Brand new book review: The Sound of Glass by Karen White

By Ekta R. Garg

May 20, 2015

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

Two women bound by family but estranged by differences end up sharing a home. Despite the tension they soon become involved in a mystery decades old, which forces them to spend more time together than either anticipated. Author Karen White gives readers vivid descriptions of an iconic South Carolina town with a storyline that doesn’t quite live up to those descriptions in her book The Sound of Glass.

Merritt Heyward has come to Beaufort with one goal in mind: to start her life over. Two years have passed since her husband’s death, but their marital discord still hovers over her. Merritt needs something that will function as a dramatic contrast to her current state of affairs; what better way to do that than leave Maine behind?

The decision to move almost gets made for her when she finds out she has a place to live. Her late husband’s grandmother, also deceased, left her Beaufort home to him. As the only living heir now, Merritt inherits the home and her new life. When she gets to South Carolina, though, her new life comes with its own complications.

Merritt is no stranger to grief; when she was 12 years old her mother died in a terrible accident. For many years she and her father defined the family outline…until her father falls in love with another woman and marries her. Merritt can’t stand her new stepmother for a variety of reasons, the biggest being that her stepmother is close to her own age. She knows of a half-brother but has never met him. That changes, however, when she moves down south.

Not long after she arrives in her new house Merritt’s stepmother, Loralee, and half-brother, Owen, show up on the front porch. They need a place to stay, Loralee says, until she can get back on her feet. Because they’re both widows, she feels like they have something in common. Could Merritt spare them some space?

Even with her intense dislike of Loralee, Merritt can’t exactly refuse. Her new home is huge—definitely too large for one person. With great reluctance Merritt agrees to let Loralee and Owen move in. The discovery of a mystery tied to Merritt’s family soon eclipses her dislike of Loralee. As Merritt, Loralee, and Merritt’s brother-in-law, Gibbes, work through the information on hand, Merritt begins to understand that maybe she does have the strength to let go of her heartache.

Author Karen White captures the landscape and physical beauty of South Carolina in sumptuous details. Her descriptions convey the essence of the book as well as its emotion and become the book’s strongest point. In fact, White managed to bring tears to this former South Carolina native’s eyes. Beaufort features as strongly in The Sound of Glass as any of the characters—maybe a little more so.

White chooses to tell Merritt’s portions of the story in first person and gives Loralee equal space but with a third-person point of view. Because of the depth of Merritt’s pain and Loralee’s function as Merritt’s mentor, the book may have benefited more from a switch in points of view so readers could know Loralee better and get a little breathing space from Merritt’s grief. It would also have helped to ground both characters in reality and not leave them in stereotypical roles.

Also, White may have intended to use the book as a vehicle to discuss how abuse can get handed from one generation to the next almost as an heirloom. Instead, her plot devices and character traits jar the reader from the overall theme. Edith, the late grandmother from whom Merritt inherits the house, comes across as a helpless bystander in some situations and a take-charge actor in others. The dichotomy doesn’t work, and it will leave readers thinking that if Edith had such gumption to pursue a life passion with such dedication she should have had more than enough energy and interest to change the course of events for her family.

Despite its exquisite detailing of South Carolina, I would rate The Sound of Glass as Bordering on Bypass it.

Latest book review: Material Girls by Elaine Dimopoulos

By Ekta R. Garg

May 13, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

Two young women challenge the corporate structure of their city by pushing the edges of the accepted fashion boundaries. When their “betters” push back, the two teens must decide whether they’ll conform to the status quo or continue with their cause. Author Elaine Dimopoulos offers readers her first YA novel in the enjoyable but slightly underwhelming novel Material Girls.

In the city of La Reina and its surrounding areas, children and teens drive the economy. Seventh graders find out during the school year whether they will get to leave school and join the dominant creative industries or be relegated to the less desirable industries (including science and math fields) and continue with school. Marla Klein knows how those seventh graders feel; it wasn’t too long ago that she waited for her assignment, and she knows people envy her assignment to work with one of the Big Five fashion houses.

Not only does Marla work with the fashion house; she actually sits on the court that decides what trends will go from concept to production and what trends will stay in the basement on the sketchpads of the trend drafters. Marla relishes her work, and her superiors have praised her keen eye for fashion. Lately, however, the other judges on the court have disagreed with her opinions. Despite a friendly warning to stop offering so many dissents, Marla doesn’t give in to professional pressure and eventually gets kicked off the court.

As a singer Ivy Wilde enjoys the position of the top pop performer. Her legions of fans worship her, and all the top fashion houses vie for her attention. If Ivy Wilde wears a fashion line, everyone will start to wear it and the fashion trend will go viral. When a new teeny bopper enters the scene, however, Ivy finds that those brands and the hottest locations in town have begun dividing their attention. Ivy needs to do something to bring the attention back to her, and the odd dance club disturbance just won’t cut it anymore.

Marla and Ivy meet under interesting circumstances, and after a conversation they each realize they can help one other. They decide to create a brand new line of fashion that focuses on the environment and urges people to recycle old trends instead of clamoring for new ones. Despite her demotion at work, Marla and her new co-workers begin working on Ivy’s eco-friendly outfits with excitement. For them this isn’t just a shot at escaping obscurity; it’s an opportunity for a revolution against the current paradigm.

Author Elaine Dimopoulos’s first young adult book offers the familiar feel of dystopian fiction and sets it in the world of fashion. Contrary to true dystopian tales, Material Girls doesn’t unleash heavy artillery and the characters don’t hunt for blood. The biggest stakes in the book come in the form of prestige and cultural relevance. Dimopoulos walks a fine line between irreverence and irrelevance and for the most part comes down on the right side of that equation.

Once in a while, though, readers may find it hard to buy into a dystopian concept set in the fashion industry. Publicity materials bill Material Girls as “Project Runway meets Divergent”. Well, not quite. The book certainly follows suit with its comparison to Project Runway, but similarities between Dimopoulos’s book and something as heavy-handed as Divergent or its contemporaries becomes harder to believe. True dystopian novels offer readers life-or-death premises; in the end Material Girls is, after all, about fashion trends and what people wear from season to season.

Dimopoulos may have set herself up with an overly ambitious plot, but her intention comes through loud and clear and readers will certainly applaud her for it. She also offers readers some surprises along the way, redeeming the book again and again. I recommend readers Borrow Material Girls.

Brand new review: The Happy Hour Choir by Sally Kilpatrick

By Ekta R. Garg

April 29, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman accepts a challenge: to form a choir so a church with a diminishing congregation can boost its numbers. Despite her hesitation to accept the pastor’s charge, the woman’s connection to the previous church pianist compels her. What starts as the repayment of an emotional debt turns into a life-altering dynamic. Debut author Sally Kilpatrick gives readers a sweet book with minor hitches in The Happy Hour Choir.

At the age of 25, Beulah Land has a life routine that works for her. She lives with her former piano teacher, Ginger, and spends most nights playing the piano at the town’s main bar, The Fountain. Beulah owes a lot to Ginger; when Beulah left home as a pregnant teen, Ginger took her in. Through the years, Beulah has turned into Ginger’s caretaker as Ginger battles cancer. The two enjoy a close relationship, and Ginger takes advantage of that closeness when she petitions Beulah with a request.

Ginger knows her cancer doesn’t allow her much time, and she wants Beulah to take over her position as the church pianist. Beulah fights Ginger’s decision but knows she really doesn’t have a choice. Despite a personal pledge years earlier not to step into a church ever again, Beulah begins to play at the Sunday services.

Trouble arises when the members of the choir protest Beulah’s appointment by refusing to perform. The new pastor, Luke Daniels, doesn’t know quite what to make of the situation because he has his own worries; if attendance doesn’t increase soon, the church will be shut down. Luke gives Beulah an opportunity to fix two problems with one solution: build a new choir to perform and make it good enough to attract wayward congregation members.

Beulah starts to consider prospects for her new choir and turns to the people she knows best: the regulars at The Fountain. Some of the elderly members of the church lodge a complaint against Beulah’s choices, but the new choir members come together with a harmonious sound that draws new people to services. Luke supports Beulah, and she realizes she can’t deny it any longer: despite their differences, Beulah feels a strong attraction to Luke. Their interactions lead her to believe he feels the same way.

As Beulah spends time with the choir she finds herself in the position to help some of the singers, and she realizes along the way that she’s actually gaining a bit of redemption for herself—which terrifies and relieves her all at the same time.

Debut author Sally Kilpatrick gives readers some sweet moments in The Happy Hour Choir. She handles the physical attraction between Beulah and Luke with a fresh take, allowing Luke to stay true to his personal vows while functioning as a healthy young man. The portions with Beulah and Ginger also offer touching mother-daughter moments without all the complications that relationship might normally dictate. The cast of supporting characters, while slightly typical, do an able job.

The book falters in relating Beulah’s past as well as the past of one of the supporting characters. Readers will most likely guess the back stories of both characters long before the characters themselves reveal the information. Also, the names and attitudes of the characters might suggest a particular racial profile, but Kilpatrick doesn’t give cues one way or the other. This detail might distract some readers from the story at hand.

In the end, however, The Happy Hour Choir offers a fun read, and readers could definitely Borrow it for a beach read this summer.

Brand new review: House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy

By Ekta R. Garg

April 29, 2015

Rated: Bypass it

A husband and wife move their family to upstate New York to get a fresh start. As they attempt to become members of the community that is now home, the husband and wife learn they may have made a mistake in looking for their “happily ever after” in the village. Debut novelist Brendan Duffy misses the mark by a mountain’s width in the somewhat creepy but ultimately predictable and ridiculous novel House of Echoes.

Ben and Caroline Tierney need a break from their life in Manhattan. A published author working on his next novel, lately Ben can’t get into the writing groove. Caroline loses her job in finance, and the birth of their second son magnifies her bipolar symptoms. Their older son, Charlie, becomes the victim of a horrible bullying situation, and that turns into the family’s tipping point. When Ben finds out about the land and farm in the mountains in upstate New York left to him by his grandmother, he jumps on the chance to start over.

They arrive in the village of Swannhaven, a community full of the quintessential members of small-town life. The village residents look at them with suspicion at first. Ben and Caroline inherit the largest home in town, known as the Crofts, and Caroline’s grand plans to turn the large structure into an inn draw some of the residents to the Tierneys.

Soon after they move in, though, Ben begins to get signals that he made have made a mistake. Someone kills animals in a brutal manner and leaves the remains where Ben can find them. Charlie starts to wander the forest on his own, and while he finds solace in the fresh air and abundance of natural beauty he also becomes withdrawn. Caroline’s symptoms don’t seem to get any better; her erratic behavior continues to haunt Ben.

The more time Ben spends with the older residents of town, the more he learns about his ancestors and their role in the founding of Swannhaven. The stories provide him with inspiration, and he begins working on a new book based on the family. Some of the details don’t make sense, however, and others feel incomplete. The animal remains keep appearing around the house, and Ben starts to get a bad feeling.

Author Brendan Duffy sets a somber mood for the book; unfortunately the story takes itself so seriously that readers can’t feel the same way after the first few chapters. Duffy may have intended to convey a sense of mystery. In reality the only mysterious event in the book comes in the form of the animal remains until about three-fifths of the way through the story.

Finding parts of deer and raccoons on the doorstep could give anyone the chills, but having little else to support the conflict until so late will make readers impatient. Until that point Duffy tries to compel readers mostly with Caroline’s paranoia and Ben’s discomfort around it. Readers can put up with descriptions of their marital problems and Charlie’s forays into the woods only so many times.

A minor character purported to be essential to the family slips into the background so often that readers may forget that person even exists at times. When the character suddenly takes on an important responsibility in the plot, it feels forced and convenient. Also, dialogue repeating what the narration just stated or vice versa will make readers squirm with impatience. The predictable end will leave readers shaking their heads, making it hard to buy into the way Duffy resolves his tale.

I recommend readers Bypass House of Echoes.

Latest review: Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

By Ekta R. Garg

April 22, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A Boston cop begins experiencing distressing symptoms and receives a devastating diagnosis: he has an incurable disease. His symptoms will only get worse as time passes, and each of his four children has a 50-50 chance of developing the same illness. As he deals with the double-barreled news that stares him down, he begins to understand the ferocity of his condition and what his children might face in their own futures. Author Lisa Genova (Still Alice) breaks down the complicated details behind another devastating affliction in the touching but somewhat lopsided new book Inside the O’Briens.

Joe O’Brien has served the Boston Police Department for more than two dozen years, and he takes pride in his work. At the age of 44 he knows he can keep up with most of the younger guys, except lately he has begun forgetting things. And his temper has started escalating to the point of rage, something that didn’t used to happen. For some reason he can’t move the way he wants to, stepping right when the drills dictate left, his limbs jerking in odd directions and at odd times.

But Joe doesn’t have time to worry about himself. He has four adult kids in their twenties living at home, one of them married, and Joe needs every ounce of energy so he can support his family. His wife, Rosie, puts up with the strange behavior for a while, but eventually she nags him to go to a doctor. Joe goes just to get Rosie off his back, even though he knows the doctor will just say his bum knee is acting up and he should probably stay off it for a while.

The doctor doesn’t even mention Joe’s knee; instead she gives him news that irrevocably alters his life. Joe has Huntington’s disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease with no cure. Moreover, Huntington’s is genetic, and because of its makeup each of Joe’s children has a 50 percent chance of receiving the same diagnosis in about a decade.

As a policeman Joe has trained for most of his adult life to command any situation. To achieve and stay in control. But now he has begun to lose control of everything—his words; his actions; his emotions.

Joe and Rosie know they can’t keep the news from the kids, and they all react with the same horror their parents felt at getting the news. Each of them has to make a choice: to take the blood test that will reveal whether they have the defective gene that will lead to Huntington’s or to remain uninformed and take their chances.

Katie, Joe’s youngest, watches as her family members deal with their father’s diagnosis. His disease quickly invades their lives, and Katie debates with herself whether she should get the blood test done. Close to the time her father brings home his diagnosis, Katie begins a new relationship with someone she knows her parents won’t like. The Huntington’s just complicates everything, and Katie feels helpless; why can’t things return to their normal state? As her father’s disease progresses, though, Katie and the others realize that “normal” now has a new definition.

Author Lisa Genova treads familiar ground with Inside the O’Briens: that of what an incurable condition to do to a person and the family. Her background as a neuroscientist provides her with insight into Joe O’Brien’s world, and that insight makes Joe shine as a character. Readers will follow with deep interest Joe’s pride for his work and his vulnerability as his disease begins to take over his body. Genova will make the Boston PD and its Irish Catholic population proud; she has captured their respective worlds with startling and refreshing accuracy.

By the same token, however, Katie’s track in the novel serves as a little bit of a distraction. She turns into the stereotypical youngest child, which includes life choices that readers will predict well before Katie makes them. Her struggles with her father’s disease show up in an uneven fashion—the division between Katie’s portions and Joe’s portions don’t feel equally distributed—and readers might almost wish Genova had spent the entire novel in Joe’s point of view. Offering readers Katie’s point of view completes Genova’s goal of showing readers how loved ones deal with a shattering medical condition, but Joe is clearly the star of the book.

I recommend readers Borrow Inside the O’Briens.

New review: Some Kind of Magic by Adrian Fogelin

By Ekta R. Garg

April 8, 2015

Rated: Bypass it

Four friends intent on enjoying their last summer before high school find a secret hideout. Their ringleader is determined to make it a special place for the group, but when his little brother finds a mysterious hat that shares information by magic the friends start to wonder whether they’re in over their heads. Author Adrian Fogelin gives teen readers this promising but lagging plot in her latest book Some Kind of Magic.

Cass faces her last summer before high school with trepidation. She doesn’t want anything to change, especially between her and her “sort-of” boyfriend, Ben. Her best friend, Jemmie, has no qualms; in high school, she knows, she’ll get a chance to join the track team and make a mark for herself. Ben, too, is eager for change and doesn’t want to spend his entire summer shooting hoops; his best friend, Justin, just wants to keep his life together while his parents fight it out every day.

The four friends, along with Ben’s younger brother, Cody, start their vacation the way they start every summer—with impromptu basketball games and visiting one another’s houses. Just shy of seven years old, Cody knows he’s old enough to hang out with the “big kids” but often gets relegated to the role of bystander. One day as the big kids play a game of girls versus boys, he decides to go home instead of chasing the ball when it rolls out of bounds. When his mother offers him the chance to do some chores, Cody finds a hat that arrests his attention.

The hat belonged to Paul, the uncle who used to live with his family and years ago disappeared without a word. Cody puts on the hat and gets the sense that it wants to tell him something. He starts receiving messages that he knows the hat wants to share.

In the meantime Ben coaxes the others into going exploring, and they approach the woods. Despite repeated warnings from all of their parents to stay away from the area, Ben leads his friends into the middle of the trees. There they find the remains of a house that burned down in the past.

While the house no longer stands, the detached garage managed to escape whatever tragedy befell the family. Ben knows he and the others need to claim the garage as their summer hideout. Cody’s hat sends a message to proceed with caution, but Ben chooses to ignore it. What does a seven-year-old know about the boredom of summer anyway, he argues. Despite everyone’s reluctance, Ben forges ahead with his plans. As he and Justin start to investigate the origins of the house, though, he realizes it may share a connection with his family.

Author Adrian Fogelin gets the tone of teenagers mostly right, although readers will spend the first several chapters getting used to the alternating points of view. Each of the four friends gets to narrate a section of the book in first person, which will keep readers guessing at the start of that section until the identity of the narrator becomes clear from the context. Cody’s sections come in third person, and these parts of the book flow much better. Fogelin would have achieved more successful pacing if she’d kept all of the characters in the third person point of view.

Also, while Fogelin does an excellent job of setting the temperature for her story—all four kids manage to come up with inventive ways to describe the punishing summer heat—readers won’t know until more than halfway through the book that it’s set in Tallahassee. The location may not prove significant, but with so many people commenting on how hot it is readers will definitely begin to wonder where the characters live.

The mystery of Uncle Paul does get somewhat of a resolution, although incomplete, and while each character’s feelings remain clear their life stories don’t. Fogelin offers readers just enough to make readers wonder how these friends got into their specific situations in the first place. As is often the case in YA fiction most of the adults remain in the background, leaving the story lacking.

I recommend readers Bypass Some Kind of Magic.

Brand new review: Do the KIND Thing by Daniel Lubetzky

By Ekta R. Garg

April 1, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

After spending almost 20 years refining and building his business practices, KIND Healthy Snacks CEO Daniel Lubetzky shares his philosophy for those practices and his life in his brand new book, Do the KIND Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately. Lubetzky uses the book to recount the history of KIND as well as his life story: what prompted him to start KIND as well as his personal commitment to peace in conflict-ridden areas.

Lubetzky offers readers several interesting tidbits about his past: his parents lived through the Holocaust, and he learned from them the significance of kindness. Coupled with the entrepreneurial spirit that developed at a young age, Lubetzsky made a conscientious decision to emphasize kindness in all he did and couple that with business success. He refused early on to believe that he had to choose between the two; instead, he decided he would achieve both.

His life story emphasizes the necessity of hard work and perseverance. In 1994 Lubetzky lived in a miniscule apartment in New York City, trying to sell products for his company PeaceWorks. Lubetzky had developed PeaceWorks on the tenet of what he calls the AND principle: the idea that an organization can make a positive social change while turning a profit by offering the market something new.

Because of his lack of experience in business practices, however, PeaceWorks floundered in its early days. Lubetzky’s intentions brought Arabs and Israelis together to create Dead Sea products for sale; his inexperience prevented him from effectively marketing and selling the products. But Lubetzky didn’t let the setbacks discourage him. He continued to develop PeaceWorks and eventually create the KIND snack line.

Entrepreneurs may find Lubetzky’s book a source of inspiration, albeit a somewhat confusing one to follow. Following a coil-like pattern, Lubetzky moves from his personal experiences to his philosophies then to his business practices and back again. This format may make readers forget information from one track while Lubetzky follows a different one. Also his impassioned words emphasize his philosophies on every page. As a result readers may find the book well-intentioned but also a little heavy-handed.

In the end, however, readers will take away one main idea: Daniel Lubetzky harbors a deep commitment to making the world a better place. By using KIND as a platform, he intends to bring his ideas to fruition. Regardless of the minor flaws in the book, readers will appreciate Lubetkzy’s thoughts and will feel inspired to perform their own acts of kindness.

I recommend readers Borrow Do the KIND Thing.