Latest book review: Beyond the Last Star: A Novella by R.G. Howard

By Ekta R. Garg

October 29, 2014

Rated: Bordering on Borrow it

A young woman receives a mysterious journal on her birthday. The journal begins giving her instructions, and before she can wonder what the messages means her life takes a dramatic turn. The journal’s directions save her from the chaos and take her to a brand new place full of new challenges. Author R.G. Howard shares with his readers the somewhat rough-edged but interesting science fiction novella Beyond the Last Star.

The year is 2861 and Washington D.C. resident Icara Movado skips part of school on the day before her birthday to visit Sophia De Lancey, the owner of Icara’s favorite bakery. Sophia gives Icara a blank journal as a gift, but when Icara starts leafing through the pages she finds a mysterious message on the last page.

“It is very important that you listen to everything I say from here onward,” the page instructs. “Within our grasp are entire worlds ready for exploration. I’ll be with you every step of the way, but what you need to do right now is run outside the wall.”

Icara understands the cryptic message minutes later when a bomb detonates in the bakery. She escapes by crossing the forbidden boundary that edges the city, meeting other teens along the way. Again and again Icara consults the journal for guidance, and it takes her and her new friends to an abandoned spaceship. The journal directs her to use an unusual device in the spaceship to transport herself to a new place—to a new decade in time, in fact, and to a ship in space.

Author R.G. Howard gives readers a familiar but likable science fiction premise in Beyond the Last Star, the first novella in his Traverse Series. The book, however, would improve with another round or two of editing, both for content as well as proofing errors.

Howard doesn’t wait for his readers to fill in the lines of the story, offering all of the information via narration and dialogue and taking away the need for the readers’ imagination. Die-hard science fiction fans may not like being taken for granted in this way. Also, Howard’s facts don’t always line up; in one paragraph he implies that Icara is 12 years old. In another a character states Icara is 11.

Given its drawbacks, however, Beyond the Last Star does offer some nice moments. Readers will like Icara, and Howard drops intriguing plot points throughout the novella. With some tinkering Howard will have a wonderful start to his series of stories.

I believe Beyond the Last Star borders on Borrow it.


Brand new review: Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

By Ekta R. Garg

October 22, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

A young boy learns about his destiny as someone who can communicate with ravens. When he tries to use his special power to find the father who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, the boy realizes he will need his friends to help him figure out the problem. But several adults might have what it takes to stop them. Author George Hagen offers readers his first children’s book in the mostly charming Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle.

Eleven-year-old Gabriel Finley loves riddles, although he knows other kids don’t. Gabriel grew up with a father who challenged him all the time with riddles, helping him figure out the harder ones and celebrating with him when he got them right. But three years ago Adam Finley disappeared. Although Adam’s sister and Gabriel’s aunt, Jasmine, has become Gabriel’s guardian and loves him, Gabriel misses his father and wants him to come back.

Across the street from Gabriel’s New York home, a mother raven nurtures her young chick and protects it from the valravens, the sector of birds that have accomplished their bid for immortality by acting in their own selfish interests. As the chick gets bigger and stronger, he comes to understand that he has a special place in the world of the ravens. More than that special place, the chick learns he may harbor the abilities to help his own species and the human race at the same time.

Events bring Gabriel and Paladin, the young raven, together. As they teach one another through their special communication, they begin to figure out that Adam Finley’s disappearance may serve as a link between ravens and humans. By building a slightly questionable alliance with another human/raven pair, Gabriel and Paladin (accompanied with gusto by Gabriel’s friends) embark on a quest to bring Adam home and save the world.

The book marks author George Hagen’s debut as a novelist for children; he has published books for adults with success. Several elements in Gabriel Finley… may also lead to a modicum of success in this target audience. His main characters come first on that list of elements.

Hagen has created in Gabriel a likeable protagonist, invoking a sense of sympathy for the child without tipping the balance in favor of melodrama. Gabriel’s friends, too, will make readers smile. Abby, the next-door neighbor, becomes a steadfast companion for Gabriel, encouraging him and never questioning the facts he shares about his connection to the ravens. Pamela, the violin prodigy, stands in as the reluctant participant. Somes, the boy who bullies Gabriel, turns into the ally who helps when it counts the most.

Pamela’s appearance in the book might feel slightly off track, however. Gabriel’s Aunt Jasmine offers Pamela and her mother, Trudy, shelter after a fire destroys their home. The link between Gabriel’s family and Pamela’s feels tenuous, and some readers who excel at anticipating the story might keep looking for Trudy to be more than an annoying houseguest. She never really turns enemy, leaving that issue somewhat unresolved.

Also, some might question whether Gabriel really needed three friends to help him on his quest. Hagen may have wanted to offer his readers familiarity in stock characters, and for the most part the children perform their parts well. An ending that feels a little abrupt might leave readers wondering exactly what happened, but Hagen may have left it open for a possible sequel.

The story will keep readers engaged, however. It goes from one scene to the next with somewhat predictable movements. For its target audience predictability may not count as a negative factor.

The highlight of the book comes in the riddles. Hagen has offered a variety of them: some in verse, some humorous, several puns. By the end of the book readers may look forward as eagerly to the riddles as they will to the book’s conclusion.

For the most part, I think readers in Hagen’s target audience will enjoy Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle.

Second book review for today: My Mother’s Secret by J.L Witterick

By Ekta R. Garg

October 15, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

In the midst of a war a woman risks her own life and her daughter’s life to help others. She hides people when they seek sanctuary, and she doesn’t turn anyone away—teaching her daughter some of life’s most important lessons in the process. J.L. Witterick takes a real story of the Holocaust and uses it as the basis for her sparse but powerful novel My Mother’s Secret.

Born to a Ukrainian father and Polish mother, Helena grows up in Germany with her brother, Damian. Although their father often exerts his strong will over their mother, Franciszka, Helena and Damian learn to share the good things in life with each other and their parents. When their father expresses pro-Nazi views at the beginning of World War II, however, Franciszka knows she can’t stay with him anymore. She doesn’t agree with the Nazis, and she doesn’t want her children growing up with that ideology. Her husband makes it clear that if she leaves she shouldn’t come back.

They move to Poland to the small town of Sokal, and for a time Helena feels safe. She gets a job and meets a man who catches her interest, and he begins to reciprocate. Helena begins to believe that life will get better, that moving to Sokal will mean better things for all of them.

When tragedy takes Damian away from them, Franciszka and Helena almost buckle under their grief. But even the grief of losing a son doesn’t diminish Franciszka’s compassion for others. Despite the fact that Sokal is a small dot on the map of Poland, the town isn’t immune to German invasion. Soldiers arrive, and the local Jewish population feels threatened. Some of the Jewish residents come to Franciszka for help, and Helena watches as her mother does what she can to help those persecuted for their cultural heritage.

Franciszka and Helena hide two families and a single solider, but none of the refugees know about the others. Better to keep them safe by keeping them ignorant, Franciszka says, and Helena sees the truth of this. She lives with a constant fear of getting caught, but she understands that her mother made the right choice by saying “yes” every time someone knocked on their door in the middle of the night.

Using viewpoints that toggle between Helena and the people she and her mother help, author J.L. Witterick tells the story in My Mother’s Secret with short chapters that almost read like diary entries. Witterick avoids detailed descriptions, which lend the novel a sparse feel in its opening chapters.

Readers might need several pages to get into the novel’s pace, but the sparseness lends to the book’s dramatic impact. At the end the story will leave a strong impression as only stories about the Holocaust can. Only 60 of Sokal’s 6000 Jews survived the war. The real Franciszka and her daughter saved 30 of them.

Knowing that, I highly recommend My Mother’s Secret.