Brand new review: A Murder on Jane Street by Cathy Cash Spellman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 17, 2019

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: July 16, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it / 2.5 stars

When an elderly woman is murdered, her ex-cop neighbor investigates the strange circumstances. The deeper he digs into her life, the more he realizes his neighbor was anything but an ordinary person. As his family and friends pitch in to help solve the case, they’ll find themselves on high alert in the middle of a larger plot. Veteran author Cathy Cash Spellman debuts in the mystery/thriller genre with the well-intentioned but wieldy, bulky novel A Murder on Jane Street.

After decades as one of New York City’s finest, retired police chief FitzHugh Donovan is enjoying ownership of an independent bookstore. He lives in a charming brownstone with his daughters and his granddaughter, and for the most part he’s content. While he’s friendly with their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Wallenberg, they haven’t formed a close friendship.

Fitz is shocked, then, when Mrs. Wallenberg calls him one day sounding frightened. She insists that someone is targeting her, and she wants to leave important materials with him in the event that she dies. She asks if he can stop by on his way home from the store, but Fitz doesn’t know what to think. Why would someone go out of their way to kill a little old lady well into her nineties?

By the time he checks on her, it’s too late. Mrs. Wallenberg is murdered in a gruesome fashion. From her house, Fitz retrieves a packet addressed to him of mysterious documents, and he realizes that one of them is written in invisible ink. It turns out to be a journal and reveals that Mrs. Wallenberg led quite the life before migrating to the United States from Poland decades earlier.

Her journal warns of a global conspiracy dating all the way back to World War II, Hitler’s plans to take over Europe and beyond, and the complicity of Allied countries in hoaxes and cover-ups. For 75 years she’s kept secret evidence of it all, but she knows those on the wrong side of justice have long memories.

Fitz is quickly joined by his daughters, granddaughter, and several friends in finding Mrs. Wallenberg’s killers. The longer they pursue the truth, the more they realize that the global scale of the operations means the wrongdoers will stop at nothing to keep their secrets. Fitz and Co. will need to be careful with who they approach for help and who they trust if they want to stay alive.

Author Cathy Cash Spellman’s efforts succeed within a limited range. The story introduces endearing characters, but Spellman brings on so many to solve the murder that at one point readers may forget names or who does what. The book tries to tackle science, history, the supernatural, present-day politics, and police procedure; the various elements, like the various characters, may overwhelm the target audience.

Worse, at some point readers may feel the need to skim ahead, and Spellman’s didactic writing approach means reading every single page might be unnecessary. The characters gather at regular intervals to meet and “update” one another on their progress as they work to uncover the secret plots. What happens is, essentially, an update for the readers.

Most of the big action happens “off stage,” so readers only find out about big discoveries via these updates or character conversations. The result is that the book feels less like a heart-stopping murder mystery and more like an interesting newspaper feature article—in multiple parts—after the fact. It doesn’t help that the characters spend the bulk of the book doing research into Mrs. Wallenberg’s journal and her claims. Readers never get a clear-cut answer on what the brave cast was going to do once they uncovered the complicated, webbed truth.

In a book that makes the characters call out the Allied powers in World War II for secretly supporting the Germans, the tone is upbeat and optimistic in a Nancy Drew kind of way. While Fitz and family all know they might run into dangerous factions, the book’s tone never lets the reader doubt that in the end the Donovan family will come out all right. The lack of major conflict throughout the book confirms this; the characters run into dangerous elements a total number of two times. For a book that tops out at more than 120 (short) chapters, the danger needed to be sky high.

A couple of small factual errors might make some readers wonder what other facts don’t line up with reality. Those plus the long length and the sense that the characters are having all the fun without letting the readers partake in most of it might make some readers shun the novel. I rate the book as Bordering on Bypassing it.

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Newest review: Layover by David Bell

By Ekta R. Garg

July 10, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 2, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A man meets a woman in the airport and can’t stop thinking about her. He changes all of his plans on the spur of the moment, causing upheaval in his itinerary and his life, and pursues her until she stops long enough to answer his questions. Author David Bell keeps readers moving from one location to another in the mostly satisfying novel Layover.

Joshua Fields has his Xanax and the latest paperback novel in hand, which means he’s all ready for his flight. As a real estate developer, he spends several days every month traveling up and down the east coast to visit properties even though he hates to fly; hence, the Xanax. More than once, Joshua’s considered quitting his job, but his respect and love for the boss—his dad—makes him put off his resignation And, really, it’s not an awful job. He’s making money and is good at what he does.

On his latest layover in the Atlanta airport, Joshua runs into a mysterious woman. Their first encounter leaves him miffed; she’s short with him when all he does is say hello. Their second encounter leaves him mystified; after small talk in an airport bar, the girl kisses him with an intensity he can’t ignore. She tells him her name—Morgan Reynolds—but not much else and leaves.

As he walks to his gate for his flight to Tampa, Joshua tries to find out more about Morgan by going on social media and makes a startling discovery: Morgan is considered a missing person. He manages to track her down to her gate, buy a ticket to Nashville, and board the flight. He just has to know more about her and find out whether she needs help. He knows his dad will be mad him for blowing off the deal in Florida, but he’s played it safe all his life. It’s time, he thinks, to take a chance without knowing the outcome first.

In Laurel Falls, Tennessee, detective Kimberly Givens is working her latest case. A prominent resident has gone missing, and the job of finding him has fallen on her desk. Kimberly hopes wrapping up the case fast will put her in the limelight for a promotion. The promotion would mean better hours, a key to being a single mom to an active tween. She feels like she’s always apologizing to her daughter for missing time together. A somewhat regular schedule would go a long way toward fixing that.

The more she digs into the case, though, the more Kimberly realizes it’s connected to the case of missing person Morgan Reynolds, who, it seems, isn’t missing anymore. Kimberly receives information about a certain Joshua Fields and wonders whether he’s tied to the problem at hand: the prominent Laurel Falls resident was Morgan’s boss. Now that she knows Morgan’s alive, Kimberly fears the worst for the missing man. It seems the only way to find out what happened to him is to talk to both Joshua and Morgan. She’ll just have to find them first.

Author David Bell builds a realistic story to start. Early in the book Joshua doesn’t run away from the police when they pull him aside for questioning. He doesn’t try to perform any heroic antics. Instead, he reacts as most people would, a refreshing change from many novels where the protagonist makes decisions that would leave readers rolling their eyes.

Deeper into the novel, however, the story becomes far-fetched. It’s clear that Joshua is intrigued by Morgan because of her looks and his hormones. The more he finds out about her, the more he should want to stay away. Instead, he continues tracking her down and demanding answers. Even a blow to the head isn’t enough to deter his chivalry.

Kimberly Givens is the most realistic character, a pity because she’s not the main one. Bell chose to let Joshua tell his parts of the story in first person while Kimberly gets relegated to third person. Some readers might wish Kimberly were the lead instead; she’s a flawed heroine but relatable, one readers will thoroughly enjoy.

The book’s timeline gets clouded in all of Joshua’s back-and-forth with Morgan, and even though Morgan is the catalyst for Joshua’s impulsiveness she comes across as somewhat weak. Bell excels at keeping readers moving through the pages, but they may not feel satisfied with what they find by the end. I recommend readers Borrow Layover.

Brand new review: Escape Room by Megan Goldin

By Ekta R. Garg

July 3, 2019

When four executives get trapped in an escape room together, they realize that the challenge is more than just finding an exit. It’s about getting out alive. Author Megan Goldin deals her characters harsh circumstances but lets the plot slide toward the end of her debut novel The Escape Room.

On a Friday night, Wall Street executives Vincent, Sylvie, Jules, and Sam receive a mysterious invitation to a team-building exercise. They’re invited to an escape room in one of the company’s new high rises still under construction. None of them want to go, but none of them can decline either. The company, Stanhope and Sons, has been in trouble lately, and rumors of layoffs have everyone nervous. The four execs are nothing if not ambitious, and they’ll do anything to keep their jobs—including participating in a stupid escape room.

They enter the elevator in the skyscraper and realize soon enough that the elevator itself is the escape room challenge. As the senior-most administrator among them, Vincent tries to take control by looking for clues. Sylvie, Jules, and Sam make efforts to help, but the clues are few and far between. Meanwhile, they suspect that Vincent lured them into the elevator in an attempt to make them look bad in front of upper management at the end of the exercise.

The clues go from scarce to bizarre, and it becomes clear that they no longer need to worry about who will win: they need to worry about who will survive. As they try to work out who would bring them into this situation and why, the four discuss the last few years at the firm. The name of a former employee comes up: Sara Hall, newly hired out of college. Their working world is one of ruthless hours and even more ruthless tactics, and Sara just couldn’t keep up. Her dismissal from Stanhope was almost inevitable. Each of the executives can’t help wonder if they’re next.

Author Megan Goldin builds a fair amount of suspense in the novel. The narrative alternates between the executives caught in the elevator and Sara Hall’s experience in working for Stanhope and Sons. Sara’s portions of the book move at a steady pace, and readers will find their curiosity mounting in wondering how she fits into the other half of the book.

Unfortunately, that part of the book drags down the entire story. The novelty of the executives caught in the elevator wears off after it’s made clear that they’re not making much progress in getting out. They hurl insults at one another and even injure one another during heated arguments; beyond that, however, and the odd clue, Vincent, Sylvie, Sam, and Jules don’t engage in much action.

More astute readers may figure out about halfway through why the four have been brought together, and because the novel starts with the end of the story they’ll already know the outcome of the escape room exercise. What is left, then, is the why and how. For those readers who make it to the big reveal at the end, they’ll find it rushed. Details are shared in what could be imagined are breathless tones, as if the characters were running to the end of the book and trying to fit in every single little detail before they get there.

Sara Hall’s portions of the novel are much more interesting than the elevator scenes; it’s a shame the entire book didn’t revolve around her. Goldin could have taken her time to develop Sara’s rise and fall within the company and the consequences of her actions. As it is, because Sara must share time with the four company sharks, readers don’t get to spend as much time with her as they would probably like.

The ambiance of the world of Wall Street feels somewhat familiar; there isn’t much new information offered on the strain of the working hours of real-life executives. Readers may not be able to stick with this one to the end. I recommend they Bypass The Escape Room.

Newest review: The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

By Ekta R. Garg

June 26, 2019

A young woman finds herself without family or friends as she tries to travel hundreds of miles on foot to escape disease and chaos. Along the way she will need to call on every single instinct to help her survive. Author Christina Henry takes the familiar story of “Little Red Riding Hood” and gives it exciting twists and edges in her newest book The Girl in Red.

Cordelia doesn’t answer to that name; never has. It’s not her fault her mother, a professor of Shakespearean literature, named her after one of the bard’s heroines. She goes by Red, a nickname her father gave her when she was a child, and that’s it.

And even though Red has delved into some of Shakespeare’s work, her real fascination is for horror films and end-of-the-world novels. Good thing too, because the end of the world has crashed on the heads of everyone and no one knows why. Three months ago, people began dying from a mysterious illness everyone calls the Cough. That’s how it starts, but it ends in a much more gruesome way.

Although Red and her family already live on the edge of their small college town, she insists that they go to her grandmother’s house. Grandma lives in the middle of the woods with no neighbors for miles around, and Red knows they’ll be safe there from both the airborne disease as well as the depravity it has caused in people. If they leave by car, they’ll just get turned around at the government roadblocks, so Red says they need to walk. By staying in the woods, even though it’ll take much longer, they’ll make it to Grandma’s house. Her parents take forever to agree and then plan the trip, and her older brother, Adam, is acting like a brat about the whole situation.

Red’s practically bouncing on her toes—well, the toes on one foot, anyway. She lost part of her left leg when she was a child and uses a prosthetic leg to get around. Even though she’s an adult now at 20, her mother still treats her like she’s a child. But Red is the only one in her house who has taken the entire crisis seriously. She’s packed a camping backpack with the essentials and practiced for weeks carrying it around. All they have to do is leave already.

When they finally do, though, their family doesn’t leave together. Soon after, it’s just Red in the woods, putting one foot in front of the other, making the trek of more than 300 miles one step at a time. Along the way she defends herself from the increasingly savage men she meets who target lone women, and she calls on all the “research” she’s done through her books and movies. And even though losing all semblance of normal life burns in Red’s chest much more than any cough could, she keeps her eye on the main goal: getting to Grandma’s house safe and sound.

Author Christina Henry presents readers with a razor-sharp protagonist in Red. She’s smart and stubborn, resourceful but also flawed—all of the things readers love most in their main characters. Her disability provides an interesting character trait, but Henry doesn’t dwell on it to the point of distraction. It’s as much a part of Red as anything else, but it doesn’t define her.

The self-aware narration drills right to the heart of every single scene, and readers will thoroughly enjoy watching Red work through one challenge after another. For half of the book, Red travels all by herself. In the hands of a lesser skilled author, a lone character going on a journey would amount to a boring story. Henry, however, uses flashbacks with deft and care. The result is that even though Red may be alone for the first half of the novel, readers will still enjoy every minute with her.

If the novel struggles anywhere, it’s at the end. Red stays true to herself through the climax, but readers might wonder whether Henry could have developed the last few pages a little further. The final scene provides some solace but possibly not enough.

For the most part, however, the book flies, as will readers while they’re flipping or swiping pages. I recommend readers Bookmark The Girl in Red!

Second review for today: Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

By Ekta R. Garg

June 19, 2019

Release date: June 11, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young Chinese American woman comes home to fulfill a dream. As she gets to know her mother’s neighbors and works on making her dream come true, she discovers secrets and gets answers she’s sought for much of her life. Author Roselle Lim draws on her own cultural heritage to give readers a story full of delicious recipes but light on substantial fare in the cooking-related novel Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune.

Natalie Tan has wanted nothing more than to be a chef with her own restaurant. She knows she comes from a tradition of cooking: her grandmother ran a restaurant too. Natalie doesn’t know much more than that, however. Before she was born, the restaurant shut down. When she pressed her mother, Miranda, for details, Miranda claimed the restaurant was beyond saving.

Despite this, Natalie wants to pursue her dream. She leaves home to enroll in cooking school. She fails after her first year, but she cooks and travels across the world to continue honing her skills. For seven years mother and daughter don’t speak—until the day Natalie receives word that her mother has died.

She arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown and her old neighborhood where she grew up as the only child to a single parent. She also grew up hating her father, a man she never met but an inheritance she carries from her mother’s refusal to talk about him. Now Natalie has no parents and only a neighborhood full of people who, in her mind, turned their backs on her and her mother when she was young.

From beyond the grave, though, her mother surprises her. The restaurant is not in a state of disrepair after all, and in a letter Miranda says she approves of Natalie’s dream to open it again. She only wishes she could have said it to Natalie’s face. Natalie is ecstatic, but then she examines the neighborhood. The buildings are old, the tourists no longer come, and few young people live there anymore. Even if she does open her restaurant, who would eat there?

The discovery of her grandmother’s old cookbook and a message from the neighborhood seer encourage her. The seer states that Natalie must make three dishes from the cookbook to help three different people. Her grandmother’s cooking was legendary, healing hearts and solving problems. If Natalie wants the restaurant to survive, she must think of the neighbors and help them first before she can help herself. As she fumbles her way through new relationships and tries to deal with the challenges of starting her own business, Natalie learns that a good meal, like a good conversation, can whet one’s appetite for a new life.

Author Roselle Lim will make readers mouths’ water with the recipes she includes. She offers insight to Asian cooking and its subtleties, proving Chinese fare is so much more than the standard dishes most readers might know. Natalie begins the story with an excellent understanding of these subtleties, so readers might question just why she couldn’t complete her tenure at cooking school.

Natalie comes across as deferential and eager to do the right thing yet also longing to forge her own path, traits many Asian readers will understand. Yet for someone who spends so much time talking about how much she wants to open her restaurant, she takes a long time to do so. In between getting to know the neighbors, cooking, and finding new love, she doesn’t charge forward with the specifics of her goal. Mentions of paperwork, licenses, and other necessities to start a new business crop up from time to time, but readers may wonder: what else, exactly, does Natalie do all day?

Despite the story being told in first person, Lim gives the neighbors their due as secondary characters. While readers never get the full stories on any of them, Lim provides enough information to satiate the most curious. It’s a shame, then, when one or more of these characters behaves in a manner that seems too far outside the lines drawn for them, which happens on more than one occasion.

Lacking a major conflict or even high tension for most of the book, Lim does keep one big surprise for the end. Some readers may not make it that far, but for those who do it will offer a sweet “aha!” moment falling right in line with the rest of the story. Readers looking for a quiet, laid-back novel about family might enjoy this one. Otherwise I recommend readers Borrow Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune from the library.

Brand new review: The Griffins of Castle Cary by Heather Shumaker

By Ekta R. Garg

June 19, 2019

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Release date: March 5, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

Three siblings run into ghosts and mayhem during their vacation. What starts as a venture into the unknown turns into a rescue mission when a ghost wants to adopt one of them. The three will have to trust one another’s special talents if they want to make it back home without losing anyone. Author Heather Shumaker gives readers a warm, sweet story about the sibling bond and spooks her target audience without truly frightening them in the charming novel The Griffins of Castle Cary.

Meg, Will, and Ariel Griffin have just arrived in the town of Castle Cary in Somerset, England. While their parents attend a geology conference in another part of the country, the Griffin children get to spend the week with Aunt Effie and her brown Newfoundland, whom she affectionately calls Uncle Ben. Meg and Will, less than a year apart in age at 11 and 10, hope that Aunt Effie will take on the task of entertaining Ariel. Their five-year-old sister is sweet but definitely a handful.

The children settle into the Griffinage, the name of Aunt Effie’s house, with ease, but soon enough they discover that the sleepy little town of Castle Cary isn’t quite so dull. On their first morning in the Griffinage, they meet Aunt Effie’s neighbor, Shep, handyman extraordinaire, computer programmer, and local ghost expert. He tells the siblings about Mendip Manor, an old home with its very own ghost story about a young child who died and the mother whose ghost still mourns her.

Meg and Will don’t seem too keen on meeting ghosts, although talking about them is fun. Ariel, on the other hand, seems to get inspired by Shep’s story. She tells her older brother and sister that she’s made a new friend. The older kids assume Ariel’s talking about another imaginary playmate and brush off her announcement.

Then Ariel begins acting strangely. Will starts getting hiccups at the most awful times. Meg keeps waking up with a weird prickly feeling. They see mysterious lights, and Will keeps hearing bells when none are actually ringing. The Griffinage, too, starts falling apart, and pretty soon Meg and Will come to an alarming conclusion: one of the ghosts from the manor is trying to get their attention. More importantly, it’s trying to get Ariel and keep her for good.

With their wit and their smarts, the two older siblings work out a plan to save Ariel and try to help the ghost at the same time. They’re racing against the clock, though. The young ghost’s birthday is coming up, and neither Meg nor Will think she’ll be willing to let it pass without accomplishing her goal of taking Ariel away from them.

Author Heather Shumaker builds a warm relationship between the siblings full of realistic moments as well as tender ones. As the older children and so close in age, Meg and Will get along better with one another and understand each other better than they do their much younger sister. Ariel’s observations on how her big sister and brother would rather run off together than play with her hits the mark, but so does the worry Meg and Will experience when they realize the ghost is targeting Ariel.

Shumaker does a wonderful job retaining Ariel’s innocence. She’s a smart girl and uses her own common sense at times, but she also approaches life—and the ghost who befriends her—with eyes wide open. Readers will find her endearing, possibly the most of the three (although at times it may be hard to make a choice.)

While the story takes its time to build, once the events get moving Shumaker keeps them doing so with chain-reaction timing. Readers more accustomed to action-packed book openings will need to stay patient, but their patience is rewarded later. Shumaker also finds a way to work in Uncle Ben in a manner that is funny and incredible without pushing the boundaries of disbelief too much. Families and target readers with dogs will love him and the way he insists on running back to save the kids time and time again.

In the end, the love and affection Meg, Will, and Ariel share shines brighter than everything else and will make readers smile. The book provides a satisfying conclusion to the premise proposed, but readers may come away hoping for more from the Griffin siblings. Those wanting a sweet story about sibling love that triumphs above all else will enjoy this book. I recommend readers Bookmark it!

Newest review: Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

By Ekta R. Garg

June 12, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: June 11, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Two sisters face tragedies and challenges through the decades. Along the way, they will encounter the trials unique to women and learn to come to terms with how gender plays into their personal narratives. Author Jennifer Weiner gives her characters free rein, to the detriment of the plot, in her overly long novel Mrs. Everything.

It’s the 1950s, and Jo and Bethie Kaufman have just moved into a new house in a Detroit suburb. Jo hopes the change will distract her mother from all the rules. There seem to be so many of them, and Jo is sick of every single one. She can’t seem to sit quietly enough or wear the right clothes or do anything “ladylike,” the way Bethie can.

Bethie is the exact opposite of her big sister. Where Jo favors jeans and protest marches, Bethie devours fashion magazines and wants nothing more than a cute date for Saturday night. She possesses a clear picture of her future: a mother and wife, like her own mother.

When the girls’ father dies from a heart attack, however, their lives unspool in a different direction. Their mother gets a job in a department store, working long hours to pay the bills, and leaving Jo and Bethie to fend for themselves at home. The increased freedom means more chances for the girls to explore, but that exploration often leads to heartache.

Before either of them know it, Jo is the one married and settling down and Bethie has taken up the clarion call to save the earth and fight discrimination. Both sisters find that the compromises they made, sometimes on the most personal issues, lead them into unexplored territory. They lose and find one another several times over as they each explore the meaning of womanhood: how to define it, how to live by it, and, in some cases, how to fly in the very face of it.

Author Jennifer Weiner takes readers on a journey that spans decades. While the intention is admirable, the end result is a book that feels much longer than it needs to be. From their early childhood until a tragic end for one of the sisters, the novel digs into every major obstacle a woman could possibly face.

Therein lies its biggest flaw. A book that many will hail as fit for the current times, Mrs. Everything wants so much to deliver the message of empowerment. In order to do so, the story drags Jo and Bethie through rape, molestation, unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, broken hearts, discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, homelessness, sexual harassment in the workplace, and unfulfilled dreams. One of the sisters even experiences the betrayal of a best friend. If the title references all of the roles a woman tries to fill, it also implies all the bad its characters experience.

Weiner takes her time developing the girls’ individual stories—sometimes in excruciating detail—but the plot rushes through the challenges that the next generation faces. Jo shakes her head at her inability to help one of her own daughters, but that daughter’s angst in life is never fully explained. The jarring shift of approach will make readers feel like the end got shoehorned into the rest of the book.

Inconsistencies may also confuse readers. At one point, Bethie, looking back on her life, accuses Jo of not helping her through a difficult situation early in the book, when Jo was the one she turned to during that time. Jo was the one who stood up for Bethie and gave her the courage to face another day. Bethie’s accusations feel forced, as if she needed a reason to estrange herself from Jo to serve the story’s next section.

Graphic sexual scenes may turn off some readers, and others may find it a challenge to stick with the bulky book because of its length. I recommend readers Bypass Mrs. Everything.