Latest book review: The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker

By Ekta R. Garg

April 26, 2017

Genre: middle grade fantasy

Release date: April 11, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

A girl must decide what side to choose in a battle between the constellations and the man who hunts them. The difference between the two could mean learning about her identity or living forever with the knowledge that she’s an orphan. Debut author Lindsey Becker offers readers a strong start but ultimately a disappointing and hollow ending in her first book The Star Thief.

For as long as she can remember, Honorine has lived with and worked for the Vidalia family. Well, mostly Lady Vidalia; Lord Vidalia disappeared when his son, Francis, was a baby, and no one has seen him since. Lady Vidalia insists that the house stay clean and maintained, and under the watchful eye of the head maid Honorine carries out her duties.

One night Honorine finds an unusual book. This journal is different from the other books in the house. Honorine would know; as an amateur inventor, she’s spent quite a bit of time poring over all the books available. She realizes this is no ordinary journal. It’s the personal notebook of Lord Vidalia himself. But where did it come from? And who is this Mapmaker that Lord Vidalia keeps warning of?

Soon after she finds the journal, two mysterious sailors break into the house in the dead of night. Honorine tries to follow them, but she’s stopped by another unusual visitor: a girl. With wings.

The girl introduces herself as Astraea, and she helps Honorine escape the men. Then Honorine meets the Mapmaker as well as Lux and Corvus, all of them Mordant or the flesh form of the constellations. A man named Nautilus Olyphant is after them, the Mapmaker reveals. Nautilus has already captured several of the Mordant, and he’s also after Honorine. Honorine has a choice: to stay and wait for Nautilus to find her, or to go with the Mapmaker to help him fight Nautilus.

Honorine finds herself going with the Mapmaker with a great deal of reluctance; he makes her uneasy. But the longer Honorine spends with him and the other Mordant, the more she realizes that this quest isn’t just about saving the stars. It’s also about discovering who she is.

First-time author Lindsey Becker starts her story strong. Honorine is smart and resourceful, not allowing her job as a maid to trap her in a gender stereotype. The idea of turning the constellations into relatable characters, too, will draw in readers. Becker makes the idea of the Mordant believable. Thanks to the folklore behind the constellations themselves, the Mordant fulfill the necessary roles for an adventure story: the noble animal; the plucky girl; the cynical leader.

Much less successful is the plot. Early on Becker establishes Honorine so firmly into her nineteenth-century world that when Honorine decides to leave with the Mapmaker, readers will find the transition a little rough. Also, Honorine’s life in the Vidalia household is filled with tasks to keep her busy. Boarding the celestial ship with the Mordant leaves Honorine twiddling her thumbs. The characters discuss the passage of time—at one point, someone mentions they’ve been sailing for nine weeks—yet it doesn’t feel like Honorine has done much of anything other than talk to the others.

Honorine travels between the Mapmaker and Nautilus, and when she’s with one the other drops completely out of the story. There is no hint that the opposing party is concerned for her or wants her back or is even looking for her. As the book progresses, it starts to feel play-like. Only the characters on the page and in that particular chapter matter for the moment. At times, readers may even forget that other characters exist.

Nautilus’s reason for wanting to capture the Mordant comes across as weak. When he accomplishes his goal, some readers may shrug. The climax feels decidedly anti-climactic, almost too simplistic even for the target readership.

This lack of any complication in the plot will frustrate some readers, and the stream of narration leading to the rushed ending will only increase that frustration. At the end almost everyone is accounted for, but no one feels real enough to matter. What starts as a promising story ends up becoming a trite tale that feels propped up by stage sets.

I recommend readers Bypass The Star Thief.

New review: Bad Luck by Pseudonymous Bosch


April 19, 2017

Genre: Middle grade adventure

Rated: Bookmark it!

The trials and tribulations continue for a group teens marked as “troubled” who are spending the summer at a special island camp. When a mysterious guest washes up on the shore of the island, the teens will need to find a way to help the guest and protect the secret they discover along the way from enemies who arrive as well. Author Pseudonymous Bosch follows up the first book in the Bad series with a worthy sequel in Bad Luck.

Clay has finally figured out what Earth Ranch is all about. It’s not a camp for teens with behavior problems. That’s just a cover so people don’t find out that it’s actually a place for teens with special talents. Despite some hiccups when he first arrived, Clay has begun to make a place for himself with the others.

Not everything has changed, however. Flint, one of the senior campers, still gives Clay a hard time, including leaving him stranded on the beach during an activity. Clay happens to be there just in time to see a kid washed up on the shore. But what is he doing there? And just how did he get there?

After Clay helps the boy, Brett, and gets him talking, he finds out that Brett comes from money. A lot of money. Brett’s father just bought a cruise ship, which Brett was on. Until he got pushed overboard.

As Clay and Brett try to figure out just why someone wants to drown Brett, they stumble upon a secret on the island. The secret ties into Brett’s mysterious appearance at Earth Ranch, and now Clay must figure out how to protect both Brett and the secret. He’s not sure if he can, but if the Earth Ranch campers can pretend to be ordinary kids then he’s got to give this a chance.

Author Pseudonymous Bosch hits all the quirky, fun notes from the first book in the trilogy as well as his first series. Unlike other authors, Bosch connects the Bad books to the Secret series yet manages to make the Bad books their own set of stories. Fans of the Secret series will find reading the Bad books an enriching experience, but readers new to any of the books can also enjoy them without feeling like they’re missing too much.

Clay epitomizes the typical teen in the target audience, and readers will appreciate his frustrations with being at the camp. The fact that he misses his older brother also rings true in the best of ways. Clay doesn’t want to focus too much on his brother’s sudden disappearance, but it’s an inherent part of him and his life and forms a focal point that reappears at emotional times. Bosch does a wonderful job of balancing the desire of a teenager to come off as all put together with the inner child who just wants to know what happened to the person he loved most in the world.

The book loses a little ground on the limitations set by its story world. Earth Ranch is an island with a live volcano, so there’s only so much physical space that the characters can explore before the story really has to take a fantastical turn to stay engaging. Where the Secret series and even Bad Magic stay grounded in a relatable reality, Bad Luck gets into a little bit of a space of suspended belief. Bosch manages to pull off the entire plot, but it’s a little bit of a shame that he couldn’t continue the same essence of the Secret series of putting characters in situations that feel accessible at all times.

Nevertheless, Bad Luck does promise—and deliver—a fantastic climax that leads into a cliffhanger, which Bosch promises to conclude in Bad News with characters from the Secret series returning to help save the day. And his sense of humor remains constant throughout, a feature that makes the books a must read as much for his irreverence as for the fun random bits of trivia he shares. I recommend readers Bookmark Bad Luck.

Brand new review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

April 12, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Publication date: April 25, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

A junior league hockey team carries a small town’s pride into the national semi-final match. When someone accuses the star player of a heinous act, the residents of the town will need to decide what matters most to them: hockey or their integrity. Fredrik Backman, bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and other gems, returns to readers with the thoughtful, heartbreaking novel Beartown.

The people of Beartown, Sweden, know one thing for sure: hockey. They live and breathe hockey. No matter that the outside world deems Beartown a dying place. No matter that others see them as gruff and uncommunicative. When the junior league team takes the ice, the residents of Beartown come roaring to life.

And now the team has the opportunity to pull Beartown out of oblivion for good. Ten years earlier, when local star Peter Andersson came home after a short stint in the NHL and became the team’s general manager, he promised to build a hockey club so deep that the team would reach the national level. No one believed him; they laughed at him.

But they’re not laughing now; they’re worshipping his every decision. The junior league team is just days before the national semi-finals, and there’s no doubt in the entire country who will win. Peter vacillates between excitement and crushing disappointment. The sponsors and the board have made one thing clear: If they win, he needs to ask for the resignation of the longtime, old-fashioned coach who had coached him all the way to the elite level and acted more like a father to him than his own father ever did.

Peter doesn’t have much of a choice, however. Hockey rules Beartown, and everyone understands the most basic tenet: club before individual. If it’s good for the team, then it doesn’t matter who gets hurt along the way.

No one realizes just how deeply this tenet has been driven into the town until the night of the semi-final match. At a party, a girl flirts with the team’s star player, Kevin. Kevin has always enjoyed his reputation and how much girls want to be with him. His position on the team as well as in the town convince him that he can do absolutely anything—even ignore when someone tells him “no”—without consequences.

The girl accuses him of rape. He denies everything. All of a sudden, everyone in the town is forced to take a position: players; parents; ardent fans. As the situation develops, each person will have to toe that line and will have to decide whether putting the club before the individual really is the correct guiding principle.

Author Fredrik Backman brings his lyrical style of prose to a small town that may exist in one particular country in the book but could exist anywhere in real life. He tackles the issues of male dominance, the status quo, and internal moral conflict in a way that seems deceptively simple. Yet the longer readers spend time with the characters of Beartown, the more they will understand the universality of the dilemmas those characters face.

As with his previous novels, Backman asks his readers to pay attention. The twists and turns as well as the slow-drip fashion of story revelations will all force readers to stay alert. With a story as important as this one, that alertness is wholly warranted.

Once again, Backman’s narration shares equal time in the limelight with the story he wants to tell. His writing style feels whimsical in even the most dire of situations, acting as the perfect counterpoint to the biggest and toughest questions the book poses. Many of his metaphors will make readers exclaim out loud with their simple complexity, an oxymoron that fans of Backman’s work will recognize and appreciate.

In Beartown Backman digs deeper, giving readers not just one or two characters to care for but an entire town of them. His measured approach may require some patience, but it’s certainly worth it. I recommend readers Binge Beartown.

Newest review: Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

By Ekta R. Garg

April 5, 2017

Genre: Science fiction

Rated: Binge it!

Ten years after scientists discover a giant robot on Earth, the world must deal with a second robot that appears without warning. Unlike the first robot, however, the second one exhibits malicious intentions. The scientists who found the first robot will have to use every resource at their disposal to stop the new evil visitor before every person succumbs. Author Sylvain Neuvel continues the thrilling story of Themis with aplomb in the second novel of the Themis Files series called Waking Gods.

It’s been a decade since scientist Rose Franklin and her team excavated and assembled the mysterious pieces of metal that turned into the robot she named Themis. The world has become complacent about Themis in that time. Since her appearance, nothing terrible has happened and Themis seems more like a fascinating scientific oddity than anything else.

So when another robot just appears one morning in London, residents of that city as well as others think Themis’s “family” may finally be joining her. Rose doesn’t know what to think about the new robot. As a scientist she’s intrigued, but an unnamed government source told Rose that Themis wouldn’t be the only one to visit. Nor would the other robots necessarily be as benign as Themis.

The prediction becomes truth when the second robot in London emits a deadly gas and kills thousands. Before anyone can formulate a plan, robots begin arriving in other cities. They, too, begin emitting deadly gasses.

The citizens of the world are under attack.

Not everyone dies, however, and Rose races to find out why. The survivors don’t seem to have any connection to one another. Why do they get to live?

Along with all this, Rose deals with her own insecurities about her abilities. Years earlier she was found after an accident in which she supposedly died. When she wakes up, four years have passed and she questions everything she knows about herself and her life.

It doesn’t help that Kara and Vincent, the cracker jack team of scientists who actually pilot Themis, also treat Rose like a delicate vase. They want to restore the friendship the three shared, but they’re not sure how to go about doing that. With the progression of world events, however, Rose, Kara, Vincent, and all the others involved may not get the time they want to sort through their personal challenges.

Author Sylvain Neuvel brings back his flair and innovative storytelling method for the second book in the Themis Files series. Once again Neuvel doesn’t stick to a conventional narration. Like Sleeping Giants, its predecessor, Waking Gods reads like a collection of files recovered from some sort of aftermath. With the events in Waking Gods, the overall concept for Neuvel’s story world becomes more clear and more opaque all at the same time.

Neuvel spends more time sharing the characters’ lives in this book, which sets it apart from the first novel. In particular readers will find out more about the unnamed government source who Rose and others have turned to time and again for access to information and other resources. Like the characters, readers will find themselves in turns delighted and frustrated by him.

The frustration is purely by Neuvel’s design, though, which is what makes this such a fantastic read. Nothing is out of place in the book in terms of pacing or character development, and readers will most likely finish it wishing they already had the third book on hand. Current world events sometimes suggest the kind of society Neuvel proposes, which makes his books timely, frightening, and necessary escapist reading all in one.

Fans of the first book will find everything they love about Themis, Rose, and the others in this second story. I recommend readers Binge read Waking Gods!

Newest review: It Happens All the Time by Amy Hatvany

By Ekta R. Garg

April 5, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it

The close friendship between two college students shatters when one of them takes advantage of the other. They will have to find a way to move forward personally and together if either of them ever want a normal life again. Author Amy Hatvany handles date rape in a story that evokes no sympathy in the new novel It Happens All the Time.

Amber and Tyler have been best friends since their early teens. They bonded when Tyler moved to their small Pacific Northwest town of Bellingham, Washington, and Tyler’s draw to Amber is clear and strong. What started as a friendship has developed into much more for him.

Unfortunately, Amber doesn’t return his romantic feelings. Yes, Tyler is essential to her life. After all, he was the one to stand by her when anorexia had claimed her mind and body. He was the one who found her when she collapsed and sat by her in the hospital as she fought to return to a healthier state. Tyler means home, but he doesn’t mean love.

That place is reserved for Daniel, Amber’s fiancé. After dating only a few months, Daniel proposes and Amber accepts. She comes home for Christmas giddy and brimming with plans to move to Seattle with Daniel after graduation so he can start medical school and she can fulfill her ultimate goal of being a trainer to professional athletes. Seeing Tyler at Christmastime reminds her of their uncomfortable exchange a few months earlier when he declared his love for her, but Tyler seems to have accepted her rejection. Their friendship returns to a more comfortable place, and once again they’re joking around and sharing their lives.

Tyler can’t help slip in suggestions that Amber got engaged too soon, however, and she begins to question her relationship with Daniel. She wonders whether she jumped into an engagement because of love or her inability to control her own life. She comes home for the summer with those questions weighing heavily on her mind, and seeing Tyler again reinforces for her that she does have other options.

They go to a Fourth of July party together and find themselves making out on the dance floor and then looking for a bedroom. At the last minute, Amber changes her mind but Tyler doesn’t and then the unthinkable happens: Tyler rapes Amber. What follows is the fallout of the crime as Amber and Tyler try to decide what it means for their relationship and themselves.

Author Amy Hatvany writes from personal experience. In an author’s note she says that as a victim of sexual assault herself, she hopes to use the book to start a conversation. Unfortunately, a conversation becomes difficult within the context of this particular novel.

Neither Amber nor Tyler evoke any sympathy. Amber asserts repeatedly that she isn’t attracted to Tyler, yet she goes out of her way to flirt with him and follow him to a bedroom. Readers will have a hard time finding her self-righteousness after the rape justified, especially when she embraces a self-destructive lifestyle and eschews the love and support of her parents (the true heroes of the book who, unfortunately, get relegated to the background.)

Tyler’s stubbornness that Amber is the only girl for him sounds like something out of a cheesy TV movie. Hatvany offers an unconvincing backstory for him that reeks of cliché. Tyler’s parents fit standard stereotypes—his mother whines about the unfairness of her own life, and his father chases women. With such blatant home issues, it’s a wonder Tyler hasn’t broken the law long before this.

Rape is inexcusable under any circumstances. It is a crime and should be treated as such. What Hatvany hopes to achieve almost backfires with the extreme behavior of her protagonists. If she accomplishes anything, it is to show that the events leading up to the crime can start in a complicated mess.

Instead of a novel where a woman realizes she could have made better choices and uses her own horrible experience for good, the book turns into a cringe-worthy tome of harmful behavior. Even with the best of intentions, Hatvany misses the mark by a wide margin. I recommend readers Bypass It Happens All the Time.

Brand new review: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

By Ekta R. Garg

March 15, 2017

Genre: YA fantasy

Rated: Bookmark it!

A princess and an emperor’s son become a reluctant team in a tournament of magic, each of them hoping to pursue their options to fulfill their destinies. Along the way they will have to battle unusual beasts and beings as well as their greatest fears and desires if they want to come out alive. Author Roshani Chokshi takes readers through a sumptuous story in the description-rich novel A Crown of Wishes.

Gauri has spent several months in less-than-ideal conditions for a princess: the dank prison of the neighboring kingdom, Ujijain. It doesn’t help that Ujijain and her own kingdom, Bharata, don’t get along. What’s even worse is that her brother, the king of Bharata, arranged for her kidnapping and imprisonment, and it’s supposed to lead to her execution. All under the guise of animosity between the two kingdoms, of course.

All her life, Gauri has been a fighter. She trained as a soldier and knows her weapons better than most men on the battlefield. She never let her gender get in the way, but occasionally her ego has tripped her. There’s no other way to face the truth of how she ended up in Ujijain’s darkest, deepest jail.

Her intentions were good: she wanted to upend her brother’s cruel, relentless rule and take his place to restore resources and order to Bharata. But she let her paranoia trump her ability to trust those closest to her, and her brother took advantage of that blind spot. Instead of fighting her brother for the right to the crown, she ended up fighting for scraps of food and information from Ujijain’s prison guards.

Vikram, the son of Ujijain’s emperor, has no illusions about his own future. Despite the simpering council members under his father, Vikram knows they’re setting him up to be their puppet, and they have the tactical advantage to do so. They’re the only ones in the kingdom, other than the emperor, who know that his mother was a courtesan.

His father treats him with love and affection, but as an aging monarch his opinion has begun mattering less. The council keeps encouraging Vikram to visit ashrams to “improve” himself, which essentially means Vikram stays out of the way while the council members make the real decisions. During one of his visits, Vikram meets a sage who presents him with a unique opportunity: enter the Tournament of Wishes and change his fate.

The prospect sounds tailor-made for Vikram, but he can only participate with a partner. As he ponders his options, he hears about Gauri’s impending execution. Suddenly he gets an idea that seems ridiculous at best: why not invite Gauri along? Her reputation as a warrior precedes her, and that could be an advantage in a tournament that starts, ends, and runs by magic.

With a little convincing, Gauri agrees to Vikram’s proposal. They don’t get along at all and Gauri hates anything to do with magic, but she doesn’t see any other way out of her own predicament. If she wants to save Bharata from her evil brother, she will have to make use of any weapon in her arsenal—even if it’s not made of metal or comes with a blade.

Author Roshani Chokshi gives readers a novel so lavish that every paragraph feels gilded. As a result, readers will definitely want to resist the urge to skim. Despite its official billing as a novel for young adult readers, adults will also enjoy Chokshi’s rich prose. Also, one of the book’s greatest assets comes in the fact that although it is technically the second book in a series, Chokshi creates an independent story that doesn’t require prior knowledge of any of the characters or their history.

Her descriptions push the boundaries of whimsy at times, and readers might have a tough time in a few spots knowing whether Chokshi uses her words in a metaphorical way or a literal one. Also, she slips out of her story world once or twice by using modern-day Western phrases like “having skin the game.” Because Chokshi’s spent so many pages building this fantastical world of magic, the slip-ups feel particularly jarring. Nonetheless, for the most part Chokshi’s story will charm readers in only the way magic can.

I recommend readers Bookmark A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi.

Latest review: The Hollywood Daughter by Kate Alcott

By Ekta R. Garg

March 8, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it

The daughter of a Hollywood publicist gets a front row seat to some of the most glamorous and most sordid real-life tales coming out of the movie business. When her movie star idol makes a very public personal choice, the girl must deal with the gap between onscreen fantasies and the harshness of real life. Author Kate Alcott delves into life behind the scenes of the golden age of Hollywood in the somewhat promising but ultimately disappointing novel The Hollywood Daughter.

Jessica “Jesse” Malloy gets to hear about the lives of Hollywood stars from a primary source: her father, a publicist for the Selznick Studios. In particular, Jesse loves the fact that her father represents Ingrid Bergman. No one else, Jesse believes, exemplifies a wholesome American woman. Ingrid is perfection personified.

Her adulation of Ingrid Bergman comes with its challenges, however, the biggest being that Jesse’s mother doesn’t approve. A devout Catholic, Jesse’s mother finds herself the sole dissenter in the Malloy household. She battles her conscience on a daily basis; while she enjoys the money and social prestige her husband’s job brings, she finds it difficult to justify what the Catholic church calls objectionable content.

Jesse does her best to ignore her mother’s concerns, but her mother insists on sending her to an all girls’ Catholic school run by nuns. Despite her initial misgivings, Jesse begins to enjoy her time at the school and meets Kathleen. The two become fast friends, gushing over everything…including the movie stars. Finally, for Jesse everything seems to come together. A new best friend and a courtside view to her favorite actress’s life. What more could a girl want?

When news breaks about Ingrid Bergman’s extramarital affair and impending pregnancy, however, Jesse’s world flips upside down. Everything she thought she knew about her idol shatters. Jesse’s father decides to fly to Italy to meet Ingrid and try to persuade her in person to come home, and at the last minute Jesse tags along. They do their best to plead their case, but Ingrid doesn’t want to come home. Jesse comes back to the States brokenhearted. Her idol isn’t so perfect after all, and her entire perspective changes forever.

Author Kate Alcott creates some charming moments in The Hollywood Daughter. Jesse’s adoration of Ingrid Bergman ring true, and readers will get a realistic glimpse into life in the movie industry’s heyday. Interesting, too, are the facts about the Catholic church’s level of involvement and influence in Hollywood during that time period.

Unfortunately the charming moments don’t carry the book. What starts as an interesting examination of a heartbroken fan turns into a lackluster story. Alcott devotes the majority of the book to the flashback that details Jesse’s first interactions with Ingrid and Ingrid’s downfall. By the time the flashback ends, readers will most likely forget where the original story arc began.

The story loses even more steam from there. Kathleen joins the story in real time, but the frame story for the flashback weakens the plot’s impact. Jesse’s mother, a main driving force in Jesse’s childhood, disappears from her life and the book after the flashback. While the idea of Jesse questioning her faith works in theory, in practice it doesn’t really do much for the book overall.

In the end the elements in The Hollywood Daughter don’t coalesce. Readers will probably want to Bypass the book.