Second review for today: Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf

By Ekta R. Garg

February 3, 2016

Genre: Mystery

Rated: Bypass it

A woman travels with her husband to his hometown when they receive word that his aunt has endured a terrible fall. The husband has always seemed reluctant to go home, but his close relationship to his aunt demands it. What seems like an accident on the surface, however, turns into a murder charge and the woman must draw on her professional resources and her own intuition to discover the truth. Author Heather Gudenkauf tries to trip up readers in this mystery that will end up exasperating them more than anything else in the flaccid novel Missing Pieces.

When Sarah and her husband, Jack, find out that Jack’s aunt has fallen down the stairs, they prepare to go to Jack’s hometown of Penny Gate, Iowa. Despite the heartbreaking circumstances taking them back to Iowa, Sarah feels like her curiosity about Jack’s past will finally get satisfied. All she knows is that Jack’s parents died when he was a teenager in a car accident and that his aunt and uncle raised him and his sister. Beyond that Jack has always displayed the utmost of reticence in discussing his life. Sarah wants to know more about the town that shaped her husband’s life.

From the moment they arrive in Penny Gate, however, Sarah begins to uncover information that disturbs her. Jack’s parents didn’t die in a car accident; his mother died in a brutal assault, and his father fled town under the suspicion of murder. With equally suspicious circumstances surrounding Jack’s aunt’s fall, the details of Jack’s parents begin circulating once again—including the fact that at one time Jack himself had been arrested for the crime.

Suddenly Sarah begins looking at her husband differently. Could he have possibly killed his mother? Did he have anything to do with his aunt’s mysterious accident now? Nothing makes any sense anymore, and Sarah begins to dig into the investigation done at the time of Jack’s mother’s death. When his aunt also dies, it becomes imperative for Sarah to discover the truth before the killer strikes again.

Author Heather Gudenkauf tries in vain to lay the groundwork for a compelling novel. Almost from the start readers will feel frustrated by Jack’s annoyance at all things having to do with Penny Gate. Despite a stated former profession as an investigative reporter, main character Sarah doesn’t connect the dots as fast as a real-life reporter might.

When Sarah confronts Jack with the information she uncovers, Jack’s ambiguity might make sense…if he responded with ambiguity only once or twice. Sarah goes to Jack several times with almost the same accusations every time. Jack has the same response almost every time, and every time Sarah comes away from their confrontation with the affirmation that she can’t trust Jack and she needs to leave Penny Gate. The layers of information she uncovers begin to lap onto themselves in the background; at the forefront of the book is Sarah’s sense of betrayal. Her betrayal might be justified, but making that betrayal a centerpiece of the book is not.

The mystery, of course, comes in the question of who killed Jack’s mother and, eventually, his aunt. The climax limps through tired clichés, including a lengthy soliloquy by the antagonist explaining every single motivation and method for carrying out the crimes. Readers will roll their eyes at the final reveal, if they haven’t already figured out the entire story by the time that reveal unfolds on center stage.

Because of its underdeveloped characters, its frustrating plot devices, and its dedication to fulfilling every single trope in the mystery genre, I recommend readers Bypass Missing Pieces.

(I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

First of two reviews today: Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit

By Ekta R. Garg

February 3, 2016

Genre: Young adult historical fiction

Rating: Bypass it

A child loses her father at the start of World War II and meets a mysterious man who becomes her guardian. The two cross Poland in search of safety, and along the way the girl learns lessons about survival and the land. Author Gavriel Savit offers young adult readers this high concept WWII story with its roots in pure literary fiction in the dull, lackadaisical book Anna and the Swallow Man.

In 1939 seven-year-old Anna may not understand exactly what the word “war” means, but she knows one thing for sure: the war has taken away her father. A linguistics professor, her father leaves her in the charge of a friend and tells Anna he will come back for her. When morning turns into afternoon and then evening and night, Anna realizes that war has taken her father away.

She doesn’t know quite what to do…until she sees a tall stranger walking down the street. He seems to dismiss Anna at first, but she gathers her courage and talks to him. They don’t discuss it outright, but in some way they both understand the tall man allows Anna to follow him out of Krakow. She asks him what she can call him, and he answers, “Swallow Man.”

Anna follows the Swallow Man, as per his strict instructions, without question. Little by little Anna comes to learn a great deal about the topography of her home country from the Swallow Man. He doesn’t reveal his pre-travel profession, but Anna figures out that the Swallow Man must have spent a great deal of time in academia. As they travel they encounter soldiers and others fleeing the Nazis and Soviet soldiers. The people they meet and their experiences make Anna wonder whether “war” will ever end and whether she’ll ever have the privilege of peace again.

The publisher of author Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man dictate a target audience of 12 and up for the book, but the depth of literary writing will turn away reluctant middle school readers within the first few pages. While Savit’s writing stands out in parts, in many other places the description seems to try too hard. Many sentences act more as ornamentation and less as a means to move the story forward.

The journey Anna and the Swallow Man take doesn’t make sense. Anna asks at one point where they’re going; the Swallow Man doesn’t answer. From the narration, it seems like the two wander across Poland in some metaphorical crossing to the Promised Land. Readers may not like where the characters reach by the end of the book.

Unlike most books about this time period, the immediate threat presented by the Nazis and the Soviet soldiers remains muted for the most part. Savit seems to want to emphasize the journey, which would be fine if the journey included life-altering events along the way. Anna does befriend someone on the way across the country, and that character’s climactic fate may lead readers to think the story will achieve clarity. Those readers will remain wanting.

Had the publisher pitched this as a book for adults, the writing style may have been justified. Even then it would take a diehard fan of literary fiction to understand and appreciate this novel. As a book for young adult readers, it just doesn’t work. I recommend readers Bypass Anna and the Swallow Man.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Brand new review: The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig

By Ekta R. Garg

January 27, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction; historical fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

When an attractive patient arrives at a hospital, the doctor on call finds herself drawn to him. She also discovers that she and the patient share an unusual connection—one that goes back generations. Doctor and patient realize they may have the chance to fix a mistake, if they can find the courage to follow their hearts. Co-authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig offer readers this storyline in the surprising novel The Forgotten Room.

In 1892, Olive comes to the Pratt mansion to work as a maid and to fulfill a mission: to take revenge on the Pratt family. Her father put his heart and soul into designing the seven-story luxury home for the high society family, but when the bills came due Mr. Henry August Pratt snubbed Olive’s father. He couldn’t bear the humiliation and financial ruin, and Olive knows she must find evidence to prove that the Pratts owe her family a substantial balance on the house plans. But when Olive gets to know one of the young Pratt men, she realizes that revenge may not be as simple as she originally thought.

At the start of the Roaring Twenties in 1920, Lucy finds a way to join the Manhattan law firm of Cromwell, Polk, and Moore as much to assert her independence as to find a way into the office of Philip Schuyler. Schuyler has a connection to the Pratt family, and Lucy thinks she may too. The only way to know for sure is to gain access to Schuyler’s files, but she may have to become more than a secretary if she wants to learn the truth about her identity.

The novel begins, however, in 1944 with Dr. Kate Schuyler who works in a hospital in New York City. Lately the number of patients has increased dramatically. For military personnel coming back from the war in Europe in desperate need of medical attention, Dr. Schuyler’s hospital is one of the first stopping points. The hospital is at capacity, but there’s no sign of a decrease in the flow of the badly injured.

On a rainy night a medical team brings in Captain Cooper Ravenel, and Kate can see that he’s in critical condition. As she cares for him and gets to know him, she starts to see him as a man as much as a patient. Beyond the physical attraction, Kate comes across information that draws her to Cooper because he seems connected to her past. But Kate is already fighting a battle to gain validation as a female doctor in a field where men dominate. Does she also have the guts to fight society and offer herself to the man she clearly has begun to love?

Co-authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig work together in a novel that will simultaneously charm and intrigue readers. The authors’ seamless style pays great homage to the essence of Jane Austen’s work: smart women protagonists who need a little bit of help from serendipity and plucky secondary characters to bring them to the important stages of their lives. In a wide departure from Ms. Austen’s work, though, main characters Olive, Lucy, and Kate don’t always land where readers will expect or maybe even want—and those delightful discoveries will carry readers all the way to the end.

While the aforementioned serendipity in many books may come across as over constructed, in The Forgotten Room readers will enjoy those moments of Fate. Readers, take note: you can’t make any assumptions about the story. The minute you do, the authors will offer some great surprises and do what good authors always do: convince you to keep reading.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark The Forgotten Room.

(I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.)

 

Brand new review: The Girl With No Past by Kathryn Croft

By Ekta R. Garg

January 13, 2016

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Borrow it

After enduring a horrific tragedy, a woman does everything she can to put the event behind her and live her life. As the anniversary of the tragedy looms, however, strange occurrences drag her back to the past. Do these strange occurrences have anything to do with what happened? Who is haunting her with the choices she made as a young girl? Author Kathryn Croft offers readers this plot in the somewhat compelling novel The Girl With No Past.

Leah Mills is a lonely person, but her loneliness is mainly self-induced. She’s spent the last 14 years trying to forget a terrible incident. Leah was a part of something during her school days that resulted in a tragedy, and she’s carried her guilt ever since. Every day the event follows her no matter where she goes, filling her life to the point where there’s no room for anything else—no friends, no social life, and certainly no love life.

The guilt grows around the anniversary of the instance, and this year the guilt and Leah’s loneliness combine to drag her down even more. This year she feels something new: a desire for normalcy.

On a complete whim Leah goes online and meets Julian. She begins building a relationship with him, something she didn’t think possible. The more she gets to know Julian, the more Leah’s desire grows for that normal life. But then something new happens to quash her desire.

Someone related to her past has come back to taunt her. Leah begins receiving emails full of hate and vengeance. Despite her efforts to ignore the poisonous missives, they keep coming. Soon the email writer’s campaign takes a more forceful turn. The person doesn’t stop at emails, making it clear that the mission is to destroy everything important to Leah. With time Leah realizes if she doesn’t take the emails more seriously, the person writing them could get close enough to destroy her.

Author Kathryn Croft, in this third novel, seems settled in her chosen genre of thriller. She handles the twists and turns well, which means readers can count on many unexpected moments to surprise them. Croft sets the scene both with the physical location of gloomy London weather as well as the small box that forms Leah’s life.

In Leah, however, Croft has created a character whose self-loathing drags the story for a portion of the book. Because Croft chose to have Leah tell her story herself, in first person, readers spend a lot of time inside of Leah’s head. When the main character dislikes himself or herself as much as Leah does, the repeated exhortations that one deserves to be alone may start to grate after the fifth or so mention.

Also, a secondary character’s lead role in the tragedy in Leah’s past seems more than extreme. Croft spends a lot of time building up the event as well as Leah’s role in it, and some of that groundwork jars the story. Leah’s shaky self-esteem also doesn’t seem to fit at times, and readers may wonder occasionally whether it’s even possible to be that down on one’s self. The title, too, feels misleading, considering how much time readers spend in Leah’s past. The title on its own suggests some sort of amnesia. The story offers anything but.

Still, Croft wins points for the suspense she builds, and, extreme or not, the events of Leah’s past allow for a shocking end. Croft also includes a little something extra in the climax, and that extra something goes quite a way to making readers think twice about Leah. While the book may drag in the middle, I suggest readers Borrow The Girl With No Past.

Second review today: What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross

By Ekta R. Garg

January 6, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A single mother hides a terrible secret from everyone she meets: the daughter she has raised for 21 years isn’t, in fact, her own daughter at all. More than two decades earlier, in a split-second decision, the woman kidnapped the child. Since then she’s managed to hide the kidnapping from everyone—even her family—but when the facts come out, the woman isn’t the only one who must deal with the consequences of her actions. Author Helen Klein Ross takes every parent’s worst nightmare and turns it into a thoughtful discussion in the poignant novel What Was Mine.

Lucy Wakefield has what many young women want: an up-and-coming career in advertising, a loving husband, and a life in close proximity to New York City. What Lucy doesn’t have is a baby, and more than anything Lucy wants to be a mother. Conceiving by natural means doesn’t come easily to her and her husband, however, and the strain of Lucy’s overwhelming desire for a child causes their marriage to fail. Now Lucy doesn’t have a husband or a child.

The failure of her marriage she can deal with, but Lucy’s failure at motherhood follows her everywhere. It even follows her into the brand new Ikea store that has opened close to her New Jersey neighborhood. On that fateful day, Lucy sees a baby napping unattended in a cart. She spends a moment or two reflecting on her choices, picks up the baby, and leaves the store.

News quickly spreads of the missing child, and Lucy watches on TV as the baby’s parents plead for the child’s return. Something inside of Lucy prevents her from confessing her crime. In fact, she doesn’t think of it as a crime at first. The baby’s mother had left her alone; what if she child had fallen from the cart? Worse, what if someone with sinister intentions had taken the child? At least Lucy knows she’ll lavish the baby with every ounce of love and attention she possesses.

And she does. For more than twenty years Lucy works ridiculous hours so she can provide her child, Mia, with every luxury possible. When Mia gets old enough for the discussion, Lucy concocts a story about a pregnant teenager from Kansas who wanted to give up a baby. Mia settles into her role as adopted daughter with ease.

Until a series of events leads Mia to discover that she wasn’t the birth daughter of a pregnant teen from Kansas. Mia finds out the truth just months before her graduation from college, and the discovery leaves her reeling. How can her mother be a kidnapper? Did Lucy ever stop to consider her birth mother’s feelings? What is Mia supposed to do now? Who is she? As she grapples with these questions, Lucy runs away from home to handle the emotional fallout of her daughter’s accusations.

Author Helen Klein Ross leads readers through a scenario that worries every parent: the kidnapping of a child. Fortunately Ross doesn’t allow for any distasteful treatment of Mia, instead focusing on the emotional magnanimity of Lucy’s decision. It doesn’t matter that Lucy loved Mia; her actions still shatter several lives.

Ross chooses to tell the story from several points of view, namely Lucy, Mia, and Mia’s birth mother. Supporting characters also show up occasionally to share their opinions, and interestingly Ross makes the decision to have the characters tell the story after the fact. This results in a tell-all book, but Ross doesn’t allow the characters to sully her main goal. Instead the novel becomes a thoughtful discussion about the far-reaching effects of one person’s impulsive choice. Parents always worry about the safety of their children, a justified feeling given the salacious details that come out of many kidnapping situations. In an indirect way Ross asks whether parents should feel any better if a kidnapper treats stolen children well.

The characters offer a resounding response to the question, as will many parents, but given that in this case the kidnapper gets to share her thoughts parents may find the book a fascinating read. I recommend readers Bookmark What Was Mine.

(I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

First of two reviews today: This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

By Ekta R. Garg

January 6, 2016

Genre: YA Thriller

Rated: Borrow it

When a young man enters a high school and starts shooting, the entire student body and the administration comply with his wishes to minimize the casualties. They don’t know why he’s come to wage this terrible act—but one girl does. She must find a way to communicate with the boy and get him to stop before he ends up killing everyone. Author Marieke Nijkamp brings to life this harrowing plotline that could have come from any one of a number of news outlets in the disturbing but important book This Is Where It Ends.

Opportunity, Alabama, embodies the typical small-town image, and no one knows this better than Autumn Browne. She dreams of getting away from Opportunity. Autumn wants to become a professional ballerina, following in her late mother’s footsteps. When she dances Autumn feels closest to her mother, which is more than she can say for her relationship with her father and her brother. Her father tries to drown his grief and anger issues in alcohol. Her brother disappears for days at a time.

Autumn doesn’t even know if Tyler will come back for the second semester of school, and she can’t decide if that’s good or bad. The first day of the second semester back is the anniversary of the accident that took their mother’s life, and Autumn wants the day to go as smoothly as possible without dealing with Tyler’s rage. Lately he seems even angrier at life than their father; Tyler scares Autumn.

No one, however, could be as scared of Tyler as Sylvia. She has a terrible secret about Tyler, and no one knows about it. Not even her twin brother, Tomas. The secret has caused a rift between the twins, in fact, but Sylvia doesn’t know how to mend the rift without making Tomas angry. So she doesn’t say anything, and when Tyler doesn’t show up for school she exhales in relief.

Until Tyler does show up. But not to attend class. Instead, Tyler waits until everyone is settled in the auditorium for the principal’s customary start-of-semester pep talk. Then he makes his entrance with guns in hand and a maniacal agenda in mind. Some of the teachers think they can reason with him, and some of the students react too slowly to Tyler’s demands. Those teachers and students quickly become examples of just how far Tyler will go to make people listen to him.

Tyler manages to lock the majority of the students into the auditorium, and he forces them to listen as he declares how tired he is of people ignoring him. Autumn listens to her brother and knows that she has to do something to make him stop. But what? And how many more will die before she can convince him to surrender?

Not everyone is in the auditorium, however, and the few students who didn’t attend the assembly will have to find a way to figure out what’s happening and then help those trapped before too many lose their lives. In the meantime, Tyler continues to point and shoot. No one paid attention to him before, he says. Now they will have to.

Author Marieke Nijkamp spreads the events of the shooting over the entire book, and the pace doesn’t slip at all. Instead, she keeps readers engaged with spikes of adrenalin. Nijkamp handles the tension like a pro; just as readers might feel like they can breathe, she injects another electrifying moment into the book. The result: readers will most likely feel like they need to read the book in one sitting, just as this reviewer did.

Parents might find the book difficult to read because of its realism; Nijkamp truly brings to life current events, and the novel will certainly make more than one reader shudder. How many real-life shootings have occurred because of gunmen who felt lost, shunned, wronged by society somehow? In the end readers will certainly ask about Tyler, as they must about the real-life gunmen, what professionals can do to reach these troubled young men.

The bloodshed and heartache the characters feel may make readers shy away from reading the book more than once. The novel definitely hits all the right notes in terms of plot, character development, and pacing, and it’s certainly an important book to read. For the fact that the emotional impact could be overwhelming, however, I recommend readers Borrow This Is Where It Ends.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Brand new review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

By Ekta R. Garg

December 30, 2015

Genre: Women’s literature

Rating: Bookmark it!

A young woman travels from Europe to a small Midwestern town to meet her pen pal for the first time—except the woman is no longer there. As she spends time with the people she’s heard about through letters, she begins to realize that maybe her supposedly meaningless life actually does have some meaning after all. Author Katarina Bivald brings small-town life to the forefront in the touching novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.

Sara’s life in Sweden doesn’t really amount to much. An avid reader, until recently Sara held a job as a bookstore employee…until the bookstore folded and left her without a job. What it has given her, however, is a healthy stock of books and a deep friendship with Amy, a woman who lives in Iowa.

Their association began with Amy’s simple request for a book, but Sara finds in Amy a kindred spirit and the two begin exchanging letters. Amy fills her letters with details on life in Broken Wheel, Iowa, and through those letters Sara gets to know Broken Wheel’s residents. When Amy extends to Sara an invitation to visit, Sara begins considering it. Her termination from the store provides her with the perfect excuse to get away, spend some time with a good friend, and re-evaluate what she wants to do with her life.

Except that sometime between the time Sara plans her trip and gets on the plane, Amy dies. Sara arrives in Broken Wheel and lands in the middle of a tiny town grieving for a woman everyone cherished. At least Sara can sympathize with them; she adored Amy as well. But what now? How can she stay in a town where she doesn’t know anyone else? Of course, the alternative is to go home. How can she go home to her empty life?

Adding to her predicament, everyone’s devotion to Amy means they keep doing Sara favors and don’t give her the opportunity to repay them. As Sara gets to know Broken Wheel’s residents for herself, she starts to realize that maybe there is a way to repay them. Of course, that way will have to include books. Amy, she knows, would have it no other way. Although on the surface the Broken Wheel community doesn’t strike a person as the type to have any regard for reading, Sara uses the memories Amy shared in her letters and her own experiences to make book recommendations. Before anyone knows it, Sara becomes as much a part of Broken Wheel as it has become of her.

Author Katarina Bivald treats her novel with a lighthearted tone, and the tone functions as a high point of the book—just one of many. In Sara Bivald has created a character that most readers will definitely enjoy. Given the sweetness of the book, it would be incredibly easy for Sara to come across as pathetic or trite. She is neither; instead her depth will enable readers to settle into the novel like snuggling under a warm blanket with a mug of hot chocolate on a winter day.

Bivald’s choice of plot devices may not necessarily surprise readers, but her treatment feels fresh. She manages to offer some unexpected facts about the characters as the book progresses, and even though Amy remains somewhat of a mystery her presence certainly makes a difference. Bivald balances that mystery with the transition of Sara from outsider to one of Broken Wheel’s own.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark The Readers from Broken Wheel Recommend.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)