Newest review: Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

December 13, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: November 14, 2017

Rated: Bordering on Borrow it

A teen finds herself boxing up her ex-boyfriend’s belongings after he dies in a tragic accident. As she goes through his things, she also finds herself also sorting through the memories of their relationship and how it ended. The longer she spends in his room, though, the more the teen gets the feeling that her ex-boyfriend’s death has some greater significance. Author Megan Miranda returns to YA fiction with a story that struggles to gain traction in her latest novel Fragments of the Lost.

Jessa Whitworth can’t quite believe the news, despite the weeks that have passed since the accident. Her ex-boyfriend, Caleb Evers, got caught in a flash flood and drove over the guard rail into a river in their New Jersey town. Since finding out about Caleb, Jessa quit the track team, more or less, and she doesn’t answer any texts or calls from her best friend, Hailey. Her parents try to support her through her grief, but their attention gets diverted on numerous occasions by Jessa’s older brother and baseball superstar, Julian.

So Jessa does what she can to cope on her own, until the day Caleb’s mother, Eve, approaches her. Eve blames Jessa for Caleb’s death. She’s never said so in those exact words, but Jessa knows that’s how Eve feels. After all, on the day he died Caleb came to one of her races, and just before the race started she spoke to him. Witnesses later said Caleb left the race before it ended and looked upset.

It makes sense to Jessa, then, that Eve would want to punish her. Eve practically demands that Jessa come over and clean out Caleb’s room, and Jessa complies. She doesn’t want to, but then again she does. The details of Caleb’s death eat at her, and Jessa hopes that spending time in his room will provide her with some answers. Despite their breakup, Jessa still cares deeply for him.

Everywhere she looks she sees evidence of their relationship, and every photo and object triggers a memory. Along with the memories, though, Jessa finds other items that don’t make sense. When Max, Caleb’s best friend, tries to join Jessa in cleaning Caleb’s room, Jessa rebuffs him. Max keeps insisting, however, and Jessa starts to give in. The more she investigates—because suddenly that’s what it feels like instead of just packing—the more she realizes Caleb’s death isn’t just a tragedy. It’s a mystery and maybe more.

Author Megan Miranda begins her book with a sluggish pace after offering a somewhat clumsy inciting incident: Eve’s forceful request that Jessa clean out Caleb’s room. Apparently Eve wants nothing to do with the task, creating a peculiar vibe for the book. Adding to that Jessa’s insistence on reliving, in first-person narrative, every detail of her time with Caleb as she packs up his room, and the book’s pace proceeds so slowly it’s almost going backwards.

More problematic is the fact that Jessa offers a reason for the breakup, but it doesn’t come across as compelling enough to create a rift in what she deems true love. The way Eve lurks around corners borders on creepiness; her behavior, and not Jessa’s, fits the role of ex-girlfriend. Also, Jessa may not question Eve’s initial demands, but even the most casual reader probably will. In fact, readers will figure out long before Jessa does that something bigger is happening in the story.

Miranda does offer some saving graces in the story. Jessa’s parents don’t neglect her the way many parents neglect their teens in YA novels. It’s true that their preoccupation with big brother Julian may approach the realm of the stereotypical, but the genre requires that much and Miranda fulfills the requirement without overdoing it. Also, once Jessa finally finishes cleaning out Caleb’s room, the story really does get moving and turn into an interesting read. It’s just a shame that readers will have to sit on their hands for about three-fourths of the book to get to the turning point. Until then it’s mostly Jessa reminiscing over Caleb and wishing, as all teens would, for a second chance.

For a vacation book, this one fits the bill but readers shouldn’t get their hopes up unless they’ve committed to slogging through the first couple of sections. I rate Fragments of the Lost as Bordering on Borrowing it.

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New review: Hidden Traps by Judy L. Mohr

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Nonfiction/social media, computer literacy for writers

Release date: August 1, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

As the publishing landscape continues to change, authors are expected to take charge—or, at the very least, an incredibly proactive role—of their online platform and social media presence. A plethora of advice, suggestions, and other information can overwhelm even the most seasoned authors. Author and freelance editor Judy L. Mohr offers her own experiences in a sincere effort to help writers and mostly succeeds in parsing the most popular online outlets in her book Hidden Traps: A Writer’s Guide to Protecting Your Online Platform.

Mohr opens her book with some common-sense thoughts: a writer’s platform does not consist solely of their social media outlets; every writer’s platform will look somewhat different; the most successful platform will include a mix of online and offline activities; and the key is to work hard but have fun. The first paragraph, in fact, provides a succinct summary of advice found in many other hard copy and online resources. The chapters that follow take authors through each element of an online presence, such as separating personal and business email addresses and whether a writer should blog regularly or not (the answer: it depends, in large part, on what the writer wants to accomplish by blogging on a consistent schedule.)

In many places, Mohr’s practical advice will resonate with authors. Creating a separate email address for newsletters and subscriptions to blogs and websites makes a lot of sense. So does dividing a personal Facebook profile and a public author page on the site. Mohr does a great job offering charts and screen shots to illustrate her ideas and to share what she’s done with her own online platform.

Some of the less successful portions of the book come in the places where Mohr gets into technical discussions. In Chapter 3, “Email Lists or Not”, Mohr gets a little lost in the weeds with her enthusiasm about building and maintaining an email list. She shares information that will help writers, no doubt, but it comes at a fast rate and with an assumption of basic email list building knowledge. Writers new to the entire world of publishing and building their platforms may get overwhelmed by the pace.

Other places of the book, too, either slow down or get unnecessarily complicated by technical explanations. Mohr often cites her science background in talking about her publication experiences, and like any true scientist eager to share the minutia she tends to get a little carried away with complicated concepts and terms. It would have helped if she had started the more technical sections with a quick tutorial—just a few paragraphs would have worked—about upcoming strategies and tools and then get into the details.

Most authors will appreciate Mohr’s intent, no doubt, and she does offer useful information and advice. It may just take writers a little longer to work through the manual than they might have initially anticipated from first impressions of the book. I recommend readers Borrow Hidden Traps by Judy L. Mohr.

 

(I received a copy of this book from the author with the understanding that I would review it honestly.)

Newest review: Where the Stars Rise edited by Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

November 29, 2017

Genre: Science fiction/fantasy

Release date: October 28, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

Twenty-three authors come together to offer readers stories in a combined genre that, at first glance, seems to sit oddly: Asian science fiction/fantasy. Long-time readers of both genres may eye this collection with some skepticism. Rest assured, however, that these tales exhibit excellent storytelling. Each piece settles comfortably within the parameters of the science fiction and fantasy categories while at the same time providing glimpses into the beauty and mystery of Asian cultures.

As readers progress with the book, they’ll wonder why more Asian writers aren’t tackling science fiction and fantasy stories. For anyone with an Asian background or knowledgeable about Asian cultures, the connection makes sense. The traditions of the Far East offer a deluge of magic and mysticism; in many cases, those ideas are celebrated and woven tightly into the fabric of Asian societies. It’s an easy stride, then, to science fiction and fantasy. Yet short stories in speculative fiction with strong Asian ties have just begun their ascent, which is probably why the anthology received the title it did.

The stories in this book detail characters all at once familiar and wondrous. The authors relish the risks they take in leading readers across different planets and the solar system. Even though the landscapes may feel unfamiliar the characters’ challenges and questions certainly do not.

The collection includes tales about the following:

Readers will meet a pair of sisters in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The girls, orphans, have managed to stay safe and hidden, despite the immense challenges provided by severe food shortages. On the day in the story, though, the older sister knows the two of them will witness great change. Scientists have scrambled to assemble parts to launch a rocket so the Japanese people still alive can alert the rest of the world they exist. The sisters make the arduous trip from their suburb apartment building to downtown Tokyo, certain their horror-filled days are at an end.

A scientist receives an invitation to join a one-way mission to Mars. She finds relief in the opportunity. Life here on Earth has become just too much. A childhood tragedy leaves her estranged from her sister, and the scientist can’t carry the burden of guilt anymore. Maybe, she reasons, that burden will become much lighter in space.

Deep in space a man recounts the many “lives” he’s lived—that is, he started as a younger brother but then became an orphan. He joins a family aboard one ship, only to be told that he doesn’t fit in with that family and will join another. The second ship gives him a brotherhood to join and a comfortable living as a drug dealer—although he certainly wouldn’t call it that—but when he finds his real brother, all his worlds and his old selves collide.

Visitors to the tropical Indian state of Kerala come because of the rumors: a great man they once admired has died, and his son has immortalized him in a way that is horrifying and fascinating all at the same time. The son doesn’t quite understand the commotion. His appa (father) was the most important person to him and almost equally important to so many others. Why can’t they see his gesture as a tribute fitting to the man?

The complexities of the stories and the characters and the stories will delight readers, but they will also elicit a reaction all too familiar to book lovers everywhere: the stories will leave readers wanting much, much more. I recommend readers Binge Where the Stars Rise and also encourage this new subset of science fiction and fantasy.

Newest review: Millard Salter’s Last Day by Jacob M. Appel

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

November 8, 2017

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: November 7, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

A man plans to commit suicide but decides to spend the day having last conversations with those closest to him. He interacts with family and colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and reflects on whether his final decision really is the best one. Author Jacob M. Appel presents a book that seems less like a story and more like a string of incidents in the dismal novel Millard Salter’s Last Day.

Millard Salter grew up in a New York City no one seems to remember anymore. Celebrities, neighborhood haunts, even the lingo people use has changed. Of course, things can change a lot in 75 years, including a person’s health. That’s why Millard has decided to take his health into his own hands. Before he gets diagnosed with a terminal illness or suffers a fall or any other ailment senior citizens usually face, he’s going to kill himself. And his 75th birthday seems like a good day for it.

Of course, Millard can’t just commit suicide without checking in with the other people in his life first. He arrives at work at St. Dymphna’s Hospital where runs the psychiatry department only to find out a lynx is on the loose and the woman he can’t stand has heard a rumor about him retiring and wants his job. At lunch with Lysander, his 43-year-old unemployed, he fails to impart any meaningful life principles. He even musters up the courage to call on his ex-wife after more than decades and gets an earful and a surprise.

Through it all, including an unexpected interaction with his youngest child, Maia, Millard remains steadfast in his purpose. He can’t help dropping little hints about his plans throughout the day to his nearest and dearest, although no one reads between the lines. But it doesn’t matter to Millard anymore. What matters is that he’s always lived his life on his own terms, and now he’s going to end it that way too.

Author Jacob M. Appel’s latest book garnered early attention as comparable to Fredrik Backman’s smash hit, A Man Called Ove. Devoted fans of the latter should definitely not read Millard Salter’s Last Day. Other than starring a protagonist intent on suicide, the two books couldn’t be more different from one another.

Appel’s novel reads less like a conventional story and more like a book-length list of incidents. The fact that the entire tome takes place over the course of a single day makes the pace drag almost unbearably. Millard wants to meet every single person who means something to him and runs into a few along the way who don’t mean that much. Going through every account will eventually exhaust readers.

While Millard’s determination may impress some readers, more of them may wonder where the story will end up. Appel tries to dress up most of the slow spots with Millard’s reminiscences of old-time New York City, but with most of the names unfamiliar to younger generations at some point readers will lose their patience.

That lack of patience will spill over to Millard as well; he comes across as wholly unlikeable and insufferable. At some point his pomposity comes across almost unjustified. His decision to kill himself, then, feels as much an expression of his ego as his complaints that the current generation knows nothing of the greats of the past.

The book winds to its inevitable, and thereby disappointing, conclusion. In the end, the incidents preceding the end of the book feel less than satisfying. I recommend readers Bypass Millard Salter’s Last Day.

Newest review: The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

By Ekta R. Garg

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

 

Rated: Borrow it

November 1, 2017

Genre: Children’s fiction

Release date: August 22, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

After her parents disappear, a young girl gets kidnapped too. As she tries to figure out who would want to kidnap her family and why, she will also have to try to make sense of other events that have greater implications for the world at large. Author Sinead O’Hart tackles climate change and mythical creatures all with a plucky protagonist in her mostly likable debut novel The Eye of the North.

Emmeline Widget can take care of herself. Her parents, scientists, spend most of their time on expeditions away from home, so much so that Emmeline carries around a satchel at all times full of survival essentials. She’s also read countless books on techniques and tools to help her out of almost any problem.

Her informal training may truly benefit her, Emmeline discovers, when she receives a mysterious letter from her mother. The letter states that if Emmeline is reading the words on the page, in all likelihood her parents have been kidnapped. For her own safety, the letter continues, Emmeline should leave her home immediately and travel to Paris. There she should go to the address included in the letter, ask for a Madame Blancheflour, and live with the woman until the age of 18.

Satchel in hand, Emmeline boards a ship bound for France. There she meets a stowaway who calls himself Thing because, he explains, that’s how everyone has always addressed him. Within hours of getting on the ship, Emmeline finds out that someone—or several someones—want to kidnap her as well. She and Thing do their best to evade capture, but the inevitable happens: Emmeline gets snatched from the deck by a Dr. Siegfried Bauer.

With the world’s topography changing dramatically, Dr. Bauer wants immortality. After decades of research, he has discovered he can call forth the Kraken in Greenland. Anyone who summons the Kraken and offers a living sacrifice can command the beast and utilize its powers, including those that make it live forever. Dr. Bauer set Emmeline’s parents with the actual task of drawing the Kraken out of its glacial home; Emmeline will serve as the sacrifice.

All is not lost, however. Thing begins working on a plan to save Emmeline. He meets a bevy of friends along the way who help him in his quest, and he lives through some adventures himself. As both Emmeline and Thing travel to Greenland, they will have to contend with what awakening the Kraken means not only for them personally but also for the rest of the world.

Author Sinead O’Hart’s debut novel zips along at a fast clip once Emmeline gets kidnapped by Dr. Bauer. Much of the action before her kidnapping feels like filler, however. The book begins just as Emmeline receives her mother’s letter. As soon as she’s done reading, the butler informs Emmeline she has five minutes to grab anything extra (he’s already packed her bags, of course,) before they must drive to the dock. The jarring start to the book requires a great deal of suspension of belief, and the lack of plausibility might discourage more advanced readers.

The introduction of Thing, too, doesn’t exactly make one warm up to him right away. Eventually, however, readers will grow to like him as much as Emmeline does, and O’Hart does an admirable job of keeping his back story just out of reach until it’s absolutely needed. Until that moment late in the book, though, readers will have to content themselves with accepting the fact that Thing is a resourceful orphan who is just nosy enough to follow Emmeline and then rescue her.

On a larger scale, O’Hart’s book feels like it’s reaching for too many things all at once. Roundabout mentions in passing of massive climate change may provoke curiosity and questions, but they don’t receive much attention. O’Hart ropes in fabled creatures, a la the Kraken (and others that get a rushed mention at the end,) but their inclusion feels more like a bid to appeal to the younger end of the target audience. A witch pops up briefly, almost as if items on a checklist needed ticking. In many other places, the mechanics of the action are entirely unclear and some of the characters come across as placeholders.

For readers who don’t mind putting aside a little bit of logic and who can enjoy an adventure for adventure’s sake, The Eye of the North might be worth a read. I recommend readers Borrow The Eye of the North.

Newest book review: The Windfall by Diksha Basu

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

October 25, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: June 28, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

A man comes into a large sum of money and decides to move his family from their middle-class neighborhood to fancier digs. As he and his wife try to navigate the nuances of upper crust society, he will have to decide how much of his old self he wants to retain and how much he wants to blend into his new circle of acquaintances. Author Diksha Basu juggles several characters but doesn’t give readers enough of any of them in her debut novel The Windfall.

For years, Anil Jha thought he knew what life would bring him when his son got older. Rupak would go to the U.S. to study business, and Anil and his wife, Bindu, would live out their retirement in their middle-class community of Mayur Palli. Their building in East Delhi doesn’t exactly scream high society—the kitchen in their flat is tiny and worn out, and their neighbors always seem to know what they’re up to.

Until now. Anil surprised himself more than anyone else when he got the opportunity to sell his online startup for $20 million. Now he has enough cash to fulfill every dream he and Bindu have ever had, and he’s decided to start with their home. He buys a house in the upscale area of Gurgaon, and he’s giddy with the idea of becoming a member of high society.

Bindu has her own reservations about Gurgaon. She’s not quite as ready as Anil to trade up for a new residence. After all, she raised Rupak in their Mayur Palli flat. All their friends live in the building. They don’t know anyone in Gurgaon and even though Anil keeps talking about how excited he is, Bindu senses an element of hesitation in him too. Change, after all these years, will be hard.

In the state of New York, Rupak is treading water at Ithaca College. With the upcoming move, his parents have had enough distractions. He doesn’t want them to worry about him too, so he’s made it all the way to India for a visit and back without telling them that he’s starting a second year on academic probation. His mother and father think he’s working toward a master’s in business administration; he’s spending more time with Elizabeth, his American girlfriend, than in class. Now his parents are moving to a new house, and everything feels like it’s getting tossed in the air.

Anil can’t decide whether he needs an electric shoe polisher. Bindu is trying to curb her husband’s sudden need to buy sofas encrusted with Swarovski crystals and jewelry from Tiffany’s. Rupak keeps wondering whether he should call it quits at Ithaca and just go home, even if he’s not sure what “home” means anymore. The entire Jha family will have to discern how best to find their way through their new surroundings, as individuals as well as a unit.

Author Diksha Basu offers a peek into life in middle-class Delhi as well as its upper social echelons, but readers won’t get a chance to bond with any of the characters. Basu’s choice of omniscient point of view—sharing the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in small pieces—will keep readers at arm’s length. Also, the Jhas’ actual move to Gurgaon, which is the inciting incident promised by marketing materials, doesn’t happen until well over the halfway mark into the novel. Basu has chosen a relevant and timely topic, but some of her narrative selections make the book come across as more of an exercise in fluff.

Anil Jha’s wish to reach for more than what he’s ever had in life rings true, but his reactions seem almost farcical. Of the husband-wife pair, Bindu is the more grounded partner. Her concerns get swept aside, however, in the larger tale. Rupak is the least developed of the three; he turns into a boring stereotype of the very experience Basu wishes to project. As a result, his thoughts and ambivalence toward everything will induce eye-rolling more than anything else.

The most interesting part of the novel comes in its subplot of the widowed Mrs. Ray, a neighbor to the Jhas in their old building. She’s lost her husband at a young age but still has the verve for life, and Basu’s treatment of her will come across as respectful and thoughtful. When Mrs. Ray meets someone new, her desires conflict with her knowledge of how society will react. This through-line, more than any other, will resonate with South Asian readers everywhere.

Overall, the book is somewhat amusing for the lengths Anil Jha will go to for his new life, and some readers may find it entertaining for that purpose if no other. I recommend readers Borrow The Windfall.

Latest review: For Your Own Protection by Paul Pilkington

By Ekta R. Garg

October 11, 2017

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: September 28, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

A man suspects his girlfriend of stalking him, but he has no idea why. A woman comes home to her apartment to find it ransacked. The two live in different parts of the city but as the man starts to investigate circumstances that become more bizarre by the day, a connection emerges between the two. Author Paul Pilkington returns with command and confidence in a novel that hits all the right spots in the brand new thriller For Your Own Protection.

Matt Roberts is fighting hard to bring some normalcy back to his life. After a personal crisis, he’s in the midst of a leave of absence from his day job as a fund manager at a prominent London bank. It doesn’t help that the high point—or low point, depending on how a person looks at it—of the crisis started with Matt himself. He cheated on his longtime girlfriend, Beth, and even though they share a child Beth kicked Matt out.

Beth is kind enough to let Matt see Charlie, their son, but she’s definitely moved on to another relationship. After all this time, Matt has too but something about his new girlfriend, Catherine, makes him wonder. He thinks he’s seen her in odd times and places when they didn’t have a date, almost as if she’s following him. But why would Catherine want to follow him? Their relationship seems fine, albeit a little shallow.

Rachel Martin doesn’t know how she’s going to move forward in life. Her fiancé died in a horrific bicycle accident when someone hit him with a car, and one day when she comes home she finds out someone has turned her apartment upside down. Nothing seems to be missing, but clearly someone was looking for something. Paranoia sets in, and with good reason. Not long after the home invasion, Rachel suffers a terrible accident herself.

Matt comes to hear about Rachel’s accident through a series of situations that he can’t believe he’s following. They start when Charlie goes missing. Then Matt pins down Catherine on the issue of her following him. Both events start a chain reaction that will take Matt to parts of London he’s never seen before, and he’ll find himself challenged in a way that will make his indiscretion with Beth seem like a minor issue.

Author Paul Pilkington’s readers have come to expect stories that fulfill every promise made by his genre of choice, and For Your Own Protection doesn’t disappoint. As with his other books, Pilkington creates characters who readers will feel like they know well. He offers a tour of London in the form of written sightseeing as Matt and the others struggle to make sense of a senseless situation.

Pilkington has a knack for tying a series of conflict knots that seem beyond solutions and then pulling one thread to make each knot unravel in a way that will keep readers flipping pages. His signature stroke in previous books—cliffhanger endings for every chapter that leave readers practically breathless—has been restrained somewhat in this story, and the result is a more even, more thoughtful pace. While some readers might miss the frenzy, the story becomes more enhanced as a result of the measured approach. Pilkington still includes plenty of exciting moments, and he’s still able to surprise readers by the end.

A few minor points may stick out. Matt’s sister, who doesn’t play much of a role in the larger story, shows up early in the book and then disappears, and a seemingly dangerous situation gets resolved a little too neatly. Yet readers won’t care when they step into Matt and Rachel’s world. With Pilkington’s signature mystery-telling techniques at work, readers will forgive small slights against the plot. With its more strategic pacing, as compared to previous books, For Your Own Protection is Paul Pilkington at his best yet.

I recommend readers Binge For Your Own Protection by Paul Pilkington.