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.

New review: View from the Sixth Floor by Elizabeth Horton-Newton

By Ekta R. Garg

August 19, 2015

Genre: Mystery

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman fascinated with the assassination of John F. Kennedy visits Dallas for the 50th anniversary of his death. When a friend accompanies her, the woman learns new facts about that day in history and discovers how tough she is all in one trip. Author Elizabeth Horton-Newton offers a fresh take that will encourage readers to ask their own questions in the thoughtful novel View from the Sixth Floor.

After the death of her husband, George, Olivia feels a little lost. She’s doing her best to work through her grief, however, and her friends have certainly helped. One friend in particular goes out of his way to make sure Olivia stays upbeat. Bill has mowed Olivia’s lawn and stepped in to provide her with companionship. Because Bill doesn’t drive, Olivia returns his help by taking him to the market when he needs to go and the two form a friendship independent of their connection to George.

One day on a grocery run a magazine catches Olivia’s eye. It points out the upcoming 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination and asks whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or whether he worked as part of a conspiracy theory. When Olivia goes home she begins watching specials on TV about the assassination, and something about the event arrests her attention. Before long Olivia makes a decision: she needs to go to Dallas to see for herself the location of the murder.

Bill doesn’t share Olivia’s enthusiasm. He does everything he can to talk her out of going to Texas, citing the tendency of deranged people to make pilgrimages to sites of tragedies. What if she comes across a crazy person, Bill asks.

Olivia persists, however, and in the end Bill agrees with great reluctance to accompany her. He promised George he would look after her, he explains, and ensuring her safety on the trip constitutes a part of that promise. Bill’s loyalty to George touches Olivia’s heart, and she accepts his offer to come along. When they arrive in Dallas, however, Olivia makes a discovery that colors all she thought she knew about Kennedy’s assassination and history overall.

Author Elizabeth Horton-Newton poses real-life questions in View from the Sixth Floor. She gives room to one of the most popular conspiracy theories in American history by framing it inside a story that rings true. Olivia’s journey, both emotional and physical, could happen to any woman past her prime but with enough spunk left to enjoy her silver years.

Bill’s presence in Olivia’s life makes complete sense given the novel’s parameters, and readers will find themselves just as surprised as Olivia at certain points. While some portions of the story might feel a little predictable, Horton-Newton doesn’t spend too long in those portions and manages to spirit her readers away from the predictable to the unexpected. Although many dialogue sections could do with tags and a little bit of clarification, for the most part Horton-Newton stays out of the way of the readers and lets them revel in the classic “what if” scenario.

For View from the Sixth Floor, I recommend readers Bookmark it!

Latest review: The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango

By Ekta R. Garg

August 12, 2015

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Bypass it

A man living a lie must think on his feet when tragedy lands directly on his doorstep. He needs to keep the world at bay so no one finds out the sordid details of his present and his past. As time passes, however, he begins to wonder whether he really can live with his choices. Author Sascha Arango gives readers a Gone Girl-esque novel with none of the zip of that book in the slow-moving novel The Truth and Other Lies.

Henry Hayden has earned a great deal of acclaim as a novelist of thrillers. His fans come to him in droves wanting to know the secret of his success. Unfortunately he can’t share that secret with anyone except his wife, because she is at the heart of it. No one knows that Henry’s wife is the real author of his novels.

In a strange arrangement, Henry’s wife is content to peck away at her typewriter and let her husband take all the credit. Henry meets and greets the fans, signs copies, and smiles for the cameras. He also has a deeply personal connection to the publishing house that “discovered” him, especially with his editor.

In fact, his relationship with his editor is more personal than professional, and when the relationship spirals out of control Henry must make some tough decisions. At least, they would be tough for someone else in his position. For Henry the decisions reflect decisions he’s made all his life. With a dark past and a nature to match, Henry just takes his choices in stride. As those choices create complications, Henry must orchestrate his escape plan with great care.

Author Sascha Arango tries to mirror the success that Gillian Flynn achieved with Gone Girl: a brooding protagonist; unexpected twists and turns; a sordid past. Unfortunately Flynn’s book, albeit disturbing, succeeds on every account. The Truth and Other Lies doesn’t go into its darkest corners with the same level of dedication or intention. As a result Henry, the main character, comes off a little circumspect, almost timid. Yes, he executes his decision with a calm rationale, but his decisions don’t seem to amount to much in the long run.

Equally flat is Henry’s wife. Readers never find out why she’s so content to write and let Henry take all the credit. Because the narration never shifts to her point of view, readers don’t get to know anything about her and won’t really care much about her after a while. Even a plot twist only creates a temporary diversion.

Despite its aspirations the book never really fulfills them. I would recommend readers Bypass The Truth and Other Lies.

(I was given a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for my unbiased, honest review.)

Brand new review: Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

By Ekta R. Garg

August 5, 2015

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

Originally billed as the greatest solution to the world’s energy crisis, a new life form has somehow migrated from its secret farm location to the surrounding area. When three kids run across the energy alternative in the woods behind their school, they will need to put aside any personal differences to help save their town and, potentially, the world. Louis Sachar, author of the wildly successful book Holes, brings middle grade readers another story with his trademark style in the well-intended but ultimately hollow book Fuzzy Mud.

Tamaya and Marshall live on the same street and have walked to and from school together for three years. Although Tamaya is two years younger than Marshall, he’s never minded her company much. Their two-mile walk could be shorter if they cut through the woods. But everyone knows a dangerous hermit lives in the woods, and no one goes in them…until now.

On a cool day in November, Marshall decides he wants to take a shortcut home. The matter actually gets decided for him when the new seventh grader in Marshall’s class, Chad, challenges Marshall to a fight after school. In order to avoid Chad, Marshall knows, he and Tamaya will have to go through the woods.

It seems like a foolproof plan—until Marshall and Tamaya get turned around in the unfamiliar terrain. To make matters worse, Chad manages to find them. He challenges Marshall to a fight right then and there, and Tamaya flings some odd fuzzy-looking mud at Chad to distract him. She and Marshall make a break for it, expecting with every step that Chad will follow them.

When Chad doesn’t show up in school the next day, however, Tamaya figures out that something must have gone wrong and goes back to look for him. Marshall learns that Tamaya has gone missing, and he goes after her. None of them know the woods that well, and they all have to deal with the fuzzy mud Tamaya threw at Chad.

Author Louis Sachar brings to Fuzzy Mud his trademark wit and charm. Readers will thoroughly enjoy the humorous asides and character quirks Sachar shares, and Sachar doesn’t hesitate to offer some of the challenges middle grade students face in the real world. Targeted readers will appreciate Sachar’s honesty and his attempts to make light of uncomfortable situations.

Unfortunately the book fails to challenge its target audience. Chad’s pursuit of Marshall and Tamaya’s return to the woods take up the majority of the story. The only way readers will learn of the secret energy alternative is through excerpts of “energy committee hearings,” and in some places these excerpts offer more movement in the story than the main plot. In essence, the book could be summed up as: Chad and Marshall’s fight; Tamaya defending Marshall; Chad’s disappearance; Tamaya and Marshall’s rescue of Chad and their small Pennsylvania town.

The book lacks depth and heft, surprising considering Sachar’s success with the detailed plot of Holes. Middle grade readers will leave the book feeling like something is missing. Sachar would have done well to offer more information about everyone involved in the story, especially Chad as the bully.

Diehard fans of Sachar’s work may want to Borrow this one; otherwise I recommend readers Bypass it.

(I received this book from the publisher for my unbiased, honest review.)

Latest review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 29, 2015

Genre: Contemporary fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A young girl thinks the hardest thing she has to endure is losing her grandmother to cancer—until her grandmother leaves the girl with a series of letters to deliver. Despite the girl’s deep grief, she begins the task and learns about the woman who was her grandmother and best friend. Fredrik Backman, author of the amazing novel A Man Called Ove, delivers another book to remember in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

Elsa, an almost-eight-year-old, doesn’t have friends her own age, but she has someone better than friends. She has Granny, who isn’t the typical grandmother. Granny doesn’t wear cardigans and bake cookies. No, Elsa’s Granny breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and drives like a mad person in her car, Renault. She launches elaborate protests to the newspaper company for sending circulars in the mail and shares her thoughts as soon as they pop into her head.

And she tells Elsa stories—amazing stories about a secret land where only Elsa and Granny go. The two share a secret language too, and Elsa knows that nothing is impossible with Granny. She also understands, as a child of divorced parents who have each found new partners, that Granny’s outlandish behavior acts as a diversion from the hardships of Elsa’s life. The kids in school don’t like her because she’s “different,” and with a new half sibling on the way Elsa can admit to Granny that she’s unsure of how her life will progress with the baby in the picture.

When Granny dies, though, all of the best things in Elsa’s life disappear…or so she thinks. Elsa learns that Granny’s spunky spirit still lingers; she’s left a series of letters for Elsa to find and deliver to various people. Quickly enough Elsa realizes the letters contain apologies to their recipients. Granny’s forthright, outspoken behavior often caught people off guard and sometimes offended them, and Granny knew that. So she takes the opportunity to apologize to them from beyond the grave.

As Elsa works through her grief and carries out her beloved grandmother’s final wish, she learns more about this woman who she had only ever known as “Granny.” In time, Elsa realizes, Granny held a special place in other people’s lives. Angry at first that she has to share her Granny with so many others, Elsa begins to understand that it is by sharing someone that we really keep that person alive.

Author Fredrik Backman’s second novel follows his phenomenal debut novel at the same level of skill, wit, and heart-wrenching reality. Once again Backman gives his readers characters who move into the mind and heart and stay there long after the book ends. In Elsa Backman creates a young girl liberated by the imagination of youth and entrapped by its limitations, and readers will want nothing more than to gather Elsa into their arms for a big hug.

Elsa’s Granny, too, deserves a special mention; she exhibits all of the classic traits of a grandparent willing to do anything to protect a grandchild. In Granny’s case that “anything” often rolls right over extreme limits, but she doesn’t care—and that’s exactly why readers will love her. Everyone needs a Granny in their corner.

The star of the book, once again, is Backman’s prose. He balances whimsical word choices with literary brilliance and takes readers along for a magical journey that brings them right back to what is good, and not, in their own lives. The cultural nuances of Backman’s native Sweden, where the book is set, only enhance the overall story.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

(I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased, honest review.)