Latest review: Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

January 11, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it

A student is brutally murdered, and the town’s sheriff vows to find the killer. The more he investigates the death, however, the more questions arise. He realizes that the girl, hailed as a great actress, may have kept the majority of her life off stage. Author Mindy Mejia takes readers into a small town and its scandals in the heart-wrenching novel Everything You Want Me to Be.

Hattie Hoffman knows she’s meant for something more than what her small town of Pine Valley, Minnesota, can offer. As a high school senior, she feels like she’s at a turning point in her life. Once she graduates, she’s leaving southern Minnesota behind and moving to New York City. It’s only in NYC, she knows, that she can find what she was meant to do.

She already has an inkling. She’s spent so much of her life playing a part: the obedient daughter; the gracious best friend; the model employee in the town’s drugstore. If she can play so many different roles every day, surely she can put that talent to good use on stage.

When the new English teacher, Peter Lund, comes to town, Hattie realizes she’s met a kindred spirit: someone who doesn’t belong in Pine Valley. Peter feels it too. He came back to Pine Valley as a kindness to his ailing mother-in-law. His wife, Mary Beth, is a townie and slips right back into life as a farmgirl, but Peter feels increasingly estranged from her and the girl she was back in Minneapolis.

Peter and Hattie inevitably get close, so when Hattie is found stabbed to death on the night of the big school play sheriff Del Goodman begins digging into the people around her. That includes Peter and also Hattie’s boyfriend, Tommy. The difficulty gets compounded by the fact that Del has known Hattie’s family since before she was born; he thinks of Hattie like a daughter.

It’s excruciating for Del to look her parents in the eye and share the details of her murder. He starts to pull apart the various facets of Hattie’s life and then must go back to her parents with her secrets. The adults who care so deeply about her realize they only knew the parts of Hattie that she chose to share, and if they want to find her killer they will need to understand all of her.

Author Mindy Mejia creates vivid characters. Hattie is definitely a young woman of this day and age but one who feels the trappings of small-town life. No matter how far the digital revolution carries the world, people in close proximity to one another will still take a scrutinizing interest in their neighbors. Mejia charts Hattie’s discomfort with the scrutiny in a delicate manner.

Peter’s anguish and inner conflict ring true to real life. While readers may not approve of his actions, they may sympathize with his plight. Mejia creates enough space around Peter to allow for that sympathy, not an easy task for an author.

Mejia has her hero in Del, the father figure who must keep fighting and doing his job to find justice for Hattie. Del balances his own grief with his job in an admirable manner that doesn’t come across as fake; again, Mejia sets up a complex character with success.

If the book can be faulted anywhere, it might be in the fact that Peter wishes to distance himself from small-town life and then lands right in the middle of a stereotypical small-town scandal. His conscience won’t leave him alone about it, however, and therein lies Mejia’s saving grace for Peter and the book. People from all walks of life, Mejia seems to say, are prone to stupid mistakes when they’re not thinking clearly.

Also, the big reveal of the killer’s identity comes across as a little clumsy, which is a shame given how cleanly the rest of the book is plotted. The murder itself and the way authorities find out both feel a touch serendipitous, and readers may feel cheated on that point but by then they may be happy just to know who actually did it.

The book alternates between Hattie, Peter, and Del’s points of view, teasing out the thriller aspect and leading and then misleading readers in the best ways possible before reaching the end. Everything You Want Me to Be Borders on Bookmarking it.

First review of 2017: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

By Ekta R. Garg

January 4, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Borrow it

 

A cop must delve into his own troubled past when he lands one of the hardest cases of his career: to find a local professor accused of murdering his entire family. The case becomes complicated because the officer and the professor had begun a friendship well before the murders. Now the entire town believes the professor has committed a horrible crime, and the officer will need to fight his own suspicions if he wants to prove his friend’s innocence. Author Randall Silvis tackles the thriller genre with strong literary overtones in the mostly successful novel Two Days Gone.

Sergeant Ryan DeMarco spends his days fighting crime and his nights fighting his inner demons. An accident years earlier left him with a broken family, and even though it’s been more than a decade he still struggles to make it through each block of 24 hours. Still, he knows his job requires him to remain alert and vigilant, especially when he receives word of a terrible crime.

Thomas Huston, bestselling author and an English professor at the local university, has gone missing at the worst possible time: his wife and three young children were discovered brutally murdered in their beds, and no one has seen Thomas since. DeMarco asks for permission to lead the case, citing the challenge, but even DeMarco’s supervising officer knows it’s the sergeant’s budding friendship with Thomas that drove him to ask for the lead.

DeMarco first met Thomas when the author contacted him about questions for a new book. The two shared a rapport and DeMarco begins to appreciate the presence of a new friend. Life was so much lonelier without one.

When the call comes, then, that Thomas has fled the area after the murders, DeMarco decides to trust his gut that Thomas didn’t kill his family. His faith in Thomas wavers at times but never breaks, and it allows him to start seeing patterns and finding leads no one else can. What he discovers is that a writer’s passion can often conflict with real life in the worst of ways, and Thomas may have allowed his drive to create his next bestseller override common sense.

Author Randall Silvis goes deep into the thriller genre with a decidedly literary slant and succeeds for the most part. Readers get the opportunity to explore the natural landscape of the small Pennsylvania town through Silvis’s description. Many thrillers skim over the weather and the topography of a book’s setting. Silvis offers his readers the chance to see the book’s setting, contributing to the tone, mood, and pace of the book.

The literary approach works in many places but only to a degree. Readers experience the story both from DeMarco’s point of view as well as Thomas’s perspective. Because Thomas is on the run at some point his observations begin to drag, especially due to the unanswered question of whether he did in fact kill his family. Not providing all of the answers right away leaves Thomas’s thoughts circling around the same feelings and ideas. After hearing about his pain and grief for the fourth or fifth time, readers may find themselves getting restless.

Fortunately Silvis takes the story away from Thomas about halfway through and lets DeMarco lead both the case and the book. While readers may feel a dearth of information after having spent so much time with Thomas throughout the beginning portions, it’s also almost a relief not to have to listen to his considerations that can border on the maniacal.

Less satisfying is the entire premise of the book. Thomas helps a minor character with a deeply personal decision, putting in motion most of the events in the story. The explanation for how he got in touch with that character and decided to help her doesn’t quite ring true to real life. That lack of realism also comes across during an attack on DeMarco. When the police sergeant asks repeatedly why another character would want to come after him, readers will most likely wonder the same thing and feel themselves pulled out of the story.

The book definitely hits all the checkmarks for a murder mystery, however. It’s mostly an enjoyable read. For those who want a thriller with a more literary approach, I recommend readers Borrow Two Days Gone.

Latest review: The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch

By Ekta R. Garg

December 14, 2016

Genre: Middle Grade series

Rated: Bookmark it!

A plucky young girl who calls herself a survivalist must battle a vengeful secret society and navigate a mystery of her own all while helping her best friend deal with his parents’ sort-of separation. The two get into all kinds of trouble and learn the true meaning of friendship as they handle over-protective guardians, a school principal who lives for the rules, and a narrator whose obsession with chocolate frequently interrupts the story. Author Pseudonymous Bosch presents middle grade readers with the cleverly-written books known as The Secret Series.

The books have been out for a while, I know, and they’ve gained a fair amount of recognition, as they should. Cass, the main character, is endearing. She’s an only child to a single mother and has two grandfathers who dote on her. She spends all of her time preparing for every kind of disaster imaginable, which includes carrying a backpack full of supplies that will help in any emergency.

Cass’s best friend, Max-Ernest, is the kind of kid you want to hug on every other page. He’s a nerd and doesn’t have any friends at the start of the series. Worse, his parents are separated but insist on spending time with Max-Ernest together. Talk about awkward family dinners—the kind where Max-Ernest has two separate conversations while sitting at the table with both his parents.

In a departure from the way I normally experience books—that is, to read them—my daughters and I are working through the series one book at a time with my older one reading them aloud and my younger one and me listening. We’ve done this in the car on the way to various activities and at home while I prepare dinner. Truthfully, I never understood the appeal of audio books until my ten-year-old volunteered to read aloud The Name of This Book Is Secret, the first book.

Pseudonymous Bosch’s writing will make readers laugh and furrow their brow in concern as Cass and Max-Ernest deal with this grand adventure. He takes an incredibly active role as narrator, spending several pages extolling the virtues of dark chocolate and commenting on Cass and Max-Ernest’s exploits. A bevy of footnotes will keep target readers informed about a variety of topics, from ancient art to facts about animals and even the difference between castles and palaces. At times, Bosch will have readers rolling their eyes at his involvement even while those same readers know the whole thing is in good fun.

Part of the charm, I think, is going on this adventure as a family. My older daughter has taken her role as reader seriously, using different voices for various characters and even tapping her feet against the floor at one point to simulate the hoof beats of a horse. Max-Ernest and Cass have, through my daughter, become as much a part of our family as anyone else. We talk about them, joke about them, and use observations about their world in talking about ours.

Of course, most of the credit goes to Bosch for his sparkling writing. He treats his readers as equals, co-conspirators, and he doesn’t hesitate to reprimand, warn, and cajole those readers as he sees fit. He also reminds us repeatedly that we’re going through the books at our own risk. If the secret society named in the book comes after us, he says, we can’t complain that he didn’t warn us.

Some people who reviewed The Name of This Book Is Secret have noted the dangerous situations Cass and Max-Ernest get into during the climax, and there were a few moments I was holding my breath, as much for my kids’ sake as for the sake of the characters. As parents we always want our children to feel safe. But Bosch’s underlying premise does just that. Even in the worst of circumstances, Bosch leaves no doubt that Cass and Max-Ernest will be okay. The trick, then, comes in waiting patiently for the kids to get out of their latest jam.

It’s refreshing to find a book that talks to kids right at their level. I would highly recommend readers Bookmark The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch!

Latest review: Don’t Tell Anyone by Eleanor Gray

By Ekta R. Garg

December 7, 2016

Genre: Thriller/mystery

Rated: Borrow it

A woman goes through the harrowing experience of first learning that her daughter was killed and then sitting through the killer’s trial. Although the police deem the case airtight, later the mother must deal with certain unsettling facts that make her wonder whether the right person got tabbed with the crime. Author Eleanor Gray makes her thriller debut with the mostly satisfying book Don’t Tell Anyone.

Grace Neville has lived through the worst life can throw at her. Her husband cheats on her and they get a divorce. Years later, their only daughter, Tara, is brutally murdered. The accused: Tara’s boyfriend, Jordan. Despite Jordan’s repeated assertions that he would never hurt Tara, the police use Jordan’s strong associations with a gang to make the natural assumption.

Finally, after Jordan’s trial, conviction, and sentencing to 18 years in prison, it seems as though Grace might have a chance to trying to spend some time understanding what her life has become. The debilitating loneliness threatens to overwhelm her, but she tries to take in one day at a time. After all, she’s experienced the most awful circumstances. Surely nothing can hurt or surprise her anymore.

Nothing—except the fact that Alan, Jordan’s father, shows up on Grace’s doorstep insisting on Jordan’s innocence. Grace wants to dismiss him and his audacious claim, but as he talks a small worm of doubt begins to wiggle its way into her certainty. When someone breaks into her apartment and goes through Tara’s things, Grace begins to realize that Alan might be telling the truth. Or some version of it anyway.

As she starts asking questions and digging into her daughter’s life, Grace understands that the entire situation surrounding Tara’s death may not be quite as straightforward as she once thought. She tries to reach out to her ex-husband, but that becomes difficult because he still lives with his mistress. Also, something about her ex-husband’s caginess regarding his relationship with Tara doesn’t feel right to Grace. The entire thing, in fact, doesn’t feel right, but the answers she gets to her questions just keep leading to more questions.

Author Eleanor Gray keeps the line of tension taut in Don’t Tell Anyone. The title fits the book well. At every turn, main character Grace faces more secrets and more inquiries. She barely unravels one when another one comes right along to confound her yet again. Gray manages to convey Grace’s immense grief in Tara’s death while at the same time moving the story forward.

Because the story is set in England, Gray uses a great deal of cultural slang. Non-native readers might not recognize all of the phrases, but the context allows for enough inference. Most readers will probably enjoy the chance to indulge in a different vernacular, but occasionally they might feel lost during some non-essential parts of story. The slang definitely adds to the authenticity of Grace’s situation and state in life, however, so readers will most likely forgive Gray her choice to stay well established in that speaking style.

The antagonist will certainly come as a surprise, although the revelation of that person’s involvement in Tara’s death feels slightly rushed. Still, for the most part readers will enjoy the reliable pace of the book. I recommend readers Borrow Don’t Tell Anyone.

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

Newest book review: The French Impressionist by Rebecca Bischoff

By Ekta R. Garg

November 30, 2016

Genre: YA

Rated: Borrow it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand new review: A New Dawn by Sudha Balagopal

By Ekta R. Garg

November 9, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand new review: IQ by Joe Ide

November 2, 2016

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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