Latest review: One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn

By Ekta R. Garg

March 13, 2019

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Release date: July 18, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

A young girl, spiteful and mean, dies from illness, and her classmates think they won’t have to worry about her anymore. When she returns as a ghost to haunt one of them, however, they realize she may never truly leave them alone. Author Mary Downing Hahn tries to infuse a story of bullying with a sense of intrigue in the dismal World War I novel One for Sorrow.

It’s 1918, and Annie Browne has just moved to the Baltimore suburb of Mount Pleasant. When she arrives at Pearce Academy for Girls, Annie wonders what the other girls will think of her. Will she fit in? Will she make friends?

The answer to the last question is a decided yes, although Annie isn’t the one doing the deciding. Elsie Schneider declares that Annie is her new best friend, and but Elsie makes Annie feel uneasy. She creates situations so that others get in trouble, and she expresses her spite in a loud voice for popular girl Rosie O’Malley. The fact that Rosie returns Elsie’s disdain tenfold only makes things worse.

Elsie tries to force the friendship, but Annie isn’t one to be cowed. She agrees with Rosie and the other girls that Elsie is a liar and a tattletale. Soon enough, Annie goes from being an outcast by association with Elsie to being a part of the “in” crowd by taunting and bullying her.

At the same time, the dreaded Spanish influenza begins circulating through the small town. When Elsie falls victim to the disease, Annie, Rosie, and their other friends feel guilty. A week earlier, they had sought her out for the sole purpose of teasing and tormenting her; now she lies dead in a coffin.

Only a person with Elsie’s stubbornness can defy death itself, however. She comes back as a ghost and chooses Annie as her main target. Forcing Annie to act and speak in outlandish ways, Elsie manages to get Annie sent to a home for convalescents and says the next stop is the insane asylum. Annie is determined to gain freedom from Elsie, but it may require the one thing she doesn’t want to do: become Elsie’s friend after all.

Author Mary Downing Hahn rolls back the years for her novel about bullying with a wartime backdrop, but the story feels disjointed. The outbreak of Spanish influenza may indicate a World War I story, but it could have easily been replaced with any sort of tragedy. The taunting Annie and the others inflict on Elsie could have happened during any time period.

In many ways, the book doesn’t seem to know what it should be about. Is it a story about the Spanish influenza? Is it about bullying? Is it about peer pressure? Is it a ghost story? Is it to highlight the fact that some patients went to a convalescent home instead of the insane asylum? The novel tries to tackle all of these subjects and ends up doing justice to none of them.

Because readers hear from Annie in first-person point of view, they get to know her best. Everyone else, from Rosie to Elsie and even Annie’s parents, don’t get their due in character development. While popular girl Rosie’s behavior toward Elsie is reprehensible, Elsie is no more innocent than she is. Unfortunately, readers don’t ever get to find out why both girls behave the way they do. The only character who has a distinct voice is Annie.

As such, the motivation for Elsie’s revenge remains unclear. She says on Annie’s first day at the academy that Rosie has been tormenting her for a long time. Why, then, does Elsie choose to haunt Annie instead of Rosie? Wouldn’t it make more sense to target the person who has targeted her for a longer duration of time?

Also, while Elsie’s vengeance is clear-eyed, her objective isn’t. She wants to torture Annie, yes, but to what end? As a ghost, she has nothing to lose or gain by making Annie miserable. Hahn tries to create some tender moments between the girls where Elsie shares background information, but they only create more confusion. One minute Elsie is confiding in Annie; the next she’s possessing her body and making her perform horrible deeds.

The book may make parents shake their heads at its lengthy displays of bullying and zero consequences for it. There is a hint at the end that Rosie may have suffered slightly for her behavior, but none of the other friends complicit in the action receive any sort of reprimand. The adults are largely absent in the story, with the exception of a special friend Annie makes in the convalescent home, and the book’s ending seems forced and almost bizarre. For those reasons, I believe readers should Bypass One for Sorrow.

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Latest review: Convergence by Ginny L. Yttrup

By Ekta R. Garg

March 6, 2019

Genre: Suspense; Christian fiction

Release date: March 1, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it / 2.5 stars

Strange occurrences remind a psychologist of a horrific event from her past, and she must deal with the post-traumatic stress. As she does so, she turns to her faith for guidance and also goes with her instinct to confront the incidents. Seasoned author Ginny L. Yttrup tries her hand at the suspense genre in the well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful novel Convergence.

Dr. Denilyn Rossi spends her days teaching and working on her latest book about psychology. At least, she’s trying to do both. Eight years earlier, after her book about cyberbullying hit the bestseller list, Deni became a celebrity and the victim of a stalker. She suffered a brutal attack but survived and has spent every day since healing both inside and out.

Despite undergoing a divorce and changing jobs from practicing psychologist to the head of the psychology department at a university, Deni managed to pull her life back together. The man who attacked her is behind bars, and she’s well-respected and well-liked by colleagues and students. All seems to be moving in a positive direction, except for the fact that Deni can’t shake the feeling that someone is following her again.

At first she thinks the sensation is brought on by the upcoming anniversary of her attack and that her convicted attacker is up for parole. As a psychologist, she knows that both events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But the more she pays attention to the feeling, the more she realizes she may not just be experiencing stress.

Her close friends encourage her to seek guidance from her faith in God, and Deni does. She also reminisces about her friend, Adelia Sanchez. Years ago, Deni, Adelia, and two other good friends led whitewater rafting expeditions, until an accident made them leave the water. Memories of Adelia, of her failed marriage, and the life-changing encounter with the man who stalked her follow Deni everywhere she goes these days.

Her faith provides her solace, true, but she also knows she can’t just sit back and wait for circumstances to play out on their own. She believes she’s following God’s will by creating her own solution. Deni just doesn’t know if this time she’ll succumb to the danger.

Author Ginny L. Yttrup delves into the genre of suspense for the first time, but unfortunately her debut leaves much to be desired. The story flips between Deni in the present day, Deni in the past in the weeks leading up to her attack, and Adelia. The constant ping-ponging between timelines and characters will leave readers confused at times, despite Yttrup starting each chapter with the date and the character speaking. Early on Yttrup establishes Deni as the protagonist; however, Adelia’s portions come later in time than Deni’s, and readers won’t know until the last third of the book why the story was structured this way.

Successful suspense books depend on bursts of information followed by bursts of action; in the case of Convergence, Yttrup has taken a more thoughtful approach. This allows for readers to get to know Deni and to understand how she depends on her faith to get her through difficult times. In and of itself, this portion of the writing works well. Framed by a larger story that tries to be a suspense/thriller novel, the more introspective portions of the book just stick out. They slow down the story, and many readers may get impatient.

Yttrup also errs when it comes to releasing information; the characters in the book often know much more than readers do. Characters discuss important events without naming them, and readers will have to infer much of the information for a long time before they’re given confirmation. The cloak-and-dagger device only works for so long; after the halfway mark, it becomes tedious, as does the book.

Fans of Yttrup’s other work may want to pick this one up. It does a respectful job of showing how a person’s faith works organically within his or her life. Strictly as a suspense or thriller, though, the novel doesn’t work at all. I believe Convergence Borders on Bypassing it.

Latest review: The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst

By Ekta R. Garg

February 27, 2019

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Release date: April 3, 2018

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A girl made must go on a journey away from the only home she’s ever known if she wants to save herself and her friends. Along the way she’ll encounter new people and creatures and learn the true story of her heritage. Author Sarah Beth Durst offers middle grade readers a sweet story that, unfortunately, drags in places in The Stone Girl’s Story.

Mayka is unlike any other 12-year-old girl in the entire mountain range. At least, she might be. Carved entirely from stone by her loving father’s hands, Mayka has never left the cozy cottage on top of the highest mountain. The magic in her father’s hands allowed Mayka and her stone creature friends to come to life, and Father made sure to carve special symbols into each of his creations so they can share their stories with others.

It’s been quite a while since Father died, however, and Mayka and the creatures have taken care of themselves and one another. They miss Father, but they have all they need to continue living in what they consider to be the most beautiful place in the world. Then Turtle stops moving, and Mayka realizes a terrible fact. If someone doesn’t re-carve the markings that have begun to wear away, all of the stone beings—including her—will cease to move. They’ll still exist, but they won’t live. Worse, no one will know their stories.

She discusses the problem with all of the other creatures, and two of her best friends, the stone birds Risa and Jacklo, decide to accompany Mayka to the valley city of Skye. Father never shared details of his time living in the city, but the friends reason that other stonemasons must live there. Perhaps, if they travel down the mountain and ask with enough kindness and respect, one of the stonemasons will come back to their cottage and re-carve everyone’s marks.

Because they’re made of stone, Mayka, Risa, and Jacklo don’t need to worry about stopping to eat or sleep, but they still run into their fair share of challenges. People in the city don’t always say upfront what they mean, and many of them seem interested in Mayka in a way that makes her uncomfortable. They keep telling her she’s a rarity, that a living girl made of stone hasn’t existed among them in years.

On top of everything else, the entire city has begun preparations for the Stone Festival, a holiday Mayka has never heard of, and many are too busy to talk. She finally meets Garit, the apprentice to a stonemason. When Garit takes Mayka home to his master stonemason, however, Mayka learns a startling truth that just might threaten her and her friends forever. She’ll have to find a way to save Risa, Jacklo, herself, and all the new stone creature friends she’s made if she wants to go home again.

Author Sarah Beth Durst tells her tale in a gentle tone. Not once will readers ever doubt Mayka’s safety. She encounters strange people, yes, and some of them are rude to her or gruff in their response. Despite all that, Mayka seems to travel through the city of Skye—and the entire novel—within a bubble of relative safety.

While some parents might appreciate the sweet tone of the book, readers in the target age group who enjoy adventures of higher stakes might find themselves getting impatient. Mayka doesn’t even meet Garit until almost the halfway mark, and the action takes its time well beyond that to rise to the climax. Durst spends a disproportionate amount of time describing how Mayka descends from the mountain and her first impressions of the city. On the structural level, her approach makes the book a little lopsided. Less tolerant readers might stop reading long before they get to the end.

Still, the book does offer many positives. Mayka’s unshakeable loyalty to her friends and her father’s vision as well as her willingness to help others are timeless lessons. At one point, the book feels reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, a sort of adventure pursued by a group of unusual friends, albeit on a much quieter scale. And Durst does manage to keep a surprise or two tucked away at the end. For those reasons, I recommend readers Borrow The Stone Girl’s Story.

Newest review: Immoral Code by Lillian Clark

By Ekta R. Garg

February 20, 2019

Genre: YA

Release date: February 19, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

A group of teenagers take revenge on a parent when his indifference prevents one of them from going to college. As the friends navigate their elaborate plan, their relationships will reach new junctures. They’ll also have to decide whether their anger is worth risking all of their futures. Debut author Lillian Clark brings to her story five relatable protagonists in the mostly enjoyable novel Immoral Code.

It’s their senior year of high school, and Bellamy, Santiago, Nari, Keagan, and Reese all have big plans for life after graduation. Reese spends her days mapping her route around the world while using her art to express herself. Long-time couple Nari and Keagan know they’ll stay together no matter where they end up, although Nari has a clearer vision of that than Keagan does. Nari’s wicked smart when it comes to coding and hacking, and she’s just a few keystrokes away from joining one of the giants like Google or Apple. Keagan doesn’t care where he goes as long as he can hold Nari’s hand on the journey. Santiago got recruited by Stanford on a diving scholarship long before this last year of high school and plans to compete for Olympic gold.

Bellamy, physics genius and daughter of a single mother, knows MIT is for her. She filled out the paperwork with diligence, even if that meant thinking of the father who left her behind. Bellamy’s mother and Robert Foster dated in high school and got pregnant. Robert fled town, but at least he sends money to Bellamy and her mother. Considering he’s a billionaire now, it’s the least he can do.

Until that money comes in the way of Bellamy’s dreams. Her student loan application at MIT is denied. There was no way she was going to MIT on her father’s dime, hence the loan application. Even after sending the necessary paperwork in a timely fashion, through lawyers, to her father to make sure her application stood independently of his income, he still manages to mess this up. Just like he’s messed up pretty much her entire life by denying that she exists.

The friends rally around Bellamy and begin brainstorming ways to help her out, which prompts a dangerous discussion: what if they figure out a way to steal the money from Robert Foster? Given the number of zeroes he must have in his bank balance, would Foster even notice that the money was missing? The friends explore the idea and decide to make it a reality, but even they can’t imagine how their actions will push them into unexplored territory in their individual relationships with one another as well as a group.

Author Lillian Clark captures the voices of her teen protagonists with ease. Each of the friends has his or her own fears and hopes, their own desires and their own uncertainties; despite the challenge of flipping between five points of view, Clark manages to make each of them distinct. Readers in the target audience will find at least one “friend” among this set and will most likely warm up to the group as a whole.

Clark also doesn’t shy away from testing the relationships, especially Nari and Keagan’s, considered at the outset the most solid of the group. Righteous indignation can only take a person so far, as the couple discovers. One of them approves wholeheartedly of their revenge mission; the other experiences ambivalence, which also brings up a challenge to that character’s inner strength and a new facet to the romance. Clark lets her characters hurt one another with words and unintended actions; just because they’re teenagers doesn’t mean everything comes up rainbows and roses all the time.

If the book falters, it’s in the over exposure to the friendships and the lack of time spent on the heist. Readers might find themselves getting a little impatient for the action to get rolling. Clark does an excellent job of establishing her characters early and with solidity. Instead of letting that solidity stand on its own, however, she insists on building more onto that platform before finally moving on to the main action. As a result, the heist really doesn’t get its full due, and parts of it feel a little unreal.

Readers looking for a fun, quick book will certainly enjoy this one, however, and it offers enough unique perspectives to make most members of the target audience happy. I believe Immoral Code Borders on Bookmarking it.

Latest review: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, 2nd Edition by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

By Ekta R. Garg

February 13, 2019

Genre: nonfiction/self-help (writers)

Release date: February 19, 2019

Rated: 5 stars

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, co-founders of Writers Helping Writers and One Stop for Writers, released the first edition of The Emotion Thesaurus in 2012. An invaluable resource, the book functions much like a standard thesaurus by offering alternative ways to express various feelings. In the book’s introduction, authors Ackerman and Puglisi extol the necessity of emotion to successful stories.

The thesaurus lists an emotion, gives its definition, then provides ways that emotion is expressed. Included are physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and the cues to identify when a character exhibits or experiences the emotion. With 75 entries, the first edition covers a wide range of feelings from “adoration” and “desire” to “peacefulness” and “worry.”

This first edition paved the way for more thesauruses by Ackerman and Puglisi, including one for positive traits and one for rural settings. In keeping with their mission to serve and help writers, the authors decided to update their original release. The Emotion Thesaurus, 2nd edition, brings back all the original material and so much more.

Unlike some updated resources on the market, the authors don’t recycle their material. The new thesaurus with 131 entries is almost double the size of the first book. Additional entrants like “dread” and “self-loathing” join the list. For the entries carried over from the first edition, Ackerman and Puglisi have included a new item. In the original, toward the end of each emotion entry is listed what that emotion may escalate to; for example, “impatience” may escalate to irritation, frustration, anger, or scorn. Page numbers for each of these other emotions are also listed as a cross-reference for writers.

In the updated version, however, Ackerman and Puglisi have added another line after the one about escalation: what each emotion may look like when it de-escalates. The entry for “impatience” includes a line that it may de-escalate to “resignation,” “acceptance,” or “satisfaction.” Again, cross-references are included to help writers round out their writing in the most complete way possible.

Unlike the first edition, this version of The Emotion Thesaurus also comes with a quick primer at the front of the book. Writers will find this little resource handy when they want easy tips about how dialogue can convey emotion and the importance of subtext. They can also come to the front of the book for help with brainstorming new approaches to familiar feelings or how to conduct research into their characters to use emotions to make them three-dimensional.

Ackerman and Puglisi talk about their intense desire to help writers, and the 2nd edition of The Emotion Thesaurus clearly displays this desire. Moreover, new writers and seasoned ones alike will benefit by keeping this resource close at hand when crafting their stories. I highly recommend all writers add to their reference libraries The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Latest review: The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

February 6, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: February 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A ballerina allows herself to be admitted to a facility for the treatment of eating disorders after collapsing. As she meets and gets to know the other girls in the facility, she gains strength from their stories and learns to reevaluate her own body image. Author Yara Zgheib’s debut novel takes readers inside the mind in heartbreaking detail of a person suffering from anorexia but misses the mark on the story level in her first book The Girls at 17 Swann Street.

Anna Proux lives what most people might think is a charmed life. A native of Paris, she meets and marries Matthias, the man she considers her soulmate. They’re happy; they adore one another. Matthias is well respected at work, and Anna is a ballerina with a dance company.

The real battle in their lives rages inside of Anna, however. She fights her crippling insecurity every day, pouring herself into her dancing so she can forget the effects of childhood tragedies and the criticisms from her first love. With those criticisms and her self-doubt dictating her every move, Anna begins to forego eating most meals. Maybe, she thinks, if she can control her food intake, she can reach an ideal weight and everything will make sense again.

Then Anna gets injured, largely due to diminished strength because she hasn’t been eating enough. The role she’d dreamed of getting and the hours of rehearsal she put toward it slip from her grasp. Her refusal to eat gets worse and transforms into anorexia, all without anyone realizing it. When Matthias get an offer to work in the States, Anna believes this could be a new start. She can leave behind all the bad and forge a new life in Missouri with her husband.

Except that the insecurity and memories follow her across the ocean. Despite repeated promises to start eating again, Anna doesn’t. In fact, her daily vigilance of her food intake increases. One night she collapses in the bathroom, and Matthias puts his foot down. Anna needs help, and he refuses to go another day until she gets it.

With the utmost of reluctance, she allows him to check her into 17 Swann Street. The facility looks like any other ordinary house, except that it’s home to several girls who all suffer from some sort of eating disorder. Anna blanches at the rules. She and the girls are expected to eat six meals a day. Privileges like walks outside and visits to town are earned, not a right. And everyone must attend counseling, both group and private. No exceptions.

During her first 24 hours, Anna becomes convinced she won’t survive at 17 Swann Street. The longer she spends time there, however, and gets to know the girls, the more she realizes that the others understand just how much she’s suffering—even if none of them share in explicit terms what drives their own disorders. She also begins to understand the depth of her disease and bit by bit gains the courage to tackle the challenges in her heart so she can regain control of her life.

Author Yara Zgheib delves deep into the character of Anna and shares in relatable prose the mindset of suffering from anorexia. While many books might spotlight a teen character, at 26 years old Anna is far past the age of a flighty young woman. This gives her anorexia more time to secure its grip on her and challenges readers to reevaluate any preconceived notions they might have. Eating disorders don’t discriminate against anyone.

Less successful is the story on the mechanical level. While Zgheib showcases with ease Anna’s emotional plight, the story itself doesn’t hold too many surprises. The book feels more like a series of diary entries rather than a novel with a trackable story arc. Zgheib’s tone almost gives away the answer to the question of whether Anna will begin a significant recovery from her anorexia. A few moments seem to teeter on the “will she/won’t she” edge, but those moments don’t come often enough.

Anna’s struggles and the revelation of the source of her eating disorder will endear her to readers, no doubt. She’s the strongest element in the book, however; readers really don’t get to know much about the other girls in the house, which is a shame because their stories seem as much if not more compelling than Anna’s own.

Readers who want to understand the daily struggles of an anorexic person will want to get this book, but otherwise I recommend they Borrow The Girls at 17 Swann Street from their public libraries.

Newest review: One Fatal Mistake by Tom Hunt

January 30, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: February 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A teenager makes a split-second decision, drawing his entire family into a nightmarish situation. While his mother is determined to take the lead and keep her son is safe, other forces may prevent her from doing so. Author Tom Hunt is back with his second novel and thriller, the somewhat uneven book One Fatal Mistake.

Single mom Karen has devoted her life to her son, Joshua. He’s months away from graduating from high school and, fingers crossed, accepting a golf scholarship to his dream university across the country. Karen’s done okay for herself as an ICU nurse, and she even gets along with her ex. While she’ll miss Josh, she also knows how important it is for him to get out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and experience the world.

That world suddenly becomes much smaller when Josh confesses a horrifying fact to Karen: he attacked a man and left him for dead.

It doesn’t matter that the man initiated the heated exchange nor that the altercation happened on the spur of the moment. Even Josh’s valid claim that he came at the man in self-defense scares Karen. Years earlier, the son of a prominent politician found himself in a similar situation and the jury didn’t hesitate to put the boy behind bars. Karen fears her son, an ordinary person, will suffer a similar fate or worse.

She returns to the scene of the crime with Josh to decide what to do about the man’s body. Before mother and son can come up with a rational plan, however, they run into two people on the run from the law. Karen and Josh are taken hostage and find the most unbelievable demands being placed on them. Now not only does she have to fight for Josh’s life; Karen also has to fight for her own.

Author Tom Hunt follows up his debut novel Killer Choice with another book about deep moral dilemmas. At every turn, Josh and Karen find themselves challenged in unforeseen ways. Readers will appreciate Hunt’s snappy descriptions and his ability to get right to the heart of the action in his scenes.

The book’s climax, however, starts in the middle of that action and then drags for pages. What begins as a situation taut with tension gradually dissolves into a dreary play-by-play scene where the characters’ choices become more fantastical and the problems presented don’t match reality. Hunt may lose more astute readers in these moments.

For example, at one point a character is shot and undergoes surgery. Within hours, according to the narrative, infection sets in and the character’s wound becomes a mess. Another character attacks the wounded person, and despite repeated blows and hours of no attention somehow the wounded character survives. Hunt may be trying to pull readers in with shock value, but the narrative doesn’t prop up the shock with anything substantial. The result is a series of scenes that might induce snickering instead of gasps.

Short punchy sentences may be good for thrillers, but Hunt uses too many of them. It almost gives his story a sense of breathlessness, like the characters have a hard time communicating even when they’re just thinking about the situation at hand. Readers may grow weary of the choppy paragraphs.

Fans of thrillers might like this one for a quick weekend read. For the most part, I recommend readers Borrow One Fatal Mistake from their local libraries.