafts for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.


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Book Buzz: Under the Harrow

If there is a season for good reads, it is certainly summer. Have I got a juicy one for you.

Book Buzz: Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry starts off, as all good psychological thrillers do, with a sense of normalcy. Nora, the narrator, is boarding a train in London to go visit her sister Rachel in the countryside as she often does. Her mind wanders as she muses about the mundane: her job, old conversations, the sisters’ vacation in Cornwall, the scenery out the window.

She reaches her destination and finds that Rachel and her dog are not there waiting. Nora figures Rachel has been stuck at work and sets off for the house by herself.

What awaits her is a ghastly scene. Rachel is the victim of a brutal murder.

Under the Harrow

By definition, under the harrow means distressed and in peril. In the aftermath of her trauma, Nora struggles to gather her wits so she can be helpful to the police. She is skeptical that they are on the right track, however. Rachel had been the victim of an assault years ago, a case that has gone unsolved. Was this perpetrator the same? Was it the married neighbor, a handyman, who had done work in Rachel’s house and was the last one to see her alive? Was it any one of the townspeople whom Nora regards with suspicion? By obsessively tracking down the killer she finds a way to work through her grief.

This is Berry’s debut novel, and she is a gifted writer and storyteller. Her prose is spare and powerful, and as the story unfolds we learn much about the tender, fiercely loyal, complex relationship between the sisters.

Under the Harrow is an emotional, suspenseful story that is as much a study of the bond between sisters as it is an absorbing murder mystery.

Who doesn’t love a page turner? Slap on your suntan lotion and enjoy this engrossing summer read.


One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Under the Harrow. Please leave a comment and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.


I received a copy of Under the Harrow from Penguin for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: The Ecliptic

Writer’s block. The two words that can make a writer shudder. Or any creative person who produces, produces, produces and then — bump — hits a wall.

Book Buzz: The Ecliptic

I suspect we’ve all encountered this at some point or another. For promising artists on the rise, however, who have achieved some level of success, the public scrutiny can only exacerbate the problem, creating a vicious cycle of self-doubt and creative paralysis.

The Ecliptic

In Benjamin Wood’s novel The Ecliptic, a group of gifted but stalled artists is voluntarily sequestered on the Turkish island of Portmantle to have the time and space to be inspired to complete their work.

To become a part of this artist’s colony is actually a gift; one needs to be sponsored by a wealthy benefactor to even apply. Once there, the artist is free to stay as long as it takes, as long as the benefactor continues to provide support. In exchange, the artists agree to give up all ties to the outside world, including their own names;  they are assigned new names upon their arrival. They also surrender their passports.

The story is narrated by Elspeth Conroy, or Knell as she is named, a talented but insecure, even tortured Scottish painter who has achieved some renown in the London art world. She struggles to finish a mural featuring the ecliptic – the sun’s journey through the heavens as seen from Earth. She has been on the island for ten years. Her companions are Quickman, who was struck with writer’s block when his only novel became a classic, MacKinney, a playwright, and Pettifer, an architect who obsesses over the cathedral he has yet to create.

The setting shuttles back and forth between the isolated island and the London art scene, where we see Elspeth establish herself as an artist of promise, only to fall into despair when her creativity dries up.

The book is divided into four parts: the first, an introduction to life on Portmantle. The second section reveals Elspeth’s backstory, her rise in the art world and the concomitant struggles, internally, romantically and commercially. In the third part we return to Portmantle where mysteries  begin to unfold and there are rumblings of discontent following the untimely death of a newcomer to the island. Elspeth is becoming disenchanted with her stay and contemplates leaving. In the last section, well, I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but there are plot twists that will surprise or possibly disappoint you. But I’m not going to give it away!

Part fantasy, part mystery, part expose, The Ecliptic is a compelling read about the life of an artist, the day in, day out struggle to maintain one’s creative muse. Wood is a skillful, imaginative writer who brings these likeable, conflicted characters to life and gives us a bird’s eye view into their world.


One lucky reader will receive a copy of The Ecliptic. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.


I received a copy of The Ecliptic from Penguin for a honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday

How much do I love the feeling of turning the last page of a book and sitting for a moment, a lump in my throat, unwilling to break the spell the story has cast on me?

I love it so much and I wish it happened all the time. But we readers know that this visceral response is special, often unexpected, and something to cherish.

Mothering Sunday had this effect on me.

Mothering SundayMothering Sunday is written by Graham Swift, winner of the Booker Prize for Last Orders and author of many other novels. Unfolding as languidly as honey dripping off a teaspoon, it is a mesmerizing  tale of an illicit romance from the point of view of the mistress.

It is 1924, in rural Berkshire, England, after the war has ravaged the lives of families both rich and poor.  The wealthy Nivens family of Beechwood lost both sons in the war and reduced its household staff to just two. Jane is the servant girl and Milly is the cook.

The story opens on an unusually warm day in March — Mothering Sunday, it happens to be, a day the wealthy allow their servants a half day off to visit their mothers. Delighting in the gift of a sunny day, the Nivens family departs for lunch with their friends, the Sheringhams. Milly leaves to visit her mother, and Jane, an orphan and therefore having no mother to visit, bicycles over to the Sheringham estate, Upleigh, to meet Paul Sheringham, with whom she has been having a clandestine affair for six years.

Paul is the heir to the estate since he is the only son left in his family. His two brothers were also killed in the war.

And this is how the novel begins, with just-after rapturous sex on a lazy and languorous day, in a still house, with beams of sunlight streaming in the open window dancing on the naked bodies in bed.  Neither one of them wants to move, but Paul eventually gets up to dress. He is running late to meet his fiancee for lunch. As he heads out, he tells Jane to lock the door behind her when she is ready to go. She hears his sports car motor off down the road, scattering stones in its wake. Before she gets dressed, she pads around the house, still naked, observing each room, especially the library.

The pleasant reverie we readers have been lulled into is suddenly punctuated by a sentence that made me gasp. Something awful happens, a tragedy, that has far reaching repercussions for everyone and changes the trajectory of Jane’s life.

Recounted from Jane’s perspective as an old woman, we see how fate and resilience altered the life of a woman and freed her from the servant destiny she would have expected. In spite of deprivation and loss, a woman’s spirit prevails and leads to profound self-discovery.

Throughout this slim novel, under 200 pages, the tapestry of language is woven so exquisitely that nearly every sentence is a wonder into itself. Every detail has its place and special meaning, whether it is the race horse owned by the Sheringhams or the works of Joseph Conrad discovered by Jane.

Mothering Sunday is spare but intensely emotional, a work of perfection and bliss.


I am delighted to give one of my readers a copy of Mothering Sunday. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected.


I received a copy of Mothering Sunday from Knopf for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Written on My Heart

Written on My Heart

Those of us who enjoy reminiscing about “the good old days” will find them in the new novel by Morgan Callan Rogers, Written on My Heart. Set in a tiny fishing village in the early 1970s, it hearkens back to a time when things were so much simpler. At least in retrospect it seems that way.

Written on My Heart

Florine and Bud, the young married couple and protagonists, live in a small community called The Point on the coast of Maine. This is a place where everyone knows everyone (and their business). People keep their doors unlocked and visitors show up unannounced. It is precisely the kind of village referred to in “it takes a village to raise a child,” because the residents all love children and look out for them. Friends and family are ready and willing to help at any time, whether it’s babysitting, car repairs or a comforting shoulder to lean on.

It seems almost idyllic. Communication happens face-to-face. Small town pleasures like picnics, birthday parties and backyard weddings provide the entertainment. The village seems untouched by events taking place in the rest of the world, and except for one character who serves time in Viet Nam, The Point seems untouched by the political and social upheaval of those times.

Which is just the way they liked it.

Lest you think this is a remake of The Waltons, let me assure you it is not. There is sinful behavior (by Walton standards, anyway). There is cussing and drinking and wrongdoing. More significantly, there is the underlying tension of Florine’s missing mother, whose mysterious disappearance years ago has never been solved, as well as friction with a wealthy family that lives on “the better side” of town.

I found myself caught up in the story. The characters are so well drawn that you connect with them instantly, and wonder about them when you’ve finished the book. Florine is scrappy and blunt and can drop the f-bomb with the best of them. But she is a tender mother and has so much love in her heart for her family, her friends and her little corner of the world. She and Bud are so likeable that I found myself cheering them on.

Written on My Heart is a sequel to Rogers’ first book, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, which I have not read but will put it on my TBR list now. Fortunately, you don’t need to read the books consecutively to understand what is going on.

I hope there will be a sequel, because I really want to see what happens with Florine and Bud next.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Written on My Heart. Please leave a message below and a winner will be randomly selected.

I received a copy of Written on My Heart from Plume for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Start at the Beginning

Although my child bearing days are long over, I remember my pregnancies as being a time of intense happiness and dizzying anticipation.

I was lucky, very lucky.  I had an easy time of it, from the very beginning to the end.

I still count my blessings, because for many women, it’s not easy at all.

In my 20s and 30s, when my friends and I were starting our families, there was plenty of joy to go around. With each announcement of the good news, we would squeal with delight for the new mama-to-be. Our conversations were all about pregnancy, obstetricians, baby names and where to find Mommy and Me classes.

But there were a few friends who were dealing with infertility issues, and our hearts broke for them. Out of respect, we kept our baby talk to a minimum when they were around. We cheered them on through fertility treatments and shared their anguish when the treatments failed.

Infertility was a strain on their relationships with their husbands, family and friends, including those of us either pregnant or already mothers. Some chose to be open about it; others preferred not to. Either way, their preferences had to be respected. As close as we were, I’m sure we didn’t understand the extent of the sadness they were going through.

I thought of this while reading Judy Mollen Walters’ absorbing new novel, Start at the Beginning, the story of how infertility can affect a friendship and continue to reverberate for years after.

Start at the Beginning

Robin is struggling with infertility when she meets Sarah, a young mother who just moved to the neighborhood with her husband and baby daughter. Robin and Sarah become good friends, in spite of the fact that Robin is unwillingly childless. Each time Robin gets pregnant, Sarah is sure everything will finally turn out well for her friend.

However, heartbreak strikes again and again, as Robin goes through several miscarriages. How does this affect her friendship with Sarah? Sarah, wanting to support her friend, is hurt when Robin pulls away. But she understands that Robin needs her space, and eventually they will resume their friendship. At the same time, she is overburdened with her daughter’s special needs and her husband’s business travels that keep him away most of the week.

Having exhausted all their options, Robin and her husband have almost given up. Then one day a solution appears, which seems to provide the happy ending both Robin and Sarah desire. Unbeknownst to them, this solution, couched in layers of secrecy, will have a ripple effect on their families and themselves for many years to come, changing lives beyond their comprehension.

Walters deftly describes the close but precarious friendship between these women as they both deal with wanting what they can’t have. Start From the Beginning is an honest, heartrending look into a couple’s quest to become parents and an aftermath they never could have imagined.


Walters will be speaking this Saturday, March 19, at the New Jersey ASJA in Cranford, New Jersey. For details and information about future events, plus her other novels, check out her website.

I received a copy of Start at the Beginning for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

I grew up in a weight-obsessed culture. So did you.

Things have not changed since I was a girl on a grapefruit diet. If anything, they’re worse.

Haven’t we all complained about being fat?

Most of us women have bought into that obsession at one time or another: the way you glance in the mirror and then quickly away in disgust … diet by consuming a ridiculously low number of calories a day and/or work out at the gym for hours … salivate over cooking shows and dessert recipes while denying  yourself everything … and most importantly, think that becoming thin will solve all your problems. If so,  you will sigh with recognition at Lizzie, the protagonist in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

This searing debut novel by Mona Awad is a series of vignettes about a girl coming of age. It takes a poke at our judgmental culture and the quest for perfection, but it is also about the struggle for self-acceptance and the role our friends and family play in that process.

Lizzie is an overweight, awkward teenager, full of self-loathing. She yearns to have a boyfriend and seeks out the wrong men, men who just use her, so she tries online chat rooms where her body can be obscured.  One of the men she meets online invites her for a visit, and it goes well. They enjoy a love of music and feel comfortable with each other. After several visits, they decide to get married.

But marriage isn’t enough to satisfy her. Hungry for the validation that eludes her as a fat person, she embarks on a killer diet and exercise regime and transforms her body. How does that affect her husband, who fell in love with her when she was fat? And does the outcome really make her happy?

Awad’s descriptions are razor sharp. I think most of us can relate to the agony of trying on an ill-fitting dress in a store dressing room. I loved this scene between Lizzie, coveting a Diane von Furstenberg dress, and the imperious saleswoman.

“How are we doing in here?”

We. She means me and the von Furstenberg. the von Furstenberg and I. She saw me out of the corner of her exquisitely lined eye going to the back of the store to retrieve it between the frigid Eileen Fishers and the smug Max Azrias and she disapproves. She knows the von Furstenerg is a separate entity, that it and I will never be one.

I’m just thinking how I’ll wear it out of the store. Picturing how I’ll pull back the curtain in the von Furstenberg, turn my zippered, von Furstenberged back to her and say, all casual, over my shoulder, Cut the tag, please?

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a novel of dark humor and heart tugging pathos, a stunning portrait of the diet driven, image conscience culture we can’t seem to change. I adore this book and am thrilled to find this fresh and exciting new author.

No surprise, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl was named in February’s Top Ten Library Reads Pick, Bustle’s Most Anticipated Books of 2016, and ELLE’s Novels by Women Everyone Will Be Talking About in 2016.

My crazy days of cabbage soup diets and grapefruit diets and so many others are long over, but it all came back to me reading this book.  I started dieting in high school and have yo-yo’ed through life ever since.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl from Penguin for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: The Stranger in My Recliner

Husband: (opening front door and calling out) “Honey, we’re home.”

Wife: (coming down the steps) “Hi … but who is we?”

Husband: “I brought someone home tonight. Hope you don’t mind. An elderly, mentally challenged homeless person. It’s OK if she stays with us, right?”

The Stranger in My Recliner

This is not a joke. Nor is it fiction. This is a paraphrased semblance of what really happened to author Doreen McGettigan, as she reveals in her new memoir, The Stranger in My Recliner.

Doreen’s husband John found Sophie, the homeless woman, huddled outside a McDonald’s one cold night, clutching a couple of shopping bags. After a moment he recognized her. She used to attend the same AA meetings he had twenty years earlier. He was shocked to see how she had deteriorated. Remembering her kindnesses to him, he wanted to repay that kindness now.

Doreen was pretty shocked to be presented with this stranger but agreed to take her in, figuring they would locate Sophie’s family members or, worst case scenario, find her another place to stay.

Sophie once had a family, but she lost contact with every member, and none of them came forward to rescue her. Doreen and John tried unsuccessfully to find someone. Just as her family failed her, so did government assistance. Doreen and John soon found out what a nightmare the mental health system was: the red tape, the unanswered phone calls, the dead ends.

There was nowhere for Sophie to go. The McGettigans would not let her go back to the streets. She ended up living with them for over two years.

A Stranger in My Recliner

Think about it. This was a stranger. A stranger who had mental health issues, who was unable to do anything for herself. She was often incontinent had terrible hygiene. She could throw tantrums like a child. She spent all her waking hours in the blue recliner in the living room, watching soap operas. She could be demanding and mean-spirited.

And yet the McGettigans were there for her. The impact on their marriage, their children and grandchildren, their lifestyle was huge. They sacrificed so much to help Sophie.

Would you have done that for a stranger?

I have to be honest. I don’t think I would have.

The kindness and compassion they showed to Sophie is nothing less than extraordinary. And despite the difficulties of caring for her, they both came to love her.

As she did in her previous book, Bristol Boyz Stomp, a story about the random road rage that claimed her brother’s life, Doreen McGettigan pulls no punches. She is unsparing in her frustrations of caring for Sophie and about the plight of homeless people in general. Her research into the mental health care system reveals a history of abuse and neglect, let alone mismanagement. Our system routinely lets homeless people fall through the cracks, and it’s shameful.

Homelessness continues to be a major issue in our country, with an estimated homeless population of between 2.5 million and 3.5 million. Approximately 26% of homeless people have a severe mental illness, and approximately 34% are chronic substance abuse users.

Reading The Stranger in My Recliner was an eye opener for me. First of all, it is gratifying to know that there are really, really good people in this crazy world of ours. Secondly, the facts about our mental health system are shocking. There are millions of other Sophies on the streets who have no family, no advocates, nowhere to go.

The Stranger in My Recliner is gritty and real. Sophie’s story is one I won’t soon forget.


I received a copy of The Stranger in My Recliner for an honest review,
which is the only type of review i write.

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Book Buzz: Perfect Days

If you have nerves of steel and a stomach to match, you might be able to handle reading Perfect Days, the chilling crime novel from Brazilian wunderkind Raphael Montes that has its English language debut today.

Perfect Days

But if sexual perversion, bondage, kidnapping, maiming and killing are just too much, think twice.

Perfect Days is the story of Teo, a medical student, and Clarice, the woman he obsesses over, and their disturbing jaunt through the highways and byways of Brazil.


On the creep-o-meter, I would rank Perfect Days, well, let’s put it this way. The needle has zoomed so far to the right that it has broken the scale.

This is not the kind of book I normally read, but I was intrigued by the buzz. Scott Turow blurbed on the cover, “Raphael Montes is one of the most brilliant young novelists I’ve encountered. He is certain to redefine Brazilian crime fiction and to emerge as a figure on the world literary scene.”

So I thought I would give it a shot. The beginning paragraphs were strong and I was hooked right away.  After a few pages when things started to, well, deteriorate, I debated whether I should continue.

And then I saw that Perfect Days was named an Amazon Best Book of February 2016, and I decided to stay with it til the bitter end. As twisted and macabre as it was, I couldn’t put it down.

Turow is right. Montes is a terrific writer.

Perfect Days

Teo lives with his wheelchair-bound mother in an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. His best friend is a cadaver (mmm hmm). He meets Clarice, a pretty, vivacious art history student who aspires to be a screenwriter, at a party his mother forces him to attend. Teo falls for Clarice and imagines a life with her. She has no interest in him, but he is undeterred.

Without the social skills to pursue her like a normal person, he kidnaps her, thinking that forced togetherness will open her eyes to his charms and she will fall in love and they will live happily ever after.

There are unexpected twists and turns as the characters shift roles and make their way to the beautiful and remote island of Ilha Grande (which I have been to. It was where my son and his Brazilian fiancee got married). We learn more about their personalities and motivations as the story unfolds. Is Clarice’s detest for Teo dissolving or is this a strategy to escape? When will Teo get caught? The ending totally caught me by surprise.

To get you in the mood, here is book trailer featuring the author.

And here is one with readers’ reactions … priceless.

Take the creepiness of Gone Girl and multiply it by 100. That comes close to the gestalt of Perfect Days.


One of my readers will receive a copy of Perfect Days (if you are brave enough to try it!). Please leave a comment below and a winner will be chosen randomly. US addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Perfect Days from Penguin for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

If you like my blog post, please share it!
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