Newest book review: The French Impressionist by Rebecca Bischoff

By Ekta R. Garg

November 30, 2016

Genre: YA

Rated: Borrow it

A teen tries to initiate her plan for a new life and family only to find herself working hard to keep up with her lies. As she navigates challenges, the girl will have to decide whether freedom from an over-protective parent is worth all the new trouble. Debut author Rebecca Bischoff fortifies her first book with her professional background in the slightly clunky but mostly compelling novel The French Impressionist.

Rosemary arrives in Nice, France, with a single objective: to start over in a new life. She’s done all her research. The family she’s chosen has posted on a blog about accepting aspiring art students on a summer exchange program. Her best friend has backed up her fake travel plans in front of her mother, Darla. Even Darla’s boyfriend helps out by loaning Rosemary the credit card she uses to book her flight.

Many kids who run away do so because of neglect, but Rosemary definitely doesn’t have that problem. She’d be mortified if any of her friends in school knew that even though she’s 15, her mother still does her hair. Darla is the one who insists they share lunch at school every day, and her mother is also the one who locks her in her room every night. If there were an Olympics for helicopter parenting, Darla would win the gold every single time.

She has to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that her mother has some cause for concern. Because of a motor speech disorder, Rosemary can’t talk like most people do. Her brain knows all the words and always offers her snappy comebacks. She just can’t get her mouth to move at the same speed or with the same efficiency. So she gets that her mother worries.

But the worrying has driven her nuts—and out of the house. Rosemary packs her things and goes to Nice for a summer of art, never mind that she doesn’t even know which end of a paint brush to use on a canvas. She moves into the home of Sylvie and Emile, a charming couple whose son suffered tragically in an awful accident. Rosemary knows she’s the perfect candidate to slide into the son’s place. She certainly doesn’t discount the importance of losing a child, but she also knows that she can’t go back home. No matter what happens, she’s not leaving France.

However, now that she’s dealing with people face to face, Rosemary finds herself teetering on the tower of lies she’s built. She’s in danger of losing her footing, thanks to the creepy old lady and her menacing son who live next door to Sylvie and Emile. The incredibly annoying family visiting from Texas doesn’t help either, never mind that their son is cute and her age.

Rosemary doesn’t want anyone intruding on the new life she’s trying to build for herself. The longer she stays in France, however, the more she realizes that lies make for a shaky foundation. If she really wants to establish a new life, at some point she’ll have to find something solid to build it on.

Author Rebecca Bischoff’s professional work as a speech pathologist shines in this book. She shows with a great deal of honesty Rosemary’s emotions and frustrations with herself as well as those around her. Readers in her target audience as well as older readers will appreciate whole sections of Bischoff’s prose. She uses fresh phrasing that delight as much for her word choice as for taking the story forward.

The book could have used one more round of light editing. Rosemary tends to spend a great deal of time acting out her frustrations with minimal consequences. Sylvie and Emile come across as sweet, affectionate, and possibly too tolerant. After all, they’ve invited a complete stranger into their home and let her exhibit what is, on the surface, flat out rudeness.

Also, while Bischoff makes a clear point about Darla’s dread, the memories that surface late in the book for Rosemary feel a little rushed and forced. Weaving them into the narrative with more subtlety and a little earlier would have helped them come across as a natural part of Rosemary’s story instead of as a necessary plot device. Along with that, the climax also feels like it got crammed into the story. Rosemary makes a choice that could potentially ruin someone else’s life and doesn’t stop to think through the consequences of that choice, which is hard to believe given today’s overload of information. The book would have benefited from someone helping to untangle the knots so the tension could remain taut without seeming overly complicated.

For the most part, however, readers will enjoy Bischoff’s debut novel and will almost certainly read the last line wanting only the best for Rosemary. I recommend readers Borrow The French Impressionist.

(I volunteered to write an honest, objective review after receiving a review copy of this book from the publisher.)

Brand new review: A New Dawn by Sudha Balagopal

By Ekta R. Garg

November 9, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it

A widow must navigate the unchartered waters of dating three years after her husband’s death. The first time around she had an arranged marriage. This time she wants a little more say in a partner. But with no experience in casual relationships, she will have to balance her own emotions as well as memories of her husband if she wants to succeed. Author Sudha Balagopal brings readers her second novel in the fairly even but slightly melodramatic story A New Dawn.

Usha never imagined she’d be a widow at the age of 48. In his ardent, relentless pursuit of the American dream, her husband, Raja, had everything planned…except dying young. Now Usha spends her days trying to figure out just what it means to be single. Soon enough, however, she realizes something: she prefers companionship to the single life. She’s just not sure how to go about finding someone.

Her daughter, Veena, makes a decision. She signs Usha up for a dating website. Usha haws and hems but eventually gives in to the idea of online matchups. This time, though, she’s going to do it in her own time and her own way. She signs herself up on a different site and makes contact with someone right there in Phoenix.

They decide on a time and place to meet, but a series of events leads Usha to Arjay instead. She feels a connection to Arjay. They both work in higher education, Usha as a college counselor at the library and Arjay as a recruiter in a local university. Arjay understands Usha’s pain in losing someone close. The fact that Arjay is good looking doesn’t hurt either.

Just as Usha begins to trust Arjay, however, she discovers something that makes her question him and the entire idea of dating. How will she ever find someone if she can’t trust people? And why won’t Raja stop reprimanding her every move inside her head, just like he used to do to her face when he was alive?

Author Sudha Balagopal shares the inner details of the immigrant experience in A New Dawn. Her depictions of a young Indian wife who comes to the United States with eyes full of stars will probably hit home for many who actually lived through the situation. Usha’s initial confusion and then her disillusionment with certain aspects of her life ring true.

The book loses strength in the middle, however, and some plot elements stay unresolved. Raja’s profession is never fully explained, only that it involves a great deal of stress and the financial sector. Also, the motivation for his intense, almost rabid, devotion to getting ahead in life is never revealed. Readers will hear much about what Raja wants but never why he wants it.

Also, Usha’s reaction to a disagreement between herself and another character seems trite, childish almost. Her sheepish response afterward sounds appropriate, but by then readers may have already spent several pages rolling their eyes at her. Given the reaches of technology today, her reaction may induce a couple of laughs instead of the frustration on Usha’s behalf that Balagopal probably intended.

The story wraps up fairly neatly, making this a light and quick read. I recommend readers Borrow A New Dawn.

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

Brand new review: IQ by Joe Ide

November 2, 2016

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it!

An L.A. resident brings justice to those who can’t find it through law enforcement but does it by skirting the law himself. When he runs into financial hardship, he realizes he must take on a new case brought to him by a former partner or else join the very world he fights against on a daily basis. Author Joe Ide illuminates the dark corners of crime, its victims, and its perpetrators in the sobering but ultimately successful novel IQ.

Isaiah Quintabe helps the helpless. He knows how it feels to reach a low point in life, a point that defines whether someone stays on the right side of the law or plunges into the murky waters of the criminal world. After losing his brother in a senseless accident, Isaiah spent a lot of time floundering in those waters. It took another life-altering accident to bring him back heaving and sputtering to the shore.

So now Isaiah, or IQ as some call him, spends his days searching for the people who have committed crimes. The crime doesn’t matter and neither does its scope. All that matters is that someone has wronged another person. Isaiah fights for the wronged and sets matters right.

The trouble is that setting matters right doesn’t always pay the bills very well. Most of Isaiah’s clients live in poverty or just above it. He accepts whatever they can give him: food; new tires for his car; even a pet chicken. He can feel their appreciation with every exhortation of it, but he also needs to keep a roof over his head. But serious cash only comes from paying clients.

Enter a former partner from a different life. Before Isaiah became IQ, he was part of the very criminal world he now fights. Isaiah doesn’t want to listen when a new case comes his way, but the dollar signs associated with it become hard to ignore. Someone has threatened a rap star’s life, and the rap star is willing to pay—and pay big—to find out who and to eliminate the threat. As Isaiah starts searching for the killer, he will face elements of his past life and must decide along the way whether the payday in the end really is worth it.

Author Joe Ide’s debut novel will take readers right to the heart of the crime scene in Los Angeles. Ide’s own experience of living in L.A. comes through loud and clear. No one will doubt the world he depicts because of the authenticity and expertise he exudes on every page.

After a quick scan of news headlights, Isaiah’s plight may sound somewhat familiar. At first glance some might even say his story borders on the cliché: an African American teen who engages with crime in order to make a living. But Ide manages to stay away from clichés where possible, which means the balance of the story reads with freshness. Readers are left with a book that will introduce them to a world almost certainly unlike their own in a way that will leave them thinking about it after they’re done reading.

Granted, the proliferation of profanity makes the book hard to read at times. By the same token, Ide stays true to his story world and the characters with his language choices. Accepting that makes it a little easier to get through the book and even finish it hoping that Ide isn’t done with Isaiah just yet.

The pace drags just a little bit in parts as Ide flashes back to Isaiah’s past, but readers will understand how necessary the flashbacks are to understanding just why Isaiah does what he does. I believe readers of crime fiction and thrillers will enjoy the book; for me IQ Borders on Bookmarking it!

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher after volunteering to write an honest, objective review.)

Latest review: And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman

October 26, 2016

Genre: Fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A grandfather deals with dimming memories. As his family members try to help him, he must handle the inevitability of his age and passing on the best of his memories to his grandson. Author Fredrik Backman shares with readers a story that touches hearts and delights with its lyricism in the novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

Grandpa loves his grandson, Noah, and they meet on their special bench every day. But lately the area around the square where the bench sits has begun to change. The landscape shifts, odd objects appear and disappear, and the square itself has begun to shrink.

Noah’s enthusiasm and optimism never wane, however, and both grandfather and grandson share an intense love for math and the practical world of equations. None of this business with words and music that Noah’s father and Grandpa’s son, Ted, embraces. But lately even those equations have failed Grandpa in explaining why his memories have begun colliding.

He does remember the love of his life, however, and Grandma comes to visit in those moments when Noah doesn’t come. Grandpa and Grandma reminisce about their time together, how they found one another and their deep love for their son and grandson. Grandpa tells Grandma how much he misses her and how he regrets not being to fully explain Ted how much he loves him too.

These bonds are the few constants that remain for Grandpa. All his other thoughts and memories have begun to mix and change and—most frighteningly—go away. His greatest fear is that, through his fading mind, he’ll lose Ted and Noah before it’s time.

Author Fredrik Backman shares his intense love for language and the whimsical side of life in And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. As with his full novels, Backman uses language here to its full advantage. The result is a story where readers enjoy the writing as much as the plot and characters.

Because And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a novella, readers will be able to get through it in a single setting. The story’s beauty will encourage readers to go right back to the beginning and re-read the entire novella as much for the words chosen as for the endearing way Grandpa and Noah interact. The shorter length encourages a more literary approach, making readers concentrate a little harder but also rewarding them with an enriched relationship with the characters.

Backman manages to dress up Grandpa’s tragic condition in the most elegant of prose. He’s chosen unusual devices to convey Grandpa’s anguish and fear about the progression of his dementia. In his author’s note Backman shares that he wanted to write a personal story, and his sense of intimacy with the characters and Grandpa’s challenges shines through.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

(I volunteered to review this book after receiving a copy from the publisher for an honest, objective review.)

Latest review: Isabella for Real by Margie Palatini

By Ekta R. Garg

October 19, 2016

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it

A sixth grader gets caught up in a tangle of lies in her new school after failing to tamp down a set of rumors. When the rumors get exposed for what they are, the girl must figure out how she will keep her new friends and save face while navigating her enriching but sometimes frustrating family relationships. Author Margie Palatini offers middle grade readers a lighthearted, simple read in the pleasant book Isabella for Real.

Isabella Antonelli has a big problem. Within minutes of arriving at her new fancy private school, she meets Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha who think she’s the daughter of a contessa. They have it from a reliable source that Isabella’s family has a villa in Italy and flies around on a private jet. Their eyes shine in awe as they approach Isabella and initiate a friendship, and they reassure her they will keep her secret so she’s not overwhelmed by the other students.

Even though she tries to set the record straight, Isabella finds herself eventually agreeing with the girls. The trouble is that Isabella’s family doesn’t own a private jet or a villa. The connection to Italy is real, but that’s because her family is Italian. And there is a contessa in Isabella’s family, but she isn’t a real contessa. At one time Isabella’s Aunt Kiki was the star of the popular soap opera Search for Truth, Lies and Love, and on the show Aunt Kiki played a rich contessa who lived in the lap of luxury.

In this day and age of information overload, the fact that anyone could believe that Aunt Kiki really is the contessa stymies Isabella. Clearly Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha must have stumbled on one of the websites set up by a hardcore fan of the cancelled soap and assumed the fictional world presented by the fan is real. As all the girls begin developing their friendship, it gets harder for Isabella to tell the truth.

It seems like Isabella’s plan to keep up the charade will pan out, until her older cousin, Vincent, asks her for help. Isabella likes her new friends, but her family comes first and she will do anything for them. Vincent is working on a project in one of his college filmmaking courses and wants Isabella to host a series of web videos about their extended family. Despite her initial reluctance, Isabella agrees and talks to Vincent’s camera as the two of them visit different relatives up and down their street. The visits reveal homes that are a far cry from fancy villas, but they also show loving family members who are loud and gregarious and fiercely loyal to one another.

The videos go viral on YouTube, and Isabella instantly realizes her mistake. With her home life on display for anyone to see online, it’s clear that she’s not the daughter of a contessa. Far from it. So what happens now? Will Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha want to continue their friendship? Has Isabella killed her chances of fitting in at her new school? And why won’t Frankie Domenico from down the street just leave her alone already?

Author Margie Palatini has created an incredibly likeable protagonist in Isabella. Readers in Palatini’s target audience will definitely identify with Isabella’s problem and her insecurities in going to a new school. Isabella’s endearing family will draw in readers like a warm hug.

Adults might complain that some of Palatini’s plot devices reinforce stereotypes, but any stereotype fulfillment is benign. The bigger problem, from a writing standpoint, comes in a story question that Palatini raises a few times in the book. An event in the final scene closes the loop created by that question, but the event feels forced. It also contributes absolutely nothing to the larger story on hand.

Overall, however, Palatini’s book reinforces positive messages and a strong lesson for target readers and does so in a plain way. Where other books try to dress up teachings in fancy words or plots, Palatini comes straight to the point in a way that ends up being refreshing. The final scene aside, I believe Isabella for Real is Bordering on Bookmarking it.

Latest review: The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

By Ekta R. Garg

October 5, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction/romance

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman steps into the role of second wife to a widower. She deals with several challenges, including the mysterious circumstances of her husband’s first wife’s death. At some point she will need to dig deep and find the fortitude to deal with all the difficulties that come her way if she wants to thrive in a new country. Author Dinah Jefferies offers readers a bit of romance, intrigue, and family drama in the fairly decent novel The Tea Planter’s Wife.

In 1925 Gwen Hooper arrives by ship from England to join her new husband, Lawrence, on his tea plantation in Ceylon. Gwen’s nervous; she’s only ever known a charmed life in England, and now she’s leaving everything familiar for the grand adventure known as marriage. Lawrence swept her off her feet, and she’s a little giddy as she comes to her new home.

From the moment she first steps on shore, Ceylon charms Gwen. Although her marriage gets off to a shaky start, soon enough everything settles down. Instead, Gwen deals with life on the plantation. She pitches in to help with the household finances, and when Lawrence’s sister, Verity, comes to visit Gwen must handle Verity’s clinginess to Lawrence.

Verity starts spending more time on the plantation than what Gwen wants, but Lawrence tries to reassure her that Verity’s attachment can be contained. When Gwen becomes pregnant, she thinks a baby will help ease the tension in the house. A problem with her pregnancy drastically changes the trajectory of her emotional stability, and it leaves Gwen with doubts about whether she was ever suited to be the wife of a tea plantation owner. Civil unrest and challenges with native residents further complicate matters for the Hooper family, and through it all Gwen must fight with every ounce of courage and determination she can muster if she wants her marriage to be successful.

Author Dinah Jefferies’s novel will charm readers with its quiet tone and approach. Despite the stereotypes of the time period, Gwen doesn’t remain content to let her husband make all the decisions for her. Within the confines of what society allowed at the time, she takes charge of her own life and is willing to accept the consequences of her decisions. She’s also willing to change her mind if she feels her original decision is too heavy to bear.

The book in places comes across as muddy, however. One or two of the subplots that get a significant amount of time and space turn into limp matters by the end. Jefferies elects to take the easy way out in resolving them, which may make readers scratch their heads as to why the subplots were so important in the first place.

Also, marketing materials lead readers to believe that The Tea Planter’s Wife has shades of the classic novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. In reality the only major element common to both books is the fact that the protagonists marry widowers. Where Rebecca drilled into the mysterious disappearance of the first wife, The Tea Planter’s Wife explores life in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the tea plantation and the challenges British wives faced in foreign countries. Readers coming to the latter book with the expectation that it will function as the former will be sadly disappointed.

Readers looking for books that balance romance and intrigue with just the slightest dash of melodrama will thoroughly enjoy The Tea Planter’s Wife. For most readers I recommend they Borrow it.

Brand new review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

Oct. 5, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!!

A black nurse must face the consequences when a patient, the child of white supremacists, dies. The family pursues legal action. When the nurse gets assigned a white public defender, she approaches her upcoming trial with the singular truth that its outcome will not only make a statement about her professional skills but also about race relations. Jodi Picoult challenges readers to spend time in careful consideration of some of the hardest questions of our current times in the astounding novel Small Great Things.

After 20 years as a labor and delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson believes she’s seen it all. She’s helped young mothers put on makeup minutes after delivery. She’s held the hands of women who feared retaliation from an abusive partner and watched a new father tear up when he holds his baby for the first time. Labor and delivery are involved, messy affairs, and she’s been allowed access to it all.

Until now. At the start of a morning shift when Ruth walks into the room of new parents, she does her routine exam of the baby. As soon as the exam is done, the father orders Ruth to call a supervisor. The problem? Ruth is black, and the couple is white. More significantly, they’re white supremacists and don’t want Ruth anywhere near their son.

Ruth’s supervisor makes a note of their request, and Ruth gets reassigned to a different patient but she’s seething. She knows about the stereotypes and the misinformation, and she’s done everything within her power to fight against both. She’s a war widow—her husband gave his life in duty—and her son is a star student in school.

Now, though, it seems like her abilities as a nurse aren’t good enough to stand alone. The situation gets even more complicated when the baby goes into distress and then dies in Ruth’s presence. The white supremacist couple hires a lawyer to go after Ruth. She’s suspended pending the outcome of her trial, which looks like it’s going to be a bust when a white public defender with no murder trial experience takes on her case.

Ruth can’t quite figure out why Kennedy, her lawyer, wants to help her. Doesn’t Kennedy see her as another statistic? And what in the world would Kennedy know about being judged for the way a person looks? Yet as the two first work together and then get to know one another, Ruth learns that what others see or don’t see matters less when a person decides to take a stand. After toeing the party line her entire life, Ruth decides enough is enough. She’s going to cross right over and make a lot of noise.

Author Jodi Picoult, well known for taking on social issues, will leave her readers in awe with Small Great Things. Less ambitious authors would have settled to tell the story from Ruth’s point of view. Picoult gives Kennedy and Turk, the white supremacist father, equal billing with Ruth. The result is three radically different points of view, and three characters who do what only the best characters can: make readers understand their particular circumstances.

In her author’s note Picoult shares that she did extensive research for the book. She spoke to African American women and asked them pointed, and sometimes hard, questions about race and race relations. She also interviewed two former skinheads, men willing to offer candid responses about the white supremacy movement.

The research has resulted in a book that will force anyone, of any race, to examine their own beliefs. It will also offer more details into the minds of those who pursue different life paths when it comes to those beliefs. Nothing in these sensitives matters is cut and dry, and Picoult acknowledges that fact by staring it in the eye instead of shying away from the hardships that come when people judge one another simply based on the color of skin.

Anyone who has any interest whatsoever in bettering race relations needs to read Small Great Things. I highly recommend readers Bookmark the book and also buy it and pass it along to others.

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