Brand new review: The She Stands Alone by Nadine Keels

A woman decides to spend some time relearning how to enjoy the single life after getting dumped by her college boyfriend. What starts as “me time,” however, quickly turns into the aching realization that “me” actually means “alone.” She begins to wonder whether she really wants to be alone when another romantic possibility crosses her path. Author Nadine Keels shares the story of her protagonist in the potentially touching but much-too-short novelette The “She” Stands Alone.

Sheridan Jones loves books, and now that her college boyfriend, David, no longer occupies her time Sheridan can catch up on all the reading she’s missed. Reading about other people’s love stories just tends to remind her of her own botched experience, though, and it doesn’t help that many of her single friends have started getting married. While Sheridan does have some single friends, their pool seems to get smaller as the months pass.

At some point Sheridan decides enough is enough. If she can’t attract a man, she doesn’t need one. She can just take care of herself. After all, who else knows her better? She’ll just date herself!

The plan sounds like a good one, until her mailman-cum-neighbor begins to express an interest in her. But Sheridan doesn’t need him…does she? Shouldn’t she find fulfillment in life on her own?

Author Nadine Keels creates a likeable enough protagonist in Sheridan Jones, but Sheridan spends too much time in self-deprecation. While readers appreciate a character who can laugh at herself, Sheridan doesn’t miss a single opportunity to make a cute quip or offer a snarky observation of her life. Given that the story proceeds in first person, readers get to hear every single one of those observations. Because of that the novelette starts with a fun, upbeat tone, but by the halfway mark Sheridan’s attitude may make readers wonder whether she uses the self-deprecation as a defense mechanism…even against herself.

The other drawback to the story—its length—functions as a double-edged sword. The length keeps readers from enduring Sheridan’s outlook for too long, but it also doesn’t give the target audience enough time to get settled into the story. By the time readers feel like they can start sympathizing with Sheridan and her plight, she moves on and the novelette ends.

In toning down Sheridan’s nature and adding some more details about Sheridan’s background, Keels could really turn this into a winner. For now The “She” Stands Alone” Borders on Borrowing it.

Brand new review: Hello from the Gillespies by Monica McInerney

By Ekta R. Garg

December 10, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

Weighed down by the challenges of her life, a woman composes her annual Christmas letter with brutal honesty. She wants to use the draft as an opportunity to air her grievances to herself, but it gets sent out by mistake and the letter becomes the first in a chain of events that changes her life. Australian author Monica McInerney gives readers a funny, sweet family to follow in Hello from the Gillespies.

Living in the Australian outback Angela Gillespie sends out a Christmas letter to her family and friends every year. She’s done so for the last 33 years, and the list includes about 100 people. Angela always makes an extra effort to stay positive in her letters, sharing only the good and glossing over the bad.

But this year the burden to stay positive becomes too heavy. The operations of her husband’s ranch have dwindled, and now Angela finds that Nick has begun to drift away from her. Their twins, Victoria and Genevieve, have both managed to fail in spectacular fashions in their respective jobs, one by sleeping with the boss and the other by sharing gossip with the wrong person. Angela and Nick’s third daughter, Lindy, moved back home and can’t stop crying. Her debts have followed her back to the ranch, and she doesn’t know what to do next with her life. And Angela’s youngest and only son, Ig, has an imaginary friend…even though he’s 10 years old.

Additionally Angela hasn’t felt well in a while, but she doesn’t know whether she wants to face what could be wrong. She doesn’t know how to face what’s wrong. Nothing seems right anymore.

On top of all this Nick’s Aunt Celia will join them for Christmas. And Angela really wishes she wasn’t coming.

Although Angela wants to use the letter for some private venting, the letter gets emailed to everyone on the list. Soon she begins receiving messages from people all around the world about her letter, and when Angela realizes what has happened she just hopes her own family doesn’t find out about it. It’s only a matter of time, however, when the kids and Nick do.

The letter becomes a sticking point for the family, but it also brings out some important realizations. As Nick and the kids begin to deal with the letter and what it means to each of them personally, their family changes in a dramatic way. All at once they learn how Angela’s best intentions fortified the document that held some truths difficult to face.

Author Monica McInerney handles her story with deft treatment and humor. Angela’s trials definitely come across as relatable, and readers will find themselves shaking their heads in sympathy and laughing out loud at her issues. While some of the situations might come across as a little exaggerated McInerney gently brings her plot and her characters back to the center, keeping Angela and all of the Gillespies grounded.

The climax of the story will keep readers guessing, even if the events leading up to it veer slightly off the story’s main track. McInerney also gives her target audience a delightful surprise in one of the subplots, handling its climax with a sense of fun and a touch of irony. She shies away from the obvious conclusions a similar story might make, giving Hello from the Gillespies a fresh feel. Her enticing descriptions of the landscape will draw her target audience to the book and might even inspire a few trips to Australia.

I recommend readers Bookmark Hello from the Gillespies.

Latest review: Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett

By Ekta R. Garg

December 3, 2014

Rated: Bypass it

A teen deals with the impending first anniversary of the death of her uncle. As the anniversary approaches, she tries to deal with the dearth in her life created by the tragedy. Her family and friends do their best to help her with her grief, but nothing works—until someone new enters her life. Kate Bassett offers readers a first-person look at grief and its effects on young adults in the well-intended but meandering novel Words and Their Meanings.

Anna O’Mally has spent the last year deep in mourning. Her Uncle Joe—just two years older than her and the most important person in her world—died, and Anna has lost her life compass. She has retreated into herself and uses punk singer Patti Smith as inspiration to chart a new path for herself. This includes doing “coffin yoga” every morning and searching for a daily verse that she writes on her arm with a marker. The words act as a tangible reminder of the loss of both Joe and her desire to write, her one driving talent she shared with him.

Her family members have dealt with the loss of Joe in their own ways. Her father and Joe’s older brother has an affair, making his mistress pregnant. Her maternal grandfather moves in and does his best to help Anna’s mother with daily tasks and chores. Her little sister, Bea, has become the master at hiding, finding small enclosed spaces where she can process her own grief. Anna’s handling of the situation, though, counts as the most extreme, and her mother and her latest therapist force Anna to promise that she will give up her mourning on the first anniversary of Joe’s death or else go to a religious boarding school meant to rehabilitate her.

Anna agrees in public but knows in private she will never forget Joe or their special relationship. In an effort to humor her mother, though, she allows her best friend to help her get a job as a server in a catering company. Through work she meets Mateo, the young hot chef every girl wants. Despite every inclination otherwise, Anna feels a strong draw toward Mateo and she also feels confused. Does feeling so strongly for Mateo mean she will forget her grief?

Author Kate Bassett uses her prose well, and yet the story flounders. Told in first person, Anna shares the depth of her grief well. When Mateo enters the story, however, Anna’s attention shifts and so does the focus of the book. A revelation about Joe’s past brings the story back to his death for a short time, but Anna spends so much time thinking about her loss that she doesn’t focus on the person.

In this feature Bassett makes a valid point about death: people often give their grief a higher priority than the relationship they shared with those who no longer live. The result in the book, however, makes the story flat. Anna spends enough time with Mateo and thinking and talking about him that at one point readers may wonder whether Mateo’s presence should become the real focus of the story. By the time Anna wanders back to trying to figure out Joe’s secret, the secret no longer seems like one. Readers will have no trouble guessing it. In fact the only person clueless throughout the book and shocked at the revelation is Anna.

I recommend readers bypass Words and Their Meanings.

Brand new review: The Murder of Adam and Eve by William Dietrich

By Ekta R. Garg

November 26, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

A teen gets drafted for a quest that could literally change the world and all of mankind: go back to prehistoric times, find Adam and Eve, and decide whether they should live or die. A teen girl joins the quest, and both young people must use their smarts and their knowledge about the twenty-first century to make their decision. Author William Dietrich challenges readers into thinking about the consequences of a reset of society in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes wandering young adult sci/fi novel The Murder of Adam and Eve.

In an effort to assemble a report for a chance at a college scholarship, Nick Brynner decides to explore an island that law enforcement has deemed “off limits.” Local lore dictates that everyone who has tried to explore the island has disappeared. Nick wants to be the one who comes back with information.

Before he can make the decision to return, however, Nick meets the mysterious Eleanor “Ellie” Terrell. They get sucked into a wormhole, and Ellie becomes his guide-cum-companion. She introduces Nick to Gabriel, the alien being who explains to Nick his mission.

Gabe belongs to the Xu, the intergalactic group responsible for overseeing Earth and other planets. After observing how humans have depleted Earth’s resources, the Xu have decided to give two of the planet’s representatives the chance to travel back in time and either eliminate Adam and Eve, the original ancestors of all mankind—thereby allowing for humans to get a fresh start—or else find some redeemable qualities in the couple and make the case to the Xu to allow them to live.

Despite his initial reluctance, Nick agrees to the quest. The Xu drop Nick and Ellie into prehistoric Africa, the accepted origin of mankind, in order to find Adam and Eve. As Nick and Ellie share experiences and forge their path in Africa, Nick begins questioning the entire mission. When Ellie begins to assert the value of eliminating their ancestors, Nick wonders whether he’ll ever have the chance to go home and return to his own life.

Author William Dietrich poses for YA readers questions to make them ponder not only the origins of life but also the responsibility all people have to take care of our world. Nick grapples with the advantages of the twenty-first century and the attractive prospect of starting the world from fresh to eliminate war and religious, racial and societal differences. Dietrich balances both sides of the argument well, allowing room for readers to come to their own conclusions.

Unfortunately readers might have to wade through some of the weak spots of The Murder of Adam and Eve to find those ponderous moments. Nick’s initiation into the Xu’s world comes at a frenzied pace, feeling rushed and shallow as a result. When he and Ellie arrive in Africa, the story slows down and readers may get the sense they’re treading water and just waiting for the climax…which doesn’t feel so climactic at all. While Dietrich saves a small surprise for the end of the book, it may just evoke a curious “huh” from readers instead of the “OMG!” he clearly wants.

The two main characters don’t always engage with readers either. Nick’s frequent references to pop culture and overuse of clichés, appropriate in some places, start to feel like substitutes for real dialogue. Ellie’s character development becomes a little uneven toward the end. Because these two carry the majority of the story, at some point readers may find their attention wandering.

Still, presented alongside the right prompts the book can act as a good conversation starter. For that reason I recommend readers borrow The Murder of Adam and Eve from their local libraries.