Brand new review: Born Under A Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield

By Ekta R. Garg

June 7, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Binge it!

A young boy must navigate the intricacies of love and friendships, as well as avoid the Taliban and getting killed in general, in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Despite the prevalence of poverty and the challenges to make it from one day to the next alive, the boy approaches his life with a fairly positive attitude and good humor. Andrea Busfield drew on her personal experiences in Kabul to craft the delightful, stirring debut novel Born Under A Million Shadows.

Fawad is 11 years old and doesn’t mince words. His mother told him he was born under the shadow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and while he may have to spend his days watching where he steps so his foot doesn’t accidentally hit an old landmine he has to navigate much bigger problems at home. After the Taliban killed his father and brother and kidnapped his sister, Fawad and his mother have moved from the small town of Paghman to the Kabul suburb of Khair Khana to live with his aunt.

It’s the daily bickering between his mother, Mariya, and his aunt that present the real problem to peace in Fawad’s life.

Nevertheless, he manages, more or less, to keep a smile on his face. His cousin, Jahid, can act like an idiot sometimes, but Fawad has his two best friends, Jamilla and Spandi, to keep him sane. Fawad and his friends “work the foreigners on Chicken Street together”—that is, they trail after the ever-present expatriates and beg, cajole, and charm their way into running errands in exchange for money. Fawad’s mother cleans the homes of the rich residents of town, and generally Fawad can’t complain about his life.

His mother can, however. After hearing her sister whine about the extra strain on the family due to more mouths to feed, Mariya gets fed up and finds a new job. She and Fawad move to the home of foreigners in the more posh suburb of Wazir Akbhar Khan. Mariya’s main job is to cook and wash the clothes of the three foreigners living in the house, and even though Fawad can’t comprehend living with women who can’t even wash their own clothes he’s relieved. Anything has to be better than dealing with his aunt’s family every day.

With this development, Fawad comes to learn that life outside of his experience as an Afghan is radically different. He’s taken aback by the warm welcome he receives from Georgie, the British woman responsible for hiring Mariya, and his shock increases when he learns that Georgie lives with James, a journalist, and May, an engineer, and that none of them are married to one another or anyone else. Georgie herself has come to Afghanistan to work with an NGO that promises to create new jobs for the Afghan people and decrease their dependence on the opium trade; her work allows her to stay close to her boyfriend prominent community figure, Haji Khan, who some say may or may not be the country’s biggest drug dealer.

Even if he is, Fawad can’t deny that he’s a kindhearted maybe-drug dealer.

After developing alternating crushes on Georgie and May and having a hilarious run-in with James, Fawad settles into his new life. He and Mariya have their own rooms for the first time as well as a television, and Fawad continues to go to school and even finds a part-time job. But the Taliban creeps along the edges of the country, and Fawad starts to learn how to balance personal safety with concern for his housemates and other friends and family. As he comes of age, he understands one thing clearly: life in Afghanistan may be almost impossible, but it is certainly worth it with his loved ones close by.

Author Andrea Busfield accomplishes an incredible feat in Born Under A Million Shadows: she balances the horrors of a country blasted—literally—by the Taliban and terrorism with authentic humor and optimism. Having spent significant time in Kabul herself, Busfield has the depth of experience to write with confidence about the town and its conditions.

She doesn’t hold back in describing the challenges of the country’s residents. Power cuts, child beggars, and destroyed families stay firmly in the reader’s vision in the story. But even as Busfield gives readers a wide lens, she makes sure to draw the eye to Fawad and his funny, astute observations on life.

The gentle story will make readers laugh aloud and nod with gravity by turns. After a major event, Fawad muses to himself, “I couldn’t help thinking that despite their height, adults were just plain unbelievably stupid: men were blowing up other men; soldiers were shooting at children; men were ignoring women they loved; the women who lived them were pretending they didn’t; and when I read the newspapers to Pir Hederi, everyone they talked about seemed to be far more interested in rules and arguments and taking sides than the actual business of living.”

A few pages later, he shares that James has begun some new research about secret treasure in the mountains and observes, “My guess was that if there was treasure hiding in Afghanistan’s mountains, it would probably be on sale in a Pakistani market by now, along with all the rest of our old stuff.”

Given the tremulous state of affairs in Afghanistan today, readers might find it difficult to believe in this version of the country. A version where, despite the daily news cycle, the residents continue to love and laugh and live. Busfield gives readers just that, however. A story that is wholly Afghani in its attitudes and approach and yet universal in the challenges a regular 11-year-old might face: a growing interest in girls, concern for his friends, and a boundless curiosity about new ideas.

Readers will definitely want to Binge Born Under A Million Shadows!

Brand new book review: The Party by Robyn Harding

By Ekta R. Garg

May 31, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Release date: June 6, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

A girl tries to impress members of the “in crowd” by inviting them to a party. When a horrific accident occurs, the girl and her family will have to face intense scrutiny from the community and other students at school as they navigate the moral and legal issues surrounding the event. Author Robyn Harding tells with authority a story about today’s teens in a book that lacks some of that authority in the actual writing in The Party.

Hannah Sanders finds herself in an enviable position at San Francisco’s Hillcrest Academy. Ever since Noah, one of the hottest guys in school, turned his attention on her, Hannah’s social quotient has risen dramatically. She’s on the cusp of the “in crowd,” led by her elementary school BFF, Ronni Monroe, and the other “it” girl, Lauren Ross. Now Hannah just needs to prove to Ronni and Lauren how cool she can be, and she’ll be in the group for sure.

The perfect opportunity comes in the form of her sixteenth birthday. Hannah tells her parents she wants a low-key sleepover instead of a huge bash and lists Ronni and Lauren as her top two guests, with friends Marta and Caitlin rounding out the list. Marta and Caitlin aren’t a part of the clique, but Hannah needs them to maintain appearances so her parents won’t suspect what she really has planned. Kim, Hannah’s ever vigilant mother, couldn’t be happier with Hannah’s choice of party and guests, and father Jeff also voices his approval. After all, what could possibly go wrong when five girls get together for movies, pizza, and cake?

Plenty. With drugs and alcohol thrown into the mix, things get out of hand. One of the girls suffers a horrible accident and is rushed to the hospital. The others go home, and Hannah can’t believe her bad luck. How could something so awful happen at her party? How will she survive high school now?

The situation becomes much more grave for Kim and Jeff. Other parents begin shunning Kim at various school functions. Jeff starts to feel the pressure of supporting his family through the financial strain that could come with the fallout from the party. Their marriage wasn’t in the best place even before Hannah’s party; with a possible lawsuit and shades of infidelity starting to bleed into their relationship, their marriage becomes even more fragile. The entire family will need to find a way to survive the consequences of the accident as well as the possibility that the entire community will find out their most personal issues.

Author Robyn Harding nails the language and mannerisms of a cross section of today’s youth. Parents of teens will want to read this book so they can better prepare themselves for the ever-increasing possibilities of just how hard and how far some young people will go to climb the high school social ladder. Harding doesn’t hold back. She tells the story from various points of view, including Hannah’s, and she doesn’t hesitate to allow Hannah to be her worst when the story demands it.

Less convincing are some of the characterizations of the other point of view characters. Kim insists to everyone she meets that the police cleared her and Jeff of any wrongdoing at the party. Jeff spends a lot of time grinding his teeth about the hold Kim has over him due to a past indiscretion. Ronni’s mother, Lisa, can’t seem to let go of her own past issues long enough to face the reality of the present. In actuality, Hannah is the most grounded of all, despite being the youngest of those narrating the story.

It’s only fitting, then, that Hannah has the last say in the book, and those readers who stick with the story long enough will find her final words haunting and sad all at the same time. Harding shows readers that even a major break in the cycle doesn’t necessarily end it. Only someone with a magnanimous amount of courage can accomplish that.

Some readers might find Kim, Jeff, and Lisa’s personal issues grating. For that reason, not everyone may get through the entire novel. I recommend readers Borrow The Party.

Latest review: Someone Else’s Summer by Rachel Bateman

By Ekta R. Garg

May 24, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Rated: Bypass it

A teenager finds the summer bucket list of her recently deceased older sister. She decides to complete the list and hopes doing so will help her find some comfort in losing the one person she idolized the most. Author Rachel Bateman gives young adult readers this somewhat sappy but ultimately disappointing story in her novel Someone Else’s Summer.

The night of Storm Holloway’s high school graduation should be one of celebration for the Holloway family; instead it turns into a horrific event. After refusing a ride home with her classmate and next-door neighbor, Cameron, Storm dies in a car accident. The town of Muscatine, Iowa, falls into shock, and the Holloway family is devastated.

Hardest hit is Anna, Storm’s younger sister by 11 months. Anna worshipped Storm, following her and Cameron around when they were all kids, wishing she had Storm’s confidence. Maybe, Anna reasons, Storm’s surety about herself came from being a cancer survivor. Maybe it came from not caring what others thought about her eclectic style. As one of the popular kids, Anna always ran with the “in” crowd but Storm always seemed more secure.

Now Anna and her parents must grapple with their grief. Her parents struggle with the loss of a child and don’t know how to help Anna who consoles herself one day by visiting Storm’s room. There she finds Storm’s summer bucket list, which includes a road trip to North Carolina where Storm had accepted college admission for the coming fall. All of the adventures on the list feel like Storm and unlike her all at the same time to Anna, and on the spur of the moment she decides to complete it. Maybe, she reasons, finishing what Storm hadn’t even started will bring the two closer in some way.

Anna shares her intentions with Cameron who insists on coming along. The two get into Storm’s stick shift car and drive from Iowa to North Carolina, spending the road trip reminiscing about Storm and challenging one another through the list. As they go from one item on the list to the next, they will have to decide how their own relationship moves forward in light of their memories of Storm and what she meant to both of them.

Author Rachel Bateman cares about her characters, and her concern for them comes across on every page and in every chapter. Unfortunately that deep affection for Anna and Cameron does not translate to a convincing story. Anna’s parents seem grossly isolated in their own mourning; with Storm’s death occurring before the book begins, readers never get a chance to get to know Anna and Storm’s parents. Bateman may intend for her target audience to focus on Anna and Cameron, but by doing so she inadvertently relegates Anna’s parents to stereotypes.

Anna’s grief, too, comes across as disjointed. For pages at a time, she thinks of nothing but her sister. Then she bounces right back into the tropes of the teenage world. The book almost portrays Anna as two separate people: the Anna who lost her sister and the Anna who wants to hang out with her friends. Each of them comes across as distinct from the other, and neither of them feel fully relatable.

The road trip Anna and Cameron take comes off as more of an excuse for their romance to blossom. Some of Storm’s bucket list items seem downright mundane—get a tattoo; kiss someone in the rain—and that’s precisely why, as Anna completes the items one by one, her accomplishment in doing so feels just as mundane. Because readers never meet Storm directly, they never get to understand just why these particular bucket list adventures would have made a difference to her.

The “big reveal” at the end of the book, then, feels forced. Anna and Cameron keep insisting that Storm was different, reminding one another that “you know how Storm was,” but readers don’t and therefore can’t relate to the climax. With this book checking off so many other criteria of a YA novel, Anna’s big moment may not even come as a surprise to most readers.

Those looking for a fast summer read that doesn’t really require much alertness might want to pick up this book; otherwise I recommend readers Bypass Someone Else’s Summer.

Newest review: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

By Ekta R. Garg

May 17, 2017

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Release date: May 2, 2017

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it

A young widow takes a gardening class with her sister and children to do research for work. As she gets to know the other students and the teacher, the widow must decide whether she’s ready to make room for someone new in her life. Author Abbi Waxman offers readers this gentle storyline in the quiet novel The Garden of Small Beginnings.

After more than three years, Lilian Girvan can finally say she’s in a comfortable place in her life. Despite losing her husband in a horrific car accident and suffering a nervous breakdown right after his death, Lilian feels more or less in control. She’s holding down a good job as a book illustrator, and she can get her two young daughters to school every morning without a lot of kid drama from either of them. Her younger sister, Rachel, manages an active social life and yet puts Lilian and the girls first, always. All in all, Lilian doesn’t think anything needs to change.

Rachel disagrees, wholeheartedly. She wants to see Lilian happy again, although Lilian doesn’t understand what about her life makes Rachel think she’s unhappy. True, she doesn’t have a love life, but Lilian loves Dan, her late husband. It feels like she always has, and she probably always will.

Lack of romance notwithstanding, there are plenty of changes at work for Lilian. Her company has received a major project: creating the illustrations for a vegetable encyclopedia. In a deal with the Bloem family, the incredibly wealthy people sponsoring the encyclopedia, Lilian’s boss has signed Lilian up for a six-week gardening class taught by one of the family members. Lilian hems and haws, but when her boss says it’s okay for the girls and Rachel to tag along Lilian runs out of excuses. They roll out of bed the following Saturday and get ready to dig around in the dirt.

Edward Bloem, the gardening teacher, is nothing like Lilian pictured. She never imagined someone so attractive and genteel could agree to get his hands into the dirt with the soil and the worms. The other students, too, don’t fulfill any of the first impressions Lilian forms about them. As they all spend more and more time under Edward’s tutelage, the friendships they form will teach Lilian about the value of love and its utter necessity—even when she thinks she isn’t ready for it.

Author Abbi Waxman creates instantly likeable characters in both Lilian and Rachel. Lilian’s wry sense of humor and incredible self-awareness will make readers laugh out loud in several spots. Waxman also doesn’t hesitate to pin grief and loss down with sharp tacks. She doesn’t use esoteric, poetic phrases to give Lilian an easy way out of a difficult situation. Instead, Waxman drives right to the heart of the issue in turn endearing Lilian that much more to the readers.

A few of the metaphors may feel a tad forced, but in those instances Rachel steps in to offer the scene some much needed levity. These sisters, unlike so many in other contemporary books, love one another; they support one another. They bicker about issues as siblings are wont to do, but they never lose sight of their relationship. Waxman’s choice to make the sisters’ relationship a cornerstone for them both anchors the book in a refreshing way.

The book does follow a few stereotypes: the neglectful mother, the California surfer-turned-genius, the quiet, understanding suitor. An Italian can’t help himself around beautiful, available women, In her capable hands, however, Waxman’s characters, even the stereotypical ones, offer readers plenty of choices for friends.

If the novel has any “failing,” it comes in the form of a lack of any measurable outward conflict. Most of the tension and conflict stem from Lilian herself. Her family relationships are solid, she meets new friends who support her, and trouble at the office gets sorted out in a quiet way. Readers may or may not like the lack of the tornado-force winds that seem to blow through other novels. It’s refreshing and disconcerting all at the same time.

For this reason, I recommend that The Garden of Small Beginnings Borders on Bookmarking it.

Newest review: Gone Without A Trace by Mary Torjussen

By Ekta R. Garg

May 10, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Borrow it

A woman comes home with good news only to discover her boyfriend isn’t home. Her life begins to revolve around finding out what happened to him and why he left. As she tries to solve the mystery, she’ll uncover secrets that she thought were long buried. Author Mary Torjussen leads readers through the world of an unreliable narrator in the somewhat satisfying psychological thriller Gone Without A Trace.

Hannah Monroe is on her way home to her London suburb with the best news of her life. After a fantastic presentation, she’s all but guaranteed a promotion to a significant position in her company. With a lovely home and a great boyfriend, Matt, Hannah feels the final pieces of her life falling into place. She couldn’t ask for anything more, and she can’t wait to share with Matt the news of the positive reviews of her work.

When Hannah comes home, though, Matt isn’t there. Even more mysterious, all of his belongings have disappeared. All of his pictures, his vinyl records, the large-screen TV—everything is gone. Hannah’s things have returned to their original positions, where they used to be four years ago before Matt moved in. She pulls out her phone to text him, but all of their messages and emails to one another have disappeared too. Even her pictures of him on her mobile devices have been erased.

It’s almost like Matt never existed.

Hannah is furious. After everything they’ve been through, how can Matt just pick up and leave without an explanation? How can he take away her memories of him? At the very least, he should have left her a picture or two.

She refuses to let him have the last word, however, and she begins an intense search to track him down. Her best friend, Katie, pleads with her to let Matt go and get on with her life, but Hannah can’t let Matt have that satisfaction. Compelled by the need for answers, she starts spending time at the office as well at home trying to figure out what happened. Eventually, though, she can’t keep up with both, and all the effort and energy she put into reaching the next major milestone in her career start to wane.

Hannah doesn’t care. All that matters is finding Matt and making him answer for his actions. Her persistence pays off, and she finds answers. Every answer brings with it another question, though, and Hannah starts to wonder if she’s slowly losing her mind. As she gets closer to Matt and his whereabouts, Hannah is forced to face the fact that some of the answers she seeks are closer to her than she originally realized.

Author Mary Torjussen has crafted a book that will keep readers going as they try to keep pace with Hannah. The questions of “who” and “what” slowly morph into “why,” and Torjussen does an adequate job of keeping the truth just out of Hannah’s reach. Every time Hannah thinks she’s found Matt, another obstacle thwarts her progress.

Unfortunately, Torjussen leaves several minor holes open in the story, just enough for readers to lose their footing time and again as they ask their own questions—namely, why Hannah pursues certain choices when clearly most people would go in a different direction. Some of those choices feel contrived, as if Torjussen needs Hannah to make them so the story can move forward. In essence, Torjussen’s efforts at creating the unreliable narrator come across as clumsy at some points.

Hannah’s best friend, Katie, reads as nonchalant and not quite “best friend” material. At some point readers may start to wonder just why Hannah continues her friendship with Katie. The two seem to bicker more than anything else, and Hannah’s continual frustration with Katie is just as off-putting as the friendship itself.

The biggest drawback comes in Torjussen’s choice of point of view, in this case first person. Readers hear everything from Hannah’s point of view and no one else’s, which causes the climax to ring a little melodramatic. Multiple points of view in third person would probably have strengthened the story and carried it to the end.

Torjussen doesn’t shy away from a strong ending, however. Other writers might have elected to follow the tropes of the genre, but Torjussen refuses to tread that path. Instead, she takes her readers on a different journey. Such a shame that readers have to wade through silliness to get there.

I recommend readers Borrow Gone Without A Trace by Mary Torjussen.

#amreading (Or the perks of being a book reviewer)

One of the advantages of being in publishing is the access to all the BOOKS! For a kid who spent the majority of her childhood (and her teenage years; and her college years; and, okay, like 20 minutes ago) reading, having the opportunity to read and talk about new books is like…nope, there’s no comparison. It’s just the best thing ever.

The down side is that many of the books are duds. I just sent a note to a publisher this morning that the book they had so kindly sent me was going to be deleted from my Kindle as soon as I finished writing the note. But there’s always that glimmer of hope when I receive a new book, that bead of optimism that swells until it bursts with excitement at having found another awesome story to recommend (looking at you, Fredrik Backman and Jodi Picoult.)

Most of the books I review now are ebooks, but occasionally I’ll open my mailbox to the surprise of a hard copy book. I received one of those last week, and I’m sharing the picture of it here:

pic of The Breakdown, B.A. Paris

On July 18, readers will get to experience The Breakdown by B.A. Paris. I get to read it well before then, though, and I’m happy to take on this “difficult” task to serve my followers. And other book lovers. And my inner story beast.

Be on the lookout for my review in the coming months, readers!







Latest book review: The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker

By Ekta R. Garg

April 26, 2017

Genre: middle grade fantasy

Release date: April 11, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend readers Bypass The Star Thief.