Latest review: For Your Own Protection by Paul Pilkington

By Ekta R. Garg

October 11, 2017

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: September 28, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

A man suspects his girlfriend of stalking him, but he has no idea why. A woman comes home to her apartment to find it ransacked. The two live in different parts of the city but as the man starts to investigate circumstances that become more bizarre by the day, a connection emerges between the two. Author Paul Pilkington returns with command and confidence in a novel that hits all the right spots in the brand new thriller For Your Own Protection.

Matt Roberts is fighting hard to bring some normalcy back to his life. After a personal crisis, he’s in the midst of a leave of absence from his day job as a fund manager at a prominent London bank. It doesn’t help that the high point—or low point, depending on how a person looks at it—of the crisis started with Matt himself. He cheated on his longtime girlfriend, Beth, and even though they share a child Beth kicked Matt out.

Beth is kind enough to let Matt see Charlie, their son, but she’s definitely moved on to another relationship. After all this time, Matt has too but something about his new girlfriend, Catherine, makes him wonder. He thinks he’s seen her in odd times and places when they didn’t have a date, almost as if she’s following him. But why would Catherine want to follow him? Their relationship seems fine, albeit a little shallow.

Rachel Martin doesn’t know how she’s going to move forward in life. Her fiancé died in a horrific bicycle accident when someone hit him with a car, and one day when she comes home she finds out someone has turned her apartment upside down. Nothing seems to be missing, but clearly someone was looking for something. Paranoia sets in, and with good reason. Not long after the home invasion, Rachel suffers a terrible accident herself.

Matt comes to hear about Rachel’s accident through a series of situations that he can’t believe he’s following. They start when Charlie goes missing. Then Matt pins down Catherine on the issue of her following him. Both events start a chain reaction that will take Matt to parts of London he’s never seen before, and he’ll find himself challenged in a way that will make his indiscretion with Beth seem like a minor issue.

Author Paul Pilkington’s readers have come to expect stories that fulfill every promise made by his genre of choice, and For Your Own Protection doesn’t disappoint. As with his other books, Pilkington creates characters who readers will feel like they know well. He offers a tour of London in the form of written sightseeing as Matt and the others struggle to make sense of a senseless situation.

Pilkington has a knack for tying a series of conflict knots that seem beyond solutions and then pulling one thread to make each knot unravel in a way that will keep readers flipping pages. His signature stroke in previous books—cliffhanger endings for every chapter that leave readers practically breathless—has been restrained somewhat in this story, and the result is a more even, more thoughtful pace. While some readers might miss the frenzy, the story becomes more enhanced as a result of the measured approach. Pilkington still includes plenty of exciting moments, and he’s still able to surprise readers by the end.

A few minor points may stick out. Matt’s sister, who doesn’t play much of a role in the larger story, shows up early in the book and then disappears, and a seemingly dangerous situation gets resolved a little too neatly. Yet readers won’t care when they step into Matt and Rachel’s world. With Pilkington’s signature mystery-telling techniques at work, readers will forgive small slights against the plot. With its more strategic pacing, as compared to previous books, For Your Own Protection is Paul Pilkington at his best yet.

I recommend readers Binge For Your Own Protection by Paul Pilkington.

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Newest review: All Things New by Lauren Miller

October 11, 2017

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: August 1, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

A teen suffering from generalized anxiety disorder must deal with the condition head on after moving to a new town. She fights for normalcy as she deals with a new school and friends along with her estranged father, and she re-learns the definitions of beauty and acceptance as she also re-learns how to view herself. Author Lauren Miller gives YA readers a touching novel that deals with the realities of today in a refreshing manner in her latest book All Things New.

On the surface 17-year-old Jessa Gray looks like other kids. She’s dating a star athlete, and she keeps up with the latest fashions so that she presents herself as the perfect girlfriend. But Jessa’s hiding a secret: she suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, which manifests itself in panic attacks. She’s tried to explain to her boyfriend what she experiences, but he’s losing his patience. When Jessa sees him with someone else, she knows she doesn’t need to waste her own patience on him anymore.

She doesn’t even have time to absorb the full impact of his infidelity when she gets into a car accident that leaves her with major injuries, including a brain condition called aphantasia that prevents her mind from creating images. Her divorced parents can’t agree on how to handle her recovery, and in an act of desperation Jessa accepts her father’s proposal: to leave sunny L.A. behind and move to Denver with him. It’s what she’s wanted all along, ever since the divorce, but Jessa’s also still pretty angry at her dad. When she needed him most he left the family; now he wants to make amends? The alternative is to stay in Los Angeles with her mother, stepfather, and half twin brothers, though, and they’re too busy being a family on their own to worry about her. So Denver it is.

Her anxiety threatens to crush her in her new school, but then Jessa meets Hannah. Just like that, she has a new friend. It’s been a long time since Jessa’s been able to call anyone a friend, and before long Hannah introduces Jessa to her twin brother, Marshall. The three hit it off as if they’ve known each other for years.

It doesn’t hurt that Marshall is funny and cute and calls Jessa’s bluff on a regular basis about hiding behind her condition without making her feel like some kind of freak. He challenges her to see herself as he and Hannah and her other new friends see her. When another emergency springs up and Jessa’s the only one available to help, she will have to fight through her old definition of normal in order to come out on the other side.

Author Lauren Miller creates characters that her target audience will recognize, because they’ve most likely seen the same types of kids walking the halls at their own schools. With a teenage protagonist, Miller makes mental health issues more accessible and more real. Jessa’s struggles become magnified by her anxiety and the mask she must maintain to hide that anxiety. As the book progresses, however, Jessa becomes bolder, and readers may find themselves emboldened to allow their own masks to slip more often thanks to Jessa’s increasing confidence.

Even in a first-person narrative that can turn biting or sarcastic, Miller manages to create sympathy for Jessa. The supporting characters help maintain that sympathy while managing to generate some for themselves. Hannah, an accomplished pianist, deals with high levels of stress about her career as a musician. Marshall must face the realities of life with a heart defect. The brother and sister provide Jessa with the perfect foils because of their own imperfections, and Jessa learns that even people who don’t have generalized anxiety disorder struggle. That’s a lesson any teen can take to heart: everyone has to fight a battle of some type every single day.

Ultimately Jessa’s story allows for the acceptance of grace for one’s self as well as for others. I recommend readers Binge All Things New by Lauren Miller.

Newest review: Something Like Happy by Eva Woods

By Ekta R. Garg

September 27, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: September 5, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

When a woman runs—almost literally—into a patient with only three months left, she’s sure it’s confirmation of everything bad in life. The patient surprises her, however, by teaching her something about living. Author Eva Woods takes a formulaic plot and brings it alive with a sweet story and endearing characters in her new novel Something Like Happy.

Annie Hebden has every right to be mad at life. She lost her only child. Her husband ran away with her best friend. Her mother received the devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s and most recently fell down and hurt her leg. She lives in a run-down apartment with a roommate who is practically a child—in his maturity level, at least—and she despises her job.

So Annie Hebden knows she’s fully justified in hating her life. She made all the right decisions, and every one of them had the wrong outcome. Now she’s just trying to be there for her mother; it seems like it’s the only outlet left for her to do any good.

On the day that Annie runs into Polly Leonard, though, something changes. Polly, the patient with the brain tumor. Polly, the woman who tells Annie with unbelievable cheerfulness that her condition is terminal. Polly challenges Annie to a duel of sorts: for the next three months, or one hundred days—give or take—do one thing every single day to make herself happy. It’ll be fun, Polly asserts, a challenge they can undertake as friends.

A new friendship is above and beyond anything that Annie wants right now. After all, she made every effort to break ties with her old friends after her marriage fell apart. But Polly’s aggressive jollity first irritates and then intrigues Annie so much that it becomes infectious; it’s the best kind of contagion to share under the circumstances. As they look for ways to make themselves happy, an extraordinary thing happens. The very sorrows that bound them in the first place end up giving them strength to see their biggest challenge yet all the way through.

Author Eva Woods uses a tried and true story as the basis for her novel but manages to take an every-day plot and make it her own. While the idea may sound like so many romantic comedies that show up in the theaters every summer, Woods keeps her book grounded by keeping her characters grounded. Annie’s transformation may be well charted from the opening chapter, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Her struggles will tug at readers’ hearts, which makes her reluctance to change that much more impactful. Annie needs someone like Polly in her life, but Woods also gives Polly depth. Polly grapples with her mortality in a way that readers will relate to. She laughs, she cries, she accepts it and then is in disbelief of it—her emotions go from high to low, strong to weak, and she will certainly have readers nodding along.

A few of the minor plot devices may come across as a touch contrived, but a story like this thrives on those contrivances. Also, they never get out of hand or seem out of place. Readers will be most concerned with Annie and Polly’s friendship and will have no trouble forgiving some of the less realistic elements in the story itself in order to cheer on this unlikely duo. Some of the secondary characters may come across as stock characters or placeholders for the things Annie needs in order to change, but Woods handles them with love and respect.

For anyone wanting a quick read that balances encouragement with a down-to-earth story, I recommend they Bookmark Something Like Happy.

Latest review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

September 27, 2017

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: August 1, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

When a teen is found murdered, members from a small community must deal with the list of possible suspects that include an obsessed classmate and a jealous ex-friend. As the community reels from the event, the officer on the case will need to move past his own issues if he wants to find out who killed the girl. Author Danya Kukafka tries to examine small-town happenings in a novel with an excruciatingly slow pace in the debut book Girl in Snow.

On a February morning in a small Colorado town, someone discovers the body of Lucinda Hayes. A killer has left her on the playground carousel by an elementary school. As word of her murder spreads, the people in the community react with expected horror and grief.

For Cameron Whitley, though, Lucinda’s death feels like a personal affront. He’s never really fit in at school; people have called him names that run the gamut, all because he’s not quite sure what to say and when to say it. But Lucinda showed him kindness a few times, and he loved her. He still loves her, and losing her becomes akin to losing part of himself.

Jade Dixon-Burns allows herself a sense of relief. Serves Lucinda right, she thinks. Jade needed the babysitting job that she and Lucinda shared and that eventually went exclusively to Lucinda. The dead girl had everything, including a perfect family. People who, instead of getting drunk and hitting their kids, actually cared about her.

What’s worse, Lucinda also stole Jade’s best friend. Jade never told Zap how she felt about him, but she always thought she’d have the chance…until the day she spied on Lucinda and Zap together. Jade and Zap had a moment once that could have potentially turned into something else, until Lucinda came along.

Officer Russ Fletcher had the distinct honor of being Lee Whitley’s partner, long before Lee got into trouble himself. Russ and Lee formed a friendship that went beyond the squad car. When Lee commits a crime and ends up leaving town, he makes sure to stop long enough to ask Russ to take care of Cameron.

Now that Cameron is a prime suspect in Lucinda’s murder, Russ is at odds with himself. Everything in the case points to Cameron, but Russ is a good friend. He’ll have to find a way to resolve what the facts indicate with what his gut tells him. If not for Cameron then definitely for Lee, even if Lee is long gone.

Author Danya Kukafka drags almost the entire book out over a mere three days. The choice to focus so much on the day Lucinda is discovered and the two days following means readers will spend time inside of Cameron, Russ, and Jade’s heads for almost a minute-by-minute examination. In a bid, most likely, to attract readers who prefer literary fiction, every emotion and relevant memory of these three characters gets scrutinized. The resulting heaviness weighs the book down so much it drags to a lull before the killer’s identity is revealed, which will disappoint readers not only for who did it but also how it happened.

Kukafka has a way with words, yes, but readers can only take so much pretty prose before getting impatient with the sluggish plot. With the book’s billing as a thriller, readers will be waiting on tenterhooks for the story to get started. By the time it does, the book ends and so will the patience of readers expecting something else.

I recommend readers Bypass Girl in Snow.

Latest review: Pieces of Happiness by Anne Ostby

By Ekta R. Garg

September 20, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it

Five women in their sixties decide to take up residence on the island of Fiji in a bid for a new phase of life. The friends rely on their ties from high school to buffer them from resistance by their families, but they will also have to find something solid to counter their own doubts about the entire enterprise. Norwegian author Anne Ostby offers American readers a plot that proceeds at the same languid pace as a day on a sunny South Pacific island in the book Pieces of Happiness.

Katrine “Kat” Vale lives in the village of Korototoka in Fiji, far away from her home country of Norway. Right after high school, she followed the love of her life, Niklas, on a grand adventure. They traveled the world seeking opportunities to help the less fortunate and downtrodden. They’ve built buildings and started schools and finally decided to set up retirement in the South Pacific with a cocoa farm. An accident takes Niklas from Kat, and she’s lived enough life now to know that she’s lonely and needs company.

Kat reaches out to her friends from high school. They had quite a group, the five of them, and even though they haven’t stayed in consistent contact since their school days Kat sends each of them a letter. She knows them all well enough to guess they’ll join her in Fiji, that they’ll be willing to change their lives and come live out the rest of their days with her.

And they do come. Sina, a single mother whose son’s greatest accomplishment is leeching money from his mother at every possible opportunity, arrives first. Dependable Ingrid comes next, and she brings with her the secret alter ego no one knows about. Lisbeth escapes her lackluster marriage to high school sweetheart Harald to join the others in Fiji.

The only one left to arrive is Maya, but Maya’s daughter emails Kat to let her know that there will be a delay. Maya has been diagnosed with an irreversible health problem. Kat responds with an encouraging note. Bring her anyway, she says. Maybe the sunshine will do Maya some good for whatever time she has left.

In her letters to them, Kat had hinted at the possibility of starting a new business: turning some of the cocoa harvest into chocolate for sale. As they explore the idea, all of the women begin to work through their own issues. Kat deals with her anger at Niklas for dying. Sina must decide if she can stand up to her son. Ingrid leaves behind the ordered world of accounting for a more free-spirited approach to life. Lisbeth finds that she has more to contribute to their new family than just keeping house. All of them, including Kat, look out for Maya who needs more help as the weeks and months progress. When they come to a series of crossroads, all of them will need to make decisions that change their lives more than changing to Fiji ever could.

Author Anne Ostby draws on her own experiences living around the world as well as her Norwegian heritage to create the characters and her plot. Her careful detailing of life in Fiji may draw readers in, but it also leaves the pace plodding along. The story develops in its own sweet time, and some readers may get impatient with the book as they wait for Kat and Company to encounter the novel’s key conflicts.

Readers will guess some of those conflicts long before they come to fruition, but Ostby manages to keep a few secrets along the way. For those who stick with the book all the way through, the secrets may provide some satisfaction. It may take a healthy dose of patience to get that far, however.

I recommend readers Borrow Pieces of Happiness.

Newest review: The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse

By Ekta R. Garg

September 13, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Date published: Aug. 22, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A housewife finds out in the hardest way possible that her family has gone bankrupt. She and her children lose all the tangible comforts of luxury, and they will need to dig deep to find the strength to survive. Author Amanda Prowse takes readers from a plush life to the throes of poverty while balancing both with aplomb in the realistic and touching novel The Art of Hiding.

Nina McCarrick lives a charmed life. She has two sons who attend one of the most upscale schools in their town of Bath, England, and Finn, her husband, runs his own contractor firm, McCarrick Construction. Her current home is a far cry from her humble beginnings in Southampton where her father struggled to put food on the table after her mother died. Nina’s life could offer movie makers plenty of fodder for a typical rags-to-riches story with a whirlwind romance to boot. When Nina met Finn on a construction site, she knew she didn’t want to be with anyone else.

Now, all these years later, her life in Southampton seems like it happened to another person. Never mind that Nina doesn’t always feel like she fits in with the upper crust society of Bath. Her two children, Finn, and the gorgeous home they all share more than make up for any shortcomings.

Then, in a moment, everything changes. Nina receives the phone call no wife wants to get. Finn has gotten into a car accident and died. In the days that follow, Nina learns that that’s just the beginning of the bad news. McCarrick Construction had begun bleeding money in the months leading up to Finn’s accident. Nina begins fielding calls from a variety of people and organizations that want their bills paid in full to the collective sum of eight million pounds.

Like most princesses in classic fairy tales, Nina had no clue about any of Finn’s financial dealings and struggles. He always reassured her that he had everything under control, and she never thought about asking for details. Now that Finn is gone, Nina must handle the most difficult aspect of their failing business all by herself: its dissolution.

The bank forecloses on the house, leaving Nina and the boys without a home. Faced with no other prospects for help, Nina calls her sister, Tiggy, and asks if she can move back to Southampton. Tiggy agrees without hesitation, and Nina and her kids move into a cramped two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen the size of a closet and with fears the size of the entire country.

Years earlier Nina had ambitions to become a nurse, but after marrying Finn she let herself get swept away with the idea of being a society wife. Now she’s strapped for cash and has to find a way to support herself and her family. As she begins searching for any form of employment, Nina discovers that she does, in fact, have what it takes to fight back one day and one job application at a time.

Author Amanda Prowse doesn’t hesitate to drill into the harshest details of Nina’s situation. Even in this day and age, Prowse asserts through Nina, some women allow their partners to run the most important matters of the household. Nina reacts in a way that will feel real to readers. She doesn’t come up with sunny platitudes and greeting card sayings to face her abrupt change in lifestyle; instead she cries and argues and in one memorable scene even throws up her latest meal. Nina’s helplessness will shock readers because they will be able to see shades of themselves in her.

Her move to Bath from Southampton, too, rings true. Not once does Prowse let Nina have anything too easy. The book ends on an optimistic note, true, but Nina fights with every ounce of energy to earn that ending. By the time the last chapter begins, readers will be ready to cheer Nina on to a better life. Even in that better life, though, Prowse makes no promises. The setup for an improvement in her situation comes because of an internal change in Nina, not another dramatic change in her circumstances.

A welcome change from the typical British novels set in and immediately around London, readers will definitely want to Bookmark The Art of Hiding.

Newest review: Seeking Sarah by ReShonda Tate Billingsley

By Ekta R. Garg

August 23, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: August 15, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

A woman discovers that her “dead” mother actually abandoned her and the rest of the family years earlier and goes to find her. The questions that plague her, however, also cause her to neglect the other relationships in her life, and she comes to a life-altering moment that may make her lose everything. Author ReShonda Tate Billingsley tries to shape a compelling novel but instead misses the mark by a cavernous margin in the juvenile plot of Seeking Sarah.

Brooke Hayes knows what it’s like to lose someone she loves. The love of her life died in an accident, and her mother died when she was 7 years old. She even lost her dog a year ago. Her father and grandmother do all they can to help her, even this many years later, but Brooke still feels the emptiness left especially by her mother’s death.

When Brooke’s father goes into the hospital and then dies unexpectedly, Brooke doesn’t think she can hold herself together. How much more loss, she wonders, will she have to sustain? The question becomes irrelevant for her, though, when her grandmother reveals the most stunning news of all: Brooke’s mother, Sarah, didn’t die. She simply left the family.

As she tries to grapple with the fact, the new man in her life, Trent, announces he’s re-enlisting in the Navy. At one time Brooke thought she could see herself sharing a future with Trent, which included a civilian life and no more tours in the military. Now everything she knows for sure has spiraled out of control.

She decides that before she can explore a future with Trent, she has to find her mother and get the answers to questions that have left her longing for maternal affection. Brooke hires a private investigator who tracks her mother down in Atlanta, just hours away from Brooke’s home in Raleigh, NC. More shocking than the proximity is the news that Sarah remarried and has other children.

Incensed that the woman who gave birth to her has been so close for so many years and apparently living a happy life with a new family, Brooke drives straight to Atlanta to confront Sarah. There she meets Sarah’s children and then her new husband, and before Brooke knows it she finds herself in the most compromising situation of all. She has the power to destroy her mother’s life to get revenge; all she needs to decide is whether she’s going to go through with her plan.

Author ReShonda Tate Billingsley gets everything possible wrong with this story that an author can. Her main character, Brooke, evokes absolutely no sympathy whatsoever. Because the story is told in first person, readers get to know Brooke in the most intimate of ways. Her justifications to herself for her actions only weaken her argument. She sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself that because her mother hurt her, she has carte blanche to do anything her whims might dictate for revenge. She does get that revenge, but it’s in the most immature way possible and only brings about more sorrow for everyone involved.

By the end of the book, readers will most likely wonder why they waited around for some possible redemption. Despite numerous opportunities for it, Billingsley never steps in and allows Brooke a gracious way out of a difficult situation. At one point, Brooke makes the observation that she’s in her mid-30s; her characterization makes her sound like a whiny teenager.

The other characters, too, lack any traits to make readers like them. Trent, Brooke’s love interest, comes across as self-centered and pig-headed. Brooke’s father doesn’t get a chance to offer any explanation whatsoever for why he and Sarah split, which makes him look almost unnecessary to the story. Sarah’s new husband will repel readers with his “creepiness” from their first interaction with him, and her stepson seems more disturbed than Brooke herself.

Most disappointing is Sarah. Billingsley doesn’t give her titular character a concrete reason for leaving Brooke. Readers will have a bevy of guesses before reading the book for why Sarah might have left. All of those guesses will be wrong. In truth, Sarah herself never manages to answer Brooke’s question of “Why” even though Brooke confronts her on numerous occasions. The best Sarah can manage is a shrug and a mumbled apology.

I recommend readers Bypass Seeking Sarah.