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.

Latest review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

By Ekta R. Garg

March 1, 2017

Genre: Magical realism

Rated: Bookmark it! first, then Binge

Two people find themselves in a duel set by patrons who train students to fight for them. When the students fall in love and want to stop competing, the circus that serves as the duel’s venue starts to experience trouble. It will take all the magic they possess to find a solution to help everyone. Author Erin Morgenstern enchants readers on multiple levels in the whimsical novel The Night Circus.

From the time they’re both young, Celia and Marco have been groomed to compete against one another in a duel for magicians. Celia’s patron, Hector, begins when she shows up on his doorstep as a young child. After her mother commits suicide, Celia has nowhere else to go. Hector is also Celia’s father, and despite her young age he can see the innate talent that he himself has used for decades to enthrall audiences and compete against his arch rival.

Hector sends word to that rival, Alexander, that he’s found a student for the next phase of their contest. After meeting Celia, Alexander decides to choose a student for himself. He goes to an orphanage and picks a young boy to train. The boy takes the name Marco and follows Alexander’s stringent rules.

Alexander and Hector start teaching their respective charges, albeit in radically different ways. Their rivalry has lasted for decades, and neither of them wants to concede. They keep Celia and Marco apart until they find the appropriate time and place for their students to begin competing against one another.

Through a variety of acquaintances and in separate circumstances, Celia and Marco get involved in a special circus. The circus, known as Le Cirques des Reves or Circus of Dreams, opens at nightfall, closes at dawn, and includes acts the likes of which no one has ever seen. The unusual hours of operation as well as the mysterious way the circus appears in locations unannounced compounds its aura. While other performers suspect the truth, circus patrons don’t know that what they think of as clever misdirection and engineering feats are acts of true magic.

Hector and Alexander have found their dueling venue.

Celia works directly with the circus; Marco acts as a manager. Both create feature tents that delight visitors. Both get to know each other through their creations. The more they get to know the tents, the more they fall in love.

The two have known about the duel since the beginning, of course, but they decide they no longer want to take part in the challenge. By the time they come to this choice, however, they know leaving the circus will be complicated. Too many people have come to depend on it, both those who work in it as well as those who visit it. They will have to decide whether their love is worth sacrificing the circus. If Celia and Marco just walk away from it all, the circus will fall apart—literally.

Author Erin Morgenstern accomplishes a rare feat: four complementary plots that take readers through her book. Morgenstern gives her plots the freedom around the story the way a visitor would meander through the Circus of Dreams. The result: a story that whispers its secrets in lush, lyrical prose.

The main plot of Celia and Marco will keep readers pressing through the pages. Morgenstern draws in readers further by addressing them directly as if they were actually at the circus themselves, using the direct address as one of the subplots. The third subplot introduces readers to a special clockmaker who starts out as a contractor for a clock for the circus and becomes so much more.

Then readers meet Bailey, a farm boy who wants more from life. He and some of the circus performers form the fourth subplot. Bailey finds his purpose when he visits the circus and meets one of its participants in what turns out to be unforgettable circumstances.

Truly, repeat visits to this circus will only enhance and increase its charm and mystique. The novel contains a quality inherent in books like the Chronicles of Narnia, where one visit isn’t enough and multiple visits only deepen the longing for more. In accomplishing this, Morgenstern has created something special.

Her depth of character and story will tempt readers to rush through the book, but the level of detailing she provides demands attention. For this reason alone, I recommend readers not binge The Night Circus; it’s every book lover’s dream come true. I recommend readers Bookmark this book the first time through and then Binge it the second time.

Latest review: The Best Mistake Mystery by Sylvia McNicoll

By Ekta R. Garg

February 22, 2017

Genre: Middle grade mystery

Rated: Borrow it

A teenage dogwalker becomes the target of a threat after mysterious events at his school. He’ll have to figure out who’s sending him threatening texts and also how to help his classmate if he wants his routine to return to normal. Author Sylvia McNicoll gives middle grade readers a straightforward mystery in the fairly likeable novel The Best Mistake Mystery.

Seventh grader Stephen Nobel misses his best friend, but after Jessie moves away during the summer Stephen knows he has to navigate the new school year alone. His trick of counting his mistakes during the day helps but only a little. His nerdy classmate, Renee, decides they’re friends now, but Stephen does his best to avoid her.

Avoiding Renee becomes next to impossible, however, when the fire alarm goes off at school. She stays close to Stephen as they all file out, and soon enough Stephen figures out the alarm wasn’t a drill. Things start to get really tricky when a bomb squad shows up at the school and “detonates” a backpack, which means school gets out for the day. Because Renee doesn’t want to go home alone, she tags along.

Stephen takes the opportunity to walk his new canine clients, Ping and Pong, but the news from school only becomes more complicated in the days that follow. Someone drives a car into the school, and the principal’s wedding dress gets stolen.

The problems become personal when Renee reveals that the police have begun to investigate her brother as a person of interest in the incident at the school with the car. Then someone dognaps one of Stephen’s clients. He’ll have to rely on Renee and his own wits in order to figure out what’s happening before something else bad happens.

Author Sylvia McNicoll creates a fairly relatable character in Stephen. He deals with many of the same issues that today’s middle schoolers tackle, and target readers will identify with Stephen. McNicoll also creates awareness of social anxiety in a subtle way, introducing it in an accessible way to readers unfamiliar with concept.

Less subtle is the way McNicoll presents the mystery itself. Despite the attempts at misdirection and inserting red herrings, the mystery unfolds in a fairly obvious manner. Readers who enjoy the enigmatic progression of a good mystery may find this book a little lacking. The novel is more suited for reluctant readers who might need a little encouragement to get through a book. The easy clues will help them enjoy the payoff of a good mystery.

I recommend readers Borrow The Best Mistake Mystery.

Newest review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

February 8, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Binge it!

A mother to a three-year-old disappears, and 10 years later that daughter wants to know where her mother went. The girl ropes in two reluctant adults to help, and the three of them work together to solve the mystery with an end no one could have guessed. Author Jodi Picoult will make readers pause and want to start over at the beginning of the book as soon as they’re done with it in the thought-provoking novel Leaving Time.

Jenna Metcalf knows one thing for sure: her mother, Alice, left when was three years old. Her grandmother raised her, but her grandmother doesn’t fit the stereotype of a soft-hearted woman who bakes cookies and wears sweaters and comfortable shoes. Jenna knows her grandma loves her, but she desperately misses Alice. All she has of her mother is the journals Alice kept during her research into elephant grief in Africa.

She has read and re-read Alice’s journals hoping for some clue to her mother’s whereabouts. More disturbing is the question of what made Alice leave in the first place. The logical person to ask would be her father, Thomas, except that not long after Alice’s disappearance Thomas got admitted to a psychiatric ward. On his better days, he treats Jenna with gentleness. On his bad days, he sees her as his lost wife.

It doesn’t help that Alice’s disappearance came at the end of a night of tragedy. One of the employees at the elephant reserve in New Hampshire that Thomas built died in a horrible accident. The police found Alice unconscious and took her to a hospital. When she regained consciousness, she left the hospital before anyone could find out what happened that night. No one has seen her since.

But that isn’t good enough for Jenna. She’s spent hours looking into her mother’s disappearance and trying to solve the mystery, if only to get an answer to the question of why. Why would her mother leave her behind? Why didn’t she come back for Jenna at some point?

Having exhausted all other options, Jenna enlists the help of psychic Serenity Jones. By the time Jenna finds Serenity, the woman is doing fake readings for whatever meager prices she can charge. Despite her genuine talent of talking to the dead, a botched reading from her past leaves her unable to communicate with who have passed away. Serenity really doesn’t want to help Jenna, but Jenna eventually talks her around.

Jenna isn’t done recruiting her team, however. She tracks down Virgil Stanhope, the officer on the case when Alice disappeared. After copious cups of coffee to get him sober, Jenna convinces Virgil that helping her is better than spending the rest of his days at the bottom of a bottle. Virgil opposes the entire operation, but Alice’s disappearance has haunted him as much as it’s haunted Jenna.

The three start working through all the details of Alice’s disappearance. The more time they spend together, the more they realize the information from the police investigation isn’t the full story. What the three of them discover will keep them second-guessing until the end of their new search.

Author Jodi Picoult delves so deeply into her story world that before long readers will live and breathe the details of the characters’ lives. She handles younger characters and older ones with ease. Jenna’s voice during her chapters comes through loud and clear. Readers’ hearts will ache for her as she describes life without a mother. The fact that Jenna doesn’t even know whether Alice is alive or dead makes her longing worse, for both her and readers.

Picoult’s mastery with characters’ voices continues with Serenity and Virgil. Both of them have spent considerable time in their careers hiding from the truth. Both of them need Jenna as much as she needs them. They just don’t know it when they meet her. Picoult winds the threads of all three characters with such delicacy that readers won’t see the ending coming. When it does, everything makes sense in the most right way possible for the mystery.

I recommend readers Binge Leaving Time.

Newest review: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

By Ekta R. Garg

February 1, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

An illegal immigrant and a woman wanting a child will cross paths when the immigrant’s son goes into the foster system. Both women pursue the child, and neither will ever be the same when she reaches the end of her journey. Author Shanthi Sekaran explores the world of wanting a child and keeping one in the grossly lopsided novel Lucky Boy.

At the age of 18, Solimar Castro-Valdez only knows two things for sure: her small village in Mexico is running out of options for a viable life and America will change everything beyond her wildest dreams. After all, her cousin, Silvia, made it to America, and everyone knows how well Sylvia’s life turned out. If Soli wants a chance to help her family improve their economic standing, she knows she’ll have to undertake the dangerous journey across the border.

Some people have tried and failed, come back in utter distress or disgrace, but Soli knows she won’t end up like that. Her father has made arrangements with a man who guarantees Soli’s safety—until the journey begins, and he doesn’t anymore. When Soli learns he intends for her to be a drug mule, she runs away and joins another migrating group. Then she meets someone who will change her life forever.

But that isn’t the only change Soli will experience, and she learns that all the stories people told in Mexico about the arduous journey to America are true. Weeks after leaving her hometown, she arrives on Silvia’s doorstep forlorn but not broken. Despite the discovery that she’s pregnant, Soli gets a job as a cleaning lady and nanny to a family in Berkeley, California.

On the other side of the city, Kavya and Rishi are living any young couple’s dream. Kavya gets to exercise her cooking skills as head chef, albeit at a sorority house, and Rishi works at a successful startup. They feel like they should be grateful for what they have, yet they can’t get around the one thing they don’t: a child. Fertility treatments don’t work, so Kavya and Rishi decide to adopt.

Rishi in particular becomes convinced that adopting out of the foster system will ground his place in the world. Kavya, less sure, agrees to look into the process. Through a complicated series of events they meet Soli’s son, now one year old, and Kavya falls in love with the boy immediately. What they don’t realize is that Soli never intended to give him up; he was taken from her, and after losing everything else she will do whatever it takes to get him back.

Author Shanthi Sekaran tackles the foster care system as well as issues of illegal immigration and infertility in a book that could have made a deep impact, and it does to an extent. Soli’s story will draw out readers’ hearts and make them look twice at themselves as well as the immigrants, legal or not, who believe with wholehearted desperation that the United States offers solutions to all of their problems.

Less successful, by a wide margin, is the story of Kavya and Rishi. Kavya comes across as self-absorbed and someone with too great a sense of entitlement. Rishi handles everything tentatively to the point that even when he and Kavya welcome Soli’s son into their home, readers will begin to wonder whether he really wanted to be a father in the first place. Kavya starts the process with her yearnings to be a mother; Rishi becomes the one to champion the foster care system. Neither of them seem to understand the far-reaching consequences of what they’re doing.

Had Sekaran chosen to cut out Rishi and Kavya altogether and simply followed Soli’s story, the impact would have been much deeper. As it is, the book during Soli’s portions will astound readers with its initial force and then leave them with too many unanswered story questions after they’ve absorbed the impact. Those unanswered questions come mostly from Kavya and Rishi’s involvement in the plot.

Due to the title, readers will assume Soli’s son has a much larger role to play but ultimately he becomes a placeholder for an immigrant’s dream. While the book is worth reading for Soli’s perspective, readers may not be able to fully appreciate the story Sekaran is attempting because of her other protagonists. For this reason, Lucky Boy is Bordering on Bypass it.

Newest review: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

By Ekta R. Garg

January 25, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Bypass it

A woman discovers that the previous tenant of her home died a tragic death, and her interactions with the architect/landlord of the house convinces her something odd happened before she moved in. The more she finds out, the more she realizes she may be in danger herself. Author JP Delaney shares the story of the two women and the man who links them in the fast paced but ultimately disappointing novel The Girl Before.

Emma wants to move out of her London flat as soon as possible. After surviving a break-in at her current home, she just can’t face staying there any longer than necessary. When the realtor shows Emma and her boyfriend the home at One Folgate Street, Emma feels the home calling to her.

The clean lines and austere décor only become more intriguing when she and her boyfriend receive the tenant application that has more than 200 questions. The rules for the home confound Emma—no trash cans or books; no shampoo left out after a shower—but they also make her curious. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the curiosity aspect of the house, however, and eventually the two break up. After a whirlwind relationship with Edward Monkford, the architect-cum-landlord, Emma dies under tragic but unsettling circumstances.

After delivering a stillborn infant, Jane wants to get away from everything in her life that reminds her of her baby girl. She feels the same draw to One Folgate Street that Emma did, and Jane takes the questions on the application as a challenge. Most never make it past that first application, but Jane does and she has the opportunity to meet Edward in his office before the final decision.

Jane finds herself attracted to him, and when her application to live at One Folgate Street is approved she realizes the attraction must have been mutual. Her guess is correct. One day Edward approaches Jane for what he calls an unfettered relationship. No strings attached; no commitments. They simply stay together until one of them decides the situation no longer makes sense.

Despite her initial hesitation, Jane agrees. As she spends more time with Edward, however, she realizes that some of his actions must be motivated by his relationship with Emma. Jane begins to question whether Emma’s death really was an accident. She’s afraid to find out, because she doesn’t want to know whether she’ll be next.

Author JP Delaney gives readers a book that moves at a breakneck pace. Telling the story in chapters that alternate between Emma and Jane’s points of view, Delaney pushes the story forward in an engaging effort. Readers won’t want to stop moving through the novel until they find out all of Emma’s secrets and how Jane handles the fallout from them.

Unfortunately, Delaney doesn’t fulfill the promises he makes in the first handful of chapters of the book. Edward Monkford’s entrance and character arc suggest someone worthy of Fifty Shades of Grey; in the end his entire outlook falls flat. Midway through the book, one of the two main women completely flips her entire profile. Delaney may have wanted to create an unreliable narrator similar to Gone Girl, but the transition isn’t nearly as smooth.

Ultimately Delaney builds the entire story up and then lets it fall off a cliff. Instead of making a terrific smash, it flutters to the ground in a heap of feathers. The end is just as disappointing as the beginning is fascinating.

I recommend readers Bypass The Girl Before.