Second review of the day now up!

By Ekta R. Garg

September 30, 2015

Rated: Bypass it

After hearing her husband declare his intentions to retire, a woman introduces him to a retirement coach. When the coach dies under mysterious circumstances, the woman’s husband becomes a suspect in the death and she realizes she’ll need to marshal all of her resources to clear his name. Susan Santangelo does her best to pack intrigue and humor in the lukewarm cozy mystery Retirement Can Be Murder.

Carol Andrews dreads the “R” word. She doesn’t want her husband to think, talk, or even breathe retirement. She values her freedom too much. But Jim has become disgruntled with his job where a “youngster” has become his boss, and Jim is close to hitting his limit.

She discusses it with her friends over lunch one day, and one of them mentions a retirement coach. Carol Googles the term and discovers a retirement coach not far from her Connecticut home. After a little bit of cajoling, she convinces Jim to go meet Davis Rhodes, retirement coach extraordinaire.

Jim doesn’t hesitate to share his full-blown skepticism, but by the end of the meeting he’s sold on the idea. Just not in the way Carol expects. Jim decides he will help Rhodes launch a major PR campaign for Rhodes’ business, which Jim is sure will make his too-young boss realize how valuable he is to the office. Carol doesn’t know what to make of this turn of events but decides just to live with it…until the day Jim goes to meet Rhodes and finds him dead.

The police get involved, and soon enough a lack of evidence pointing anywhere else means Jim becomes a person of interest in the case. Carol is racked with guilt. If she hadn’t twisted Jim’s arm to go see Rhodes in the first place, he wouldn’t be under suspicion. She decides she’ll do whatever she can to solve the case, and her three best friends all pitch in to help.

Author Susan Santangelo has positioned Retirement Can Be Murder as the first in a series for the baby boomer generation, dealing with the challenges and life issues that section of society faces. Unfortunately the book fails to keep the reader engaged, despite its overt dedication to its genre. Santangelo keeps the mystery close at hand, but readers may find its resolution a little hard to buy and ultimately unsatisfying as a conclusion.

The way main character Carol keeps referring to Jim as “my beloved” may seem cute the first few times, but the repetitive use of the term of endearment becomes distracting and then maddening after the first few chapters. What makes the words even more ironic is that Jim is in no way, shape, or form a likeable character.

Although the police suspect him of foul play, readers will find it impossible to sympathize with Jim. In every scene he appears, Jim disagrees with or degrades his wife. At some point readers may start to wonder why Carol wants to save him, if only for the fact that if Jim goes to prison Carol gets to keep her freedom and escape from his abrasive behavior in one fell swoop.

An engaging mystery often hinges on a smart, intuitive protagonist. Carol, however, comes to the entire problem of finding the murderer with bumbling efforts, lies, and a lot of serendipitous moments that allow the right information at the right time to just drop into her lap. For the most part, Carol appears neither intuitive nor particularly savvy in matters of crime solving. Does she solve the crime before the police? Yes. Could someone in her community trust her to solve another murder? Not so much.

Santangelo’s observations, jokes, and quotes about retirement will definitely evoke laughter from readers, but these short tidbits hardly manage to save the story. I recommend readers Bypass Retirement Can Be Murder.

Brand new review: Keegan’s Point by HD Smith

By Ekta R. Garg

September 30, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A pre-teen boy gets kidnapped and must figure out how to escape from his abductors. Along the way he realizes he shares a common obsession with one of the kidnappers: to know the truth about the town’s resident rich, mysterious hermit. The boy faces a choice. Should he help the kidnapper or focus his energy on getting away? Author HD Smith shares with readers this plot in the well-intentioned if somewhat didactic novel Keegan’s Point, the first in the author’s The Good Bad Guys series.

Charlie Parker can’t wait for his oral report to be over. Even though he’ll be talking about his most favorite subject in the whole entire world—the mystery of the house on the nearby island called Keegan’s Point—Charlie hates making presentations. But this one’s mandatory.

It doesn’t help that he faints in class, which makes Mr. Morgan change the presentation order. This means eighth-grade bully, Sam, has to go before Charlie, and everyone knows Sam doesn’t do his work on time. So Sam decides to take it out on Charlie after school. After Charlie endures Sam’s punches, he runs to the diner his mother owns and runs.

While he’s enjoying his after-school grilled cheese, Charlie notices some odd patrons in the diner. Something about them doesn’t seem right, but Charlie just tries to mind his own business. He’s had enough trouble for one day.

In an odd twist of events, though, Charlie gets kidnapped by the patrons. They, in turn, take him to the house on Keegan’s Point. The three men have an express goal: to find the wealth of the mysterious Marcus Keegan, millionaire and the town’s resident recluse.

Rumors have abounded since Keegan’s death that his fortune sits somewhere in his home. Nick, the ringleader of the kidnapping trio, discovers Charlie’s detailed report on Marcus Keegan and decides Charlie will help him and his partners find the riches. As Charlie spends more time with the kidnappers, he begins to realize that he may actually have a chance to escape. But should he try to get away as soon as possible or go for broke and help Nick and his partners so he can learn more about Marcus Keegan?

Author HD Smith writes squarely at the level of her target middle grade audience, which results in quite a bit of “tell don’t show” type of prose. Charlie’s thoughts get mirrored in the narration; often readers will receive the same information twice within the span of a few paragraphs. More advanced readers may feel the book stutters in those sections.

Smith also allows serendipity to play a major role in the book. Charlie gets kidnapped, but a lie he tells his mother keeps anyone from being suspicious about his disappearance. Nick acts like a tough guy around his partners, but he becomes almost a big brother figure to Charlie. These and other situations keep the story squarely in a safe zone. Most parents will appreciate Smith’s discretion, but in some cases the story feels like it’s encased in a bubble.

Other story factors make the novel a little confusing: Nick’s changing accent, for instance, or the slightly convoluted story of Keegan’s background. However, readers will probably appreciate the elements of realism that occur in many places. I recommend readers Borrow Keegan’s Point.

Latest book review: IA: Initiate by John Darryl Winston

By Ekta R. Garg

September 23, 2015

Genre: Young adult fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

A young teen becomes the newest target of a vicious street gang but doesn’t know why. All he knows is that he needs to protect his younger sister so she can fulfill her academic potential and have a chance at leaving the low-income area where they live. The gang doesn’t leave him alone, however, and between that and the strange abilities he possesses the teen knows something big might be coming his way. Indie author John Darryl Winston proposes for young adult readers this interesting concept in a book that undercuts its aptitude by too much narration in the first book of his new series IA: Initiate.

Naz Andersen doesn’t like school much, but he knows enough to get by. He does everything he can to stay out of trouble. If his younger sister, Meri, can pass the test to get into a prestigious school, the two of them are almost guaranteed a ticket in the future out of the low-income area called the Exclave.

And they definitely want to get out. Naz doesn’t remember anything before three years ago, and the majority of his memories from the last three years include foster families. Miss Tracey is the latest to take Naz and Meri in, but beyond the most basic care she doesn’t interact with them much. So Naz knows Meri only has him to fight for her.

Lately, however, he’s finding out he needs to fight for himself as well. On the first day of the new school year—in a new school, no less—Naz gets involved in a fight with a notorious street gang. He escapes, but not for long. The gang members continue to stalk him, taunting him and ordering him to join them.

Naz made a promise to his mother before she died that he would never join a gang, and everyone knows gangs don’t solve problems but Naz finds the gang’s repeated verbal jabs unsettling. So unsettling, in fact, that he’s begun hearing voices again. His therapist, Dr. Gwen, does her best to help him, but Naz knows something may be coming his way. He just doesn’t know what.

New author John Darryl Winston frames his story with a track about a scientist in the past making a presentation at a gathering of scientists and other interested parties. After reading several chapters, readers won’t have any problem figuring out the connection between the scientist and Naz and Meri. The question then becomes how did everyone get from point A to point B.

Winston’s choice of point of view blurs the lines between an omniscient narrator and Naz’s voice. This leads the book into several places of over-explaining; Winston doesn’t leave anything to chance or imagination. His earnest tone will reassure readers that he leads them by the hand with the best of intentions, but readers may start to get antsy long before the end of the book as they wait for the climax.

The climax may disappoint readers by its underwhelming buildup, and Winston struggles to balance his space between world-building and the devices necessary to move the story forward. Also, including the bits with the scientist will offer a respite from the everyday happenings in Naz and Meri’s lives but not enough in its own plot to satisfy curiosity.

Still, Winston’s premise shows glimmers of potential. Readers may want to Borrow IA: Initiate if they’re willing to take a chance on something that may intrigue them in the future, but less patient readers may want to Bypass it.

New review: Mister Max: The Book of Kings by Cynthia Voigt

By Ekta R. Garg

September 16, 2015

Genre: Young adult fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A young teen finally manages to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, only to find that mystery hiding another one. As he embarks on one of the greatest adventures of his life, his plucky grandmother and several friends will accompany him halfway across the world to rescue his mother and father. Young adult author Cynthia Voigt brings readers the conclusion to her delightful Mister Max series in the commendable third book Mister Max and The Book of Kings.

For the last four months Max and his Grammie have worried and waited. Worried about Max’s parents and waited for word from them. In April his mother and father boarded a ship from their town of Queensbridge in the good faith that they were traveling to India for stage performances. As the founders and principal actors in the Starling Theater Company, William and Mary Starling would normally take Max with them. A last-minute schedule mishap, though, prevents Max from boarding the ship with them.

When William sends a cryptic message after their departure, Grammie considers the schedule mishap a blessing in disguise. Using the clues in William’s subsequent messages, Grammie and Max finally figure out that his parents have somehow ended up in the tiny South American country of Andesia. What’s more, in a fantastic turn of events William and Mary have been crowned king and queen of the fledgling country. But they’re in trouble, and they need Max to help them.

Now, in the month of July, Max has begun narrowing his options for a rescue plan. With Grammie backing him up and the support of Ari, the next Barthold Baron, Max thinks he knows what he needs to do. The problem is that he doesn’t know how to go about executing his plan.

Help comes in the form of an unexpected source; before Max knows it, he, Grammie, Ari, and several others have boarded a ship for South America. What they find there will require all of their knowledge, smarts, and ingenuity as a group, and Max will need to draw on everything he’s learned as his town’s “solutioneer” in order to bring William and Mary home safely.

Following the setup in the first two books, author Cynthia Voigt brings her impish tone to this third book in Max Starling’s story. Unlike the first two books, however, Voigt gives Max more room to brood over his parents here. The sole case that comes Max’s way goes to his assistant, Pia, and it’s clear Max has taught her well. She follows Max’s footsteps and his methods, making her own mistakes and solving the case in her own way all in one fell swoop.

Part of the charm of the first two books came in the intriguing cases Max needed to solve as a solutioneer, the name he adopts as his job description. In order to bring the entire series to its end, Voigt must move Max’s story away from his cases. Readers will definitely miss Max’s innovative ideas to offer resolutions to those who come to him for help. By the same token, however, the story comes full circle as Max gets to go back to being a son.

Voigt also gets full credit for the number of ways she describes Max’s eyes, a color that seems to change depending on who he meets. For that, if nothing else, Voigt deserves any accolades that come her way.

An ending that hints at some other follow up may make readers scratch their heads, but in the end I highly recommend readers Bookmark Mister Max and The Book of Kings.

New review: Secrets of the River by Caroline Ludovici

By Ekta R. Garg

September 2, 2015

Genre: YA fiction/mystery

Rated: Borrow it

Four teens run across a mystery right in their backyard and must work to solve it against an impending celebration and some suspicious men. The trouble is that the teens don’t know for sure what the men want. When someone close to the family disappears, the teens realize the entire matter may be larger than they originally imagined. Author Caroline Ludovici brings back the step siblings from her first book The Obsidian Mask in the well-intentioned but somewhat premature sequel Secrets of the River.

Siblings Natasha and Alex travel to Italy to visit the home of Gabriella and Lorenzo, the brother and sister who will soon become their step siblings. When Natasha and Alex’s mother and Gabriella and Lorenzo’s father first declared their engagement, the four teenagers didn’t know whether they could make the new family relationship work. After spending time together in the Middle East on the archaeological dig where their parents, Julia and Marcello, work, the four decide they can easily become friends and family.

Following their exciting adventures in the Middle East, Natasha and Alex now can’t wait to go to Gabriella and Lorenzo’s home. Their grandmother, a real contessa, heads the household and runs the grand villa. While Natasha and Alex settle into the easy repartee with their Italian step siblings, the contessa poses as a formidable force. Natasha, especially, doesn’t know whether she would enjoy vising the villa in the future with the contessa in residence.

But the four must endure the contessa’s personality and her plans for the grand engagement party she will throw for Marcello and Julia. To stay out of the contessa’s way the step siblings go sightseeing with Gabriella and Lorenzo acting as gracious hosts. They decide to go canoeing and meet Aldo, a teen running his father’s boatyard. When some mysterious men become aggressive with Aldo, the four agree to do him a favor. The favor sets off a chain of events that lead back to Nazi Germany, stolen art, and a villa resident who goes missing.

Author Caroline Ludovici brings her knowledge of archaeology and history to this second book about four teens who share these fields through their parents’ professions. In this year of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, Ludovici addresses the art stolen by Hitler’s soldiers. With more and more stories following this current trend, Ludovici ends up in safe writing territory.

She does manage to surprise her target audience with some historical facts. Unfortunately the dialogue drags the story’s pace with too much tell and not enough show. The characters end up talking about their feelings and the actions they will take in the future or have just taken, which may frustrate some readers. Much of the action could have been handled in narration, and at times the excess of historical facts may make readers start skimming.

Despite the overload of history, drawbacks in dialogue, and typos and grammar issues, Ludovici creates four likeable teenagers. Their rapport offers readers a respite from some of the current YA fare where characters spend time undercutting or plotting against one another. While at times they sound younger than their listed ages, readers will definitely relate to some of the issues the four teens face.

With a few more rounds of editing, both structural and mechanical, Ludovici would have a real winner on her hands. I recommend readers Borrow Secrets of the River.

Second review for today: A Whole New World by Liz Braswell

By Ekta R. Garg

August 26, 2015

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

What happens when a much-loved fairy tale gets reworked with an alternate ending? What happens when that ending is offered by the same company that released the fairy tale in the first place? Author Liz Braswell gives readers the ultimate “what if” for Disney’s movie Aladdin in the entertaining but somewhat faulty novel A Whole New World, released by Disney Press in its “A Twisted Tale” series.

In the film, Aladdin dreams of riches and fame. A chance meeting with Princess Jasmine, heir to the throne, underscores his dreams. He doesn’t know that the Grand Vizier, Jafar, has spent quite a bit of time scheming for the throne for himself. Jafar gets wind of a magic lamp with a genie that grants wishes, and he tricks Aladdin into retrieving the lamp from a dangerous treasure trove. At the last minute, though, Aladdin ends up with the lamp and gets to make the wishes instead.

Author Liz Braswell takes the formula and lets Jafar have what he wants. She also fills in some of the details on Aladdin’s life and enriches Jasmine’s purpose in the story. Jafar gets the opportunity to fill a true villain’s space, and other minor characters enter the picture to provide depth.

In some places Braswell’s choice of story direction works. Readers get to know a little bit more about Aladdin’s background, including meeting his mother for a short time. When Jafar takes over Agrabah, Jasmine has an opportunity to fight back instead of just sitting around wondering when someone will come and save her (a trope often fulfilled by earlier Disney princesses.) The story allows the characters to spend more time with one another and connect for longer stretches of time.

Unfortunately Braswell also chooses to do away with many of the elements that worked the best in the film. Iago, Jafar’s pet parrot, becomes an afterthought. The magic carpet plays an important role for a brief time but also gets sidelined. Most prominently, however, Braswell doesn’t give the genie enough room on the page. In the film Robin Williams made the genie a star right along with Aladdin. In A Whole New World, the genie becomes just another supporting character.

As a result the charm of the original story decreases by dramatic measures. It no longer offers all of the enjoyable aspects of a fairy tale. Braswell has transformed it into a realistic story with elements of magic, and that distinction becomes more prominent as the story progresses. Jafar may get to enjoy time and more infamy as a villain, but that extended story time for him comes at the detriment of the overall book.

Fans of the movie might be curious about an alternative ending to the original story, and for them I would recommend they Borrow A Whole New World. Otherwise non-Disney fans or those not familiar with the movie at all should probably Bypass it.

First review of two today: Awake by Natasha Preston

By Ekta R. Garg

August 26, 2015

Genre: YA thriller

Rated: Bookmark it!

A teen begins to remember bits and pieces of the childhood she thought she’d lost after a traumatic event brings back those memories. Unfortunately, the memories scare her enough to make her question what she thought she knew. Soon enough she makes a decision to fix what’s wrong—except that that decision may kill her. Author Natasha Preston follows up her Wattpad success The Cellar with the compelling novel Awake.

Scarlett Garner is your average British teenager. She and her best friend, Imogen, love to talk about life and boys—especially the new guy in school, Noah. By the luck of the draw in their coinciding schedules, a teacher gives Scarlett the responsibility of helping Noah learn his way around school.

In one of their many conversations Noah asks what Scarlett considers to be the most interesting fact about herself, and she gives him the same answer she’s given so many others: she doesn’t remember anything before the age of four. Not a single thing. Noah, like so many others, expresses disbelief and then curiosity. Although the fact bothers her, Scarlett reassures him that she’s made her peace with this oddity.

Except that if she’s honest with herself she hasn’t really let the blank memory go, and Noah’s inquisitive nature makes her start to question the first four years of her life. When she and her family get into a car accident, Scarlett’s early memories start coming back…and what she remembers scares her. The memories make her second guess everything, including whether the family she knows is her own family.

With Noah’s support Scarlett confronts her family and gets answers, but she doesn’t like what she hears. The emotional upheaval makes her wonder whether she really belongs at home, so when Noah suggests a surprise weekend away Scarlett agrees. Her friendship with Noah has long since progressed to a romantic relationship, and she relishes the thought of time away with her first boyfriend. Ultimately their dreamy weekend away turns into Scarlett’s worst nightmare, and she finally gets answers to all of the questions she’s ever asked about herself.

Author Natasha Preston keeps her readers guessing until she begins revealing information about Scarlett from Noah’s point of view. Preston uses first person point of view for both Scarlett and Noah, and while some authors struggle with making separate first person voices distinct Preston handles the switch with ease. Readers will try to figure out Scarlett’s past, and Preston doesn’t disappoint because she doesn’t go with current trends in her choice of plot devices. The result: a fresh story that engage readers all the way to the end.

Noah’s voice occasionally loses some of the authenticity of the character profile Preston has set for him, and Scarlett’s best friend, Imogen, gets reduced to the stereotypical jealous female character. Also, readers might object to the neat ending Preston offers, which may or may not act as a setup for a sequel. Despite these issues, however, I recommend readers Bookmark Awake.