Brand new review: Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

By Ekta R. Garg

October 17, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction; historical fiction

Release date: August 28, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it!

A reporter makes a choice that changes his career and threatens the livelihood of a family. When he decides to reverse his decision, he’ll need to use all of his skills to make things right again for all involved. Author Kristina McMorris transports readers to the depths of the Depression and makes 1930s New York City and Philadelphia come alive in her excellent novel Sold on A Monday.

Reporter Ellis Reed is sick of his job. He always imagined he’d become a journalist and chase down hot leads on the most pressing stories of the day. Instead he’s filing stories for the Society page of the Philadelphia Examiner; who wants a byline on pieces that should be written by women?

Ellis gives up a Sunday afternoon to cover a quilting bee and comes across a sight that makes him stop in his tracks. He sees a pair of kids on a dilapidated front porch, and above them hangs a sign that reads “Two children for sale.” The sign, Ellis knows, provides tangible evidence of the times.

It’s 1931, and the country is in a Depression the likes of which no one has ever seen. His heart aches for the family, and he takes a picture. He doesn’t even know yet what he’ll do with it, just that he wants to capture the image.

Back at the paper, Lily Palmer, secretary to the editor-in-chief, sees Ellis’s photo. It makes her mourn for the circumstances of the parents who have to make the choice to sell their children. Between Lily and Ellis, the photo ends up on the editor’s desk. The editor gives Ellis the chance he’s wanted all along: to write a real feature story. Within weeks Ellis’s story and photo get picked up by news outlets all over the country.

Ellis is thrilled with the success and the subsequent job offer that comes from a bigger paper in New York City. When he moves from Philly to NYC, he carries his belongings and a secret: he took the photo, yes, but he manipulated it. As he struggles to maintain the initial potential shown by that photo, he finds himself going down some dubious routes to impress his new boss.

Lily comes to New York to visit and stops in to drop off some of the fan mail that still arrives in Philadelphia for Ellis. The two receive news about the children in the photo and decide to find out what happened to them; when they do, the news isn’t good. As they work together and retrace the steps the children took, Ellis and Lily will have to learn to trust one another every step of the way if they’re going to make amends with everyone involved.

Author Kristina McMorris evokes the Depression era with some well-placed mentions of historical facts and events of those years. While she spends a great deal of time on the developing relationship between Ellis and Lily, McMorris also touches on other issues such as unwed mothers, parent guilt, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and the Mob. Some readers might consider McMorris’s treatment of these topics sanitized, but by avoiding the temptation to dig into salacious details McMorris is free to deal with the story at hand.

McMorris handles Ellis’s guilt with ease. She makes his struggle believable, and the fact that Lily must also struggle with her own issues while trying to help Ellis and maintain a proper distance from him will offer enough conflict to make readers happy. Additional subplots with Ellis’s father and a secret that Lily hides from everyone at work round out the story in a three-dimensional way.

The resolution might come across as a little pat, and starting the story with the end seems like an unnecessary device to pique readers’ interest. These minor matters aside, McMorris offers an enjoyable, satisfying book. I recommend readers Bookmark Sold on a Monday.

Advertisements

Brand new review: A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

October 10, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: October 8, 2018

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A gunman takes hostages in a women’s health center to make a statement about abortion. The hostage negotiator learns that his daughter is inside the center and fights to keep his composure. The gunman, the negotiator, his daughter, and the other people in the center live through the most tense day of their lives as the hours unfold. Author Jodi Picoult brings her strengths as researcher and compassionate listener to a sensitive and timely issue in A Spark of Light, a book that, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to her previous novels.

In Jackson, Mississippi, there’s only one place where women can get legal abortions. The Center offers other female health services, of course, but none brings on the protestors like the termination of pregnancies does. When Hugh McElroy gets the call to a gunman who has barricaded himself and others at the Center, he’s prepared to talk the shooter off his mental ledge.

Hugh knows that a hostage situation means almost anything can happen; he’s negotiated with enough angry people to expect it. Even he’s not prepared, however, for discovering that his only child and older sister are inside the Center. His 15-year-old daughter, Wren, is the greatest joy of his life, and his sister, Bex, taught him everything he needed to know. If he were to go by the book, Hugh should walk away from the situation and let another officer engage in negotiations but he doesn’t.

Single father George Goddard has definite ideas about right and wrong, and when his daughter, Lil, shares news that lands her in the “wrong” camp, George goes on a rampage. He travels to the Center because he knows that’s where she got the crazy idea for the abortion in the first place. They twisted his daughter’s mind; he’s going to make sure they don’t do it to anyone else.

Except he didn’t think through his plan; he just grabbed a gun and showed up at the Center. Now people have died, and he’s dealing with a know-it-all cop on the outside. No one, inside the Center or out, has any clue of the pain he carries in his heart.

Throughout the day, Hugh and George talk while trying not to give up on any ground. Inside the Center, the hostages share bits and pieces of their lives. The pro-life protestor who came in undercover to find damning evidence against the Center, the nurse who showed up for an abortion, the pro-life doctor who performs the procedures, and Wren and Bex all face the prospect that they might die on this day. With every person who gets shot, their chances of survival start to shrink.

Author Jodi Picoult shares in her note at the end of the book that she interviewed more than 150 women and shadowed three abortion doctors for this story. Her research shines through every character’s voice and experience. She does complete justice to both points of view, dissolving into each character with an authenticity that can’t be denied.

 

Other choices for the book, however, make it falter. Picoult chose to tell the story in reverse order, starting with the end of the day and progressing to the beginning. The device makes the plot feel contrived; there is no real advantage to the story or the development of the characters in going backward. In fact, at times parts of the novel feel a little redundant because readers are asked to treat information they’ve already learned as back story when it’s often anything but.

Picoult does reveal a couple of surprises late in the story, but the reverse storytelling technique doesn’t enhance the discoveries. They could have just as easily been shared at other points in a more conventional method. Their impact would have meant just as much.

The method Picoult uses distracts enough from the story that it reduces her thoughtful writing to another book about a polarizing issue, when in fact she maintains an even balance. Diehard Picoult fans will probably appreciate her storytelling style, but readers new to her work may want to check out her other books first. I recommend readers Borrow A Spark of Light.

Latest review: #FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar

By Ekta R. Garg

October 3, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: September 11, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman obsessed with her coworker must compete with her for a promotion. She’ll stop at nothing to reach that higher level, even if that means resorting to murder. Author Amina Akhtar shocks readers and invites them into her bizarre world that hits all the right story elements in her debut novel #FashionVictim.

Anya St. Clair works at La Vie, one of the hottest fashion magazines in New York City. She gets to see the latest trends before the world does and hang out with clothes and accessories designers. For most women with an abiding interest in fashion, this would be a dream job and for Anya it is. Especially since she works alongside Sarah Taft, her fashion icon.

All Anya wants is to be Sarah’s BFF. Besties. The person Sarah turns to in crisis and the first name on Sarah’s list for nights out. Sarah, however, doesn’t seem to get it, no matter how much Anya ingratiates herself to her. It’s almost as if Sarah doesn’t like her or something.

When both of them get tapped to compete for a promotion at work, then, it’s simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing Anya has done. She would do anything for Sarah, and working for her—getting to spend infinite amounts of time with her—would make Anya’s life complete. But Anya isn’t totally blind; she sees how Sarah belittles her. Maybe, she decides, Sarah needs to learn a lesson.

As Anya works out how to make Sarah realize they should be intrinsic parts of one another lives, a variety of other people just keep getting in the way of their friendship. There’s Cassie, the intern; Lisa, Sarah’s current bestie; Diana, the frequent commenter on La Vie’s website who can’t keep her insults of Anya’s articles to herself; even Zhazha, the exotic Russian blogger who Anya brings on board as a contributor.

All of these people and more keep annoying Anya, and she keeps having to take care of them. Murder is hard work but only second to the diet that editor-in-chief Celia insists on for Anya. All in all, none of it seems to be impressing Sarah much, and Anya starts to wonder what other measures she might need to take in order to make Sarah—and the rest of the fashion world—notice her once and for all.

Debut author Amina Akhtar relies, no doubt, on her own training in writing about fashion to build the story world for her first novel. The result is a strange version of a magazine workplace, but that version actually works. With a little bit of patience, readers who are open to a creepy version of The Devil Wears Prada will encounter a joyride that will leave them grinning at the end of the book.

Anya doesn’t try to hide the fact that she’s a psychopath, and Akhtar has capture Anya’s voice with perfection. The sarcasm, the snark, the astute observations of the fashion world, all these traits and more will make readers want to know just what Anya will do next. After a certain point in the book, it becomes easy to believe that Anya truly is capable of absolutely anything. For a change, it’s fun to get deep inside the point of view of this kind of unhinged character.

Readers looking for some moral resolution or a finger-shaking at Anya will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the story should be approached as a brief interlude in the life of someone who is flat-out nuts. It’s never clear whether Anya knows just how far off the deep end she’s dropped, and at some point readers may not even care. Akhtar shares hints of Anya’s past, and while it might have been nice to have had a little more context for Anya’s background at some point the body count gets so high readers will find themselves just trying to keep track of it and nothing else.

For those readers looking for a rollicking ride that doesn’t require thinking about what came before or what happens after the story, I recommend they Bookmark #FashionVictim.

Newest review: The Boy from Tomorrow by Camille DeAngelis

by Ekta R. Garg

September 26, 2018

Genre: Middle grade science fiction

Release date: May 8, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

A pair of 12-year-olds living a century apart in the same home form a friendship. When one of them gets in trouble, the other does everything possible to help despite the hundred-year gap that separates them. Author Camille DeAngelis charms readers with likable characters who share an endearing relationship in the lovely middle grade book The Boy from Tomorrow.

In 1915, Josie Clifford and her younger sister, Cass, live at 444 Sparrow Street in Edwardstown, New York, with their twice-widowed mother, Lavinia. Lavinia makes her living as a medium, even though Josie doesn’t believe her mother can really contact spirits. Josie knows better than to voice her opinion, however. Lavinia lashes out at the kids for the smallest of infractions, so Josie spends most of her time trying to keep Cass out of trouble. The one saving grace is their tutor, Emily, who loves the girls like younger sisters.

In 2015, Alec Frost and his mother have moved into 444 Sparrow Street. Alec’s parents have undergone a bitter divorce, and Alec struggles with the end of his parents’ marriage. Moving to the small town helps; since he was young, Alec has dreamed of leaving the concrete of the city and living in a neighborhood with mature trees. His new house offers him a respite from the city and the domestic troubles between his parents.

One of the most charming aspects of a new-old house for Alec is the possibility for discovery. He finds a Ouija board in a curio cabinet and shows it to his new friends, Danny and Harold. The boys decide to use the board and are shocked when they receive a response from someone who claims to be very much alive.

The board intrigues Alec, and he continues using it. He learns that the person sending him the messages is a 12-year-old girl named Josie who lives in 1915. Despite their hesitancy, the two form a deep friendship.

Josie finds solace in talking to Alec. Lavinia rules the house with an iron fist, and her demands on Josie and Cass make life almost unbearable. When Emily tries to intercede on the girls’ behalf, Lavinia dismisses her and turns her wrath full force on Josie and Cass. Josie shares her hardships with Alec, and he becomes determined to help her. But how do you help someone who lives a whole century before you do?

Author Camille DeAngelis allows for all the whimsy of the science fiction genre and works with panache inside the confines of her story. Alec and Josie come across as realistic characters who just happen to live 100 years apart, and DeAngelis gives them time and space to be surprised and wary of their newfound ability to communicate. That allowance makes their ensuing friendship so much sweeter, and readers will find themselves worrying about Josie and Cass while cheering Alec on in his quest to help them.

Some readers might question the simplistic approach DeAngelis takes to Alec’s life, but that very simplicity allows him to dissolve into the role of hero. DeAngelis juxtaposes Alec’s internal struggles with Josie’s external ones, a masterstroke that gives the book breathing space and an extra dose of reality. That dose makes it even easier to suspend disbelief when it comes to the way Josie and Alec talk to one another.

A few of the story elements might feel a little rushed, and the serendipity that ties into the title might make readers shake their heads. For the most part, however, DeAngelis has a winner of a novel on her hands. I believe The Boy from Tomorrow Borders on Bookmarking it!

Latest review: The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

September 26, 2018

Genre: women’s fiction

Release date: September 1, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

After experiencing a troubled time in her marriage, a woman travels to her cultural homeland to learn more about her family. What she discovers will change what she thought she knew about her mother and herself. Author Sejal Badani revisits the topics of identity and family in the unsuccessful novel The Storyteller’s Secret.

Jaya’s desperation for a child has begun driving a wedge in her marriage with her husband, Patrick. When she suffers her third miscarriage, it forces them to reevaluate their relationship. They decide to separate, and Jaya goes to her parents’ home to spend time with them. Maybe, she reasons, staying under their roof will revive her. At the very least, it’s a convenient runaway spot.

Her mother keeps her distance, which doesn’t surprise Jaya in the least. Throughout her childhood, she craved the affection of her mother, Lena, but never got it. Lena went through the motions, providing whatever Jaya needed except for an outward display of love. For inexplicable reasons, Lena never held Jaya close or told her she loved her. Even now, when Jaya needs the understanding hand of a mother to pull her close, Lena maintains a distance.

Through her father, Jaya learns that Lena has received a letter from India. Lena’s father—the grandfather Jaya never met—is dying. He’s asking for Lena to return so he can right a wrong. Jaya surprises everyone, including herself, when she says she’ll go in Lena’s stead. Lena tries to stop her, but Jaya knows in her heart that the trip will give her the change she needs. She boards a plane and travels to her mother’s village where she meets Ravi, the faithful servant who devoted his life to Jaya’s deceased grandmother and Lena’s mother, Amisha.

Ravi shares Amisha’s story with Jaya, a story that begins in the last years of British rule in India. Amisha, a plucky young woman, dreams of becoming a writer. Society dictates that she marry and bear children, sons preferably, and Amisha does so. She takes care of her husband’s parents and manages a household, spending the few precious minutes she gets to herself scribbling her stories.

In time, Amisha fosters a desire to learn English. Her children have begun learning the language, and Amisha wants to be able to help them with their homework. More than that, she wants to write her stories in English as well. She meets a British lieutenant in the local English school who volunteers to tutor her. The sessions change the course of Amisha’s life, as well as that of the generations that follow, forever.

Author Sejal Badani favors a sweeping love story over crucial story details. The result is a novel that many readers may fawn over; more discerning readers will question Badani’s story choices—or lack of them. For example, Jaya tells readers she’s a journalist but never specifies what type. There are vague references to working in financial journalism, then sports, and finally book reviews but no concrete information. The book opens with Jaya in the office and follows right away with the discovery of her latest miscarriage; readers never find out where her office is or what kind of publication she works for.

Also missing is the precise location of where Jaya goes in India. Again, vague references mention a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but Jaya doesn’t share the name. Indian states vary greatly in their languages, food, and cultural rituals. By leaving readers with a generic idea of Amisha’s hometown, Badani loses the opportunity to share specific cultural nuances. Non-South Asian readers may not care about the oversight, but South Asian readers will be sorely disappointed.

It’s disappointing, too, that Badani gets so many little things wrong. Jaya asks a minor character what grade he studies in, and the boy answers with the Western “Eighth” instead of the more typical South Asian answer of “Class Eight” or “Eighth standard.” Late in the book a married woman dies and is laid upon a funeral pyre in preparation for cremation; Badani describes the woman as dressed in all white when Indian customs typically dictate that a married woman be dressed as a bride for cremation.

The “secret” from the title is easy enough to guess and will make readers impatient for when it unfolds. Badani could have gone for a less cliché plot device. Instead, readers will spend chapters upon chapters waiting for the inevitable. After it happens, the rest of the book gets rushed to the point of annoyance. The story started off with Jaya and her relationship with her mother, Lena. It ends up being an homage to Amisha and her writing, which, incidentally, also disappears at one point without any explanation why.

Readers wanting a fluffy romance without substance will probably like this book; for the most part, however, I suggest they Bypass The Storyteller’s Secret.

Latest review: Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding

By Ekta R. Garg

September 19, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 10, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

A woman thinks she’s found the ticket to the social scene at her son’s private school when one of the “cool” moms befriends her. One of the two women is hiding an enormous secret, however, and the other will need to deal with the fallout from the secret when it comes to light. Author Robyn Harding brings back the familiar themes of longing for social inclusion and incredulous antics by young people in her new novel Her Pretty Face.

Frances Metcalfe knows she has a problem with her weight. She knows she’s not the most put-together person. She even knows that other moms at her son’s elite private school shun her for these facts. Frances feels their slight and can’t ignore it. The only defense she has comes in the form of Kate Randolph.

The picture of the perfect woman, Kate has a handsome husband and a spotless house. Frances knows Kate could be friends with anyone, and she also knows the other moms have been scratching their heads trying to figure out what Kate sees in her. The obvious draw, of course, is that their sons are in the same grade. But Kate is calm and collected, a designer pair of shoes, while Frances is dowdy and plump, a nondescript pair of sneakers. On the surface they have nothing in common, but Kate chose her and that’s good enough for Frances.

The friendship motivates Frances to start eating healthy, to exercise, to pick up around the house more. She tries to keep her husband and her son happy, despite the secret that hangs over her head every single day. She’s never told anyone her secret, but as she and Kate get closer Frances thinks maybe Kate would understand. Kate, however, has a secret too, and when Frances finds it out she struggles to maintain objectivity. In same ways, they’ve both committed terrible acts. Maybe their friendship makes sense because they’re more alike than Frances would like to admit.

Author Robyn Harding brings back familiar themes of social inclusion and exclusion in Her Pretty Face. The novel proceeds with various points of view: Frances, Kate’s daughter, Daisy, and a mysterious character named DJ whose identity doesn’t get revealed until the end. Frances is clearly the protagonist of this story, however, and Harding does an excellent job of showing her ambivalence when she discovers Kate’s secret.

The other points of view come across as red herrings to the greater mystery, and readers may find themselves needing to exercise their patience while Harding weaves all the random threads together. Also, in reality, the book doesn’t contain a great deal of forward movement. Frances spends most of the book grateful for Kate’s presence in her life and wringing her hands at her exclusion from the school’s upper social circles. Her secret, too, functions as a red herring designed to throw readers off the track of the identity of a murderer.

Kate’s extreme indifference to Daisy comes across as a little jarring, even with the tidy explanation offered at the end for it. Harding could have spent a little more time sharing the psychological mindset of the characters. Also, curiously, she chooses not to share Kate’s point of view, which is a pity. As the story unfolds, readers will realize that maybe Kate’s point of view would have been the most fascinating of all.

Anyone looking for an easy read that will surprise you in spots will enjoy Her Pretty Face. I recommend readers Borrow the book.

New review: Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia

By Ekta R. Garg

September 19, 2018

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: September 4, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

A speech therapist becomes the only hope for a teenager after his return from life off the grid. As she tries to find out what happened to his father, the therapist will face questions that have haunted her for years about her own past. Author Mindy Mejia follows last year’s successful release with another commendable thriller in Leave No Trace.

Maya Stark spends her days as an assistant language therapist and her nights renovating the bathroom in her home. She derives a deep satisfaction from both, despite the assertions of her psychiatrist that the only reason Maya can’t finish the renovation project is because she’s using it as an excuse to keep from meeting people. But Maya meets plenty of people at the psychiatric facility where she works. They may not communicate effectively—or at all, in some cases—but she thinks it should count for something.

No one can doubt her dedication to her job or her gift to draw out reluctant communicators, however, which is why she gets tapped to help the boy “returned from the dead.” Ten years earlier, Lucas Blackthorn and his father, Josiah, walked into the woods near their Minnesota home with camping gear. They disappeared without a trace, leaving law enforcement officials and civilians alike speculating they may have died. A decade later Lucas comes back and attempts to rob a camping store. He gets caught, struggles with police, and is sent to the facility where Maya works.

Lucas refuses to talk to anyone, but from the beginning everyone can see he’s drawn to Maya. She gets assigned the task of getting information from him. Lucas does everything he can to break out of the facility to return to him. Despite an initial violent encounter, Maya remains persistent. She makes painstaking efforts to gain Lucas’s trust one conversation at a time, and he finally reveals that Josiah is sick.

All Lucas wants is to go back to his father, a bond Maya can understand because of the deep relationship she shares with her own father. The two were always close but became even more so when Maya’s mother abandoned them both. Lucas, too, has lived through a similar experience, and Maya finds herself drawn to the boy not just as a professional but as a friend. The closer they get, however, the more Maya realizes she and Lucas may have more in common than she first thought.

Author Mindy Mejia comes back in full form with another great thriller. Maya’s well-rounded character will have readers rooting her on early in the book. Mejia also puts just enough distance between the readers and Lucas to make them distrust Lucas early on. Just as Maya labors to earn Lucas’s trust so will Lucas have to earn the trust sympathy of readers. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but Mejia gets it almost perfect.

Mejia sets this book, too, in her native Minnesota, and her deep knowledge of the state shows in the best of ways. She’s able to frame each scene in a three-dimensional way. Readers will get a full picture in their minds of the closed forests and the natural beauty of the state. They’ll also feel the brisk rub of the oncoming winter and smell the air of the forests.

The book relies a touch too much on serendipity to make the plot move forward, and many readers who work in settings similar to Maya’s may object to the development of her relationship with Lucas. She crosses a line, although she fights her conscience for it and Mejia makes that struggle clear. Maya’s indecision makes her seem more real, and her ultimate decision makes sense within the story world Mejia has constructed. It just may ring a little oddly for some readers.

Overall, however, the book is another terrific read from Mejia. Readers will find that Leave No Trace Borders on Bookmarking it!