Latest review: Isabella for Real by Margie Palatini

By Ekta R. Garg

October 19, 2016

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it

A sixth grader gets caught up in a tangle of lies in her new school after failing to tamp down a set of rumors. When the rumors get exposed for what they are, the girl must figure out how she will keep her new friends and save face while navigating her enriching but sometimes frustrating family relationships. Author Margie Palatini offers middle grade readers a lighthearted, simple read in the pleasant book Isabella for Real.

Isabella Antonelli has a big problem. Within minutes of arriving at her new fancy private school, she meets Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha who think she’s the daughter of a contessa. They have it from a reliable source that Isabella’s family has a villa in Italy and flies around on a private jet. Their eyes shine in awe as they approach Isabella and initiate a friendship, and they reassure her they will keep her secret so she’s not overwhelmed by the other students.

Even though she tries to set the record straight, Isabella finds herself eventually agreeing with the girls. The trouble is that Isabella’s family doesn’t own a private jet or a villa. The connection to Italy is real, but that’s because her family is Italian. And there is a contessa in Isabella’s family, but she isn’t a real contessa. At one time Isabella’s Aunt Kiki was the star of the popular soap opera Search for Truth, Lies and Love, and on the show Aunt Kiki played a rich contessa who lived in the lap of luxury.

In this day and age of information overload, the fact that anyone could believe that Aunt Kiki really is the contessa stymies Isabella. Clearly Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha must have stumbled on one of the websites set up by a hardcore fan of the cancelled soap and assumed the fictional world presented by the fan is real. As all the girls begin developing their friendship, it gets harder for Isabella to tell the truth.

It seems like Isabella’s plan to keep up the charade will pan out, until her older cousin, Vincent, asks her for help. Isabella likes her new friends, but her family comes first and she will do anything for them. Vincent is working on a project in one of his college filmmaking courses and wants Isabella to host a series of web videos about their extended family. Despite her initial reluctance, Isabella agrees and talks to Vincent’s camera as the two of them visit different relatives up and down their street. The visits reveal homes that are a far cry from fancy villas, but they also show loving family members who are loud and gregarious and fiercely loyal to one another.

The videos go viral on YouTube, and Isabella instantly realizes her mistake. With her home life on display for anyone to see online, it’s clear that she’s not the daughter of a contessa. Far from it. So what happens now? Will Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha want to continue their friendship? Has Isabella killed her chances of fitting in at her new school? And why won’t Frankie Domenico from down the street just leave her alone already?

Author Margie Palatini has created an incredibly likeable protagonist in Isabella. Readers in Palatini’s target audience will definitely identify with Isabella’s problem and her insecurities in going to a new school. Isabella’s endearing family will draw in readers like a warm hug.

Adults might complain that some of Palatini’s plot devices reinforce stereotypes, but any stereotype fulfillment is benign. The bigger problem, from a writing standpoint, comes in a story question that Palatini raises a few times in the book. An event in the final scene closes the loop created by that question, but the event feels forced. It also contributes absolutely nothing to the larger story on hand.

Overall, however, Palatini’s book reinforces positive messages and a strong lesson for target readers and does so in a plain way. Where other books try to dress up teachings in fancy words or plots, Palatini comes straight to the point in a way that ends up being refreshing. The final scene aside, I believe Isabella for Real is Bordering on Bookmarking it.

Latest review: The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

By Ekta R. Garg

October 5, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction/romance

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman steps into the role of second wife to a widower. She deals with several challenges, including the mysterious circumstances of her husband’s first wife’s death. At some point she will need to dig deep and find the fortitude to deal with all the difficulties that come her way if she wants to thrive in a new country. Author Dinah Jefferies offers readers a bit of romance, intrigue, and family drama in the fairly decent novel The Tea Planter’s Wife.

In 1925 Gwen Hooper arrives by ship from England to join her new husband, Lawrence, on his tea plantation in Ceylon. Gwen’s nervous; she’s only ever known a charmed life in England, and now she’s leaving everything familiar for the grand adventure known as marriage. Lawrence swept her off her feet, and she’s a little giddy as she comes to her new home.

From the moment she first steps on shore, Ceylon charms Gwen. Although her marriage gets off to a shaky start, soon enough everything settles down. Instead, Gwen deals with life on the plantation. She pitches in to help with the household finances, and when Lawrence’s sister, Verity, comes to visit Gwen must handle Verity’s clinginess to Lawrence.

Verity starts spending more time on the plantation than what Gwen wants, but Lawrence tries to reassure her that Verity’s attachment can be contained. When Gwen becomes pregnant, she thinks a baby will help ease the tension in the house. A problem with her pregnancy drastically changes the trajectory of her emotional stability, and it leaves Gwen with doubts about whether she was ever suited to be the wife of a tea plantation owner. Civil unrest and challenges with native residents further complicate matters for the Hooper family, and through it all Gwen must fight with every ounce of courage and determination she can muster if she wants her marriage to be successful.

Author Dinah Jefferies’s novel will charm readers with its quiet tone and approach. Despite the stereotypes of the time period, Gwen doesn’t remain content to let her husband make all the decisions for her. Within the confines of what society allowed at the time, she takes charge of her own life and is willing to accept the consequences of her decisions. She’s also willing to change her mind if she feels her original decision is too heavy to bear.

The book in places comes across as muddy, however. One or two of the subplots that get a significant amount of time and space turn into limp matters by the end. Jefferies elects to take the easy way out in resolving them, which may make readers scratch their heads as to why the subplots were so important in the first place.

Also, marketing materials lead readers to believe that The Tea Planter’s Wife has shades of the classic novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. In reality the only major element common to both books is the fact that the protagonists marry widowers. Where Rebecca drilled into the mysterious disappearance of the first wife, The Tea Planter’s Wife explores life in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the tea plantation and the challenges British wives faced in foreign countries. Readers coming to the latter book with the expectation that it will function as the former will be sadly disappointed.

Readers looking for books that balance romance and intrigue with just the slightest dash of melodrama will thoroughly enjoy The Tea Planter’s Wife. For most readers I recommend they Borrow it.

Brand new review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

Oct. 5, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!!

A black nurse must face the consequences when a patient, the child of white supremacists, dies. The family pursues legal action. When the nurse gets assigned a white public defender, she approaches her upcoming trial with the singular truth that its outcome will not only make a statement about her professional skills but also about race relations. Jodi Picoult challenges readers to spend time in careful consideration of some of the hardest questions of our current times in the astounding novel Small Great Things.

After 20 years as a labor and delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson believes she’s seen it all. She’s helped young mothers put on makeup minutes after delivery. She’s held the hands of women who feared retaliation from an abusive partner and watched a new father tear up when he holds his baby for the first time. Labor and delivery are involved, messy affairs, and she’s been allowed access to it all.

Until now. At the start of a morning shift when Ruth walks into the room of new parents, she does her routine exam of the baby. As soon as the exam is done, the father orders Ruth to call a supervisor. The problem? Ruth is black, and the couple is white. More significantly, they’re white supremacists and don’t want Ruth anywhere near their son.

Ruth’s supervisor makes a note of their request, and Ruth gets reassigned to a different patient but she’s seething. She knows about the stereotypes and the misinformation, and she’s done everything within her power to fight against both. She’s a war widow—her husband gave his life in duty—and her son is a star student in school.

Now, though, it seems like her abilities as a nurse aren’t good enough to stand alone. The situation gets even more complicated when the baby goes into distress and then dies in Ruth’s presence. The white supremacist couple hires a lawyer to go after Ruth. She’s suspended pending the outcome of her trial, which looks like it’s going to be a bust when a white public defender with no murder trial experience takes on her case.

Ruth can’t quite figure out why Kennedy, her lawyer, wants to help her. Doesn’t Kennedy see her as another statistic? And what in the world would Kennedy know about being judged for the way a person looks? Yet as the two first work together and then get to know one another, Ruth learns that what others see or don’t see matters less when a person decides to take a stand. After toeing the party line her entire life, Ruth decides enough is enough. She’s going to cross right over and make a lot of noise.

Author Jodi Picoult, well known for taking on social issues, will leave her readers in awe with Small Great Things. Less ambitious authors would have settled to tell the story from Ruth’s point of view. Picoult gives Kennedy and Turk, the white supremacist father, equal billing with Ruth. The result is three radically different points of view, and three characters who do what only the best characters can: make readers understand their particular circumstances.

In her author’s note Picoult shares that she did extensive research for the book. She spoke to African American women and asked them pointed, and sometimes hard, questions about race and race relations. She also interviewed two former skinheads, men willing to offer candid responses about the white supremacy movement.

The research has resulted in a book that will force anyone, of any race, to examine their own beliefs. It will also offer more details into the minds of those who pursue different life paths when it comes to those beliefs. Nothing in these sensitives matters is cut and dry, and Picoult acknowledges that fact by staring it in the eye instead of shying away from the hardships that come when people judge one another simply based on the color of skin.

Anyone who has any interest whatsoever in bettering race relations needs to read Small Great Things. I highly recommend readers Bookmark the book and also buy it and pass it along to others.

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

Latest review: The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti

By Ekta R. Garg

September 28, 2016

Genre: Psychological thriller

Rated: Bypass it

A woman living a privileged life runs into people from her past and gets a rude re-introduction to darker memories. When strange events begin occurring, the woman must try to figure out how her past fits into what’s happening in her life now. Clearly someone is out to hurt or even kill her. But why? And how will she put an end to it? Author Kate Moretti offers readers this plot in the somewhat compelling but ultimately forced novel The Vanishing Year.

Zoe Whittaker seems to have it all: a Wall Street tycoon husband, access to the elite of New York City’s social scene, and a fancy home. Unlike her husband, Henry, Zoe wasn’t born into money but she’s worked hard and fast to learn how to manage it. She’s at the head of CARE, an organization that gathers resources for orphans. The charity means a lot to Zoe because at one time she herself was an orphan.

Of course, back then there was no Zoe. Just someone with a different name and a different life. A vastly different life. But Zoe can’t let anyone know that. Until now.

On the night of one of CARE’s biggest fundraisers Zoe runs into a college roommate, someone with a penchant for gossip and the sheer will to pass it along. Zoe tries to brush off the woman by saying she must be mistaken, but running into her rattles Zoe. She’s worked so hard for five years to forget everything about her sordid past, and here it is standing in an evening gown and declaring in a loud voice that Zoe is actually someone named Hilary Lawlor.

It doesn’t help that lately Zoe has been thinking about her birth mother. She has a name and not much else, but she wishes she could have some connection to the woman. When the journalist covering the CARE event shares that he used to report on foster children reuniting with their birth parents, Zoe takes him up on his offer to help her. What could be so bad about getting information about her past?

As it turns out, a lot. Soon after Zoe and the reporter, Cash, start digging for information, strange events begin happening. Someone tries to run over Zoe as she’s getting ready to cross the street. Then she comes home to discover someone has broken into her fancy Tribeca apartment. And lately Henry’s behavior has become even stranger than usual.

Zoe suspects an affair, but why? When he comes home from the office, he’s full of praises and expensive gifts. Why would he need to stray from their new marriage? Nothing makes sense, but the more Zoe digs the more she realizes she’ll have to allow her past to collide with her present if she’s going to find any peace again.

Author Kate Moretti’s book will certainly keep readers engaged, if only to find out what Zoe’s past life is all about and how it intersects with the new life she’s built. Unfortunately, the “thriller” portion of the book ends there. Some authors take two weak storylines and cram them into one book. Moretti has the opposite problem: she has two strong, potentially independent, storylines and chose to force them together. The result is a book that feels like it’s in conflict with itself.

Zoe’s past is as tragic as the hints provided throughout the early portions of the novel. The details, however, are shared in a rush, as if in a breathless whisper so the rest of the book can proceed. When Zoe starts examining the cracks that have appeared in her present life, the narrative wants readers to believe that the past fits in seamlessly. It feels more like those past details are being forced, all for dramatic effect, and the final reveal will have some readers scratching their heads. At some point the secrets of Zoe’s present feel a little far-fetched, contrived even, and readers will certainly guess some of them pages before Zoe does.

The intent was no doubt on the mark, but the book fails to hit it. I recommend readers Bypass The Vanishing Year.

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

Newest review: God of the Internet by Lynn Lipinski

By Ekta R. Garg

September 14, 2016

Rated: Bookmark it!

A computer programmer creates an indestructible virus that infects millions of devices and brings the major cities of the country to a standstill. A woman struggles with her failing marriage and making sense of her place in her relationship. Two seemingly disconnected events come together in an inextricable way in Lynn Lipinski’s gripping novel God of the Internet.

In Los Angeles a computer programmer who calls himself G0d_of_Internet is working with the extremist group Islamic Crusade to bring the government of the United States to its knees. He releases a computer virus that begins to multiply and transform in calculated ways. The virus brings first water resources and then electricity to a screeching halt by manipulating the central controls.

Islamic Crusade has a simple demand: the U.S. armed forces need to pull out of all Muslim countries immediately. Pull out, the organization’s representative says, and basic utilities will be restored to L.A., Boston, and all the other large cities that have been targeted. Ignore the demand, and worse events will befall the traitorous West.

Juliana al Dossari fears for her family’s health and safety just like any other resident of L.A., but lately she’s come to worry about her husband more. Or, more specifically, her marriage. It feels like ages since she and her husband, Mahaz, have felt any sort of connection. Mahaz has withdrawn from her in the last several months, and it doesn’t help that the media consultant he hired is young, perky, and oozing with a willingness to please him.

Every couple goes through ups and downs, Juliana thinks, and she stubbornly clings to this belief…until the day Mahaz threatens her. In the heat of an argument, he warns her that if she ever files for divorce he will take their teenage children back to Saudi Arabia. Their children, he adds, have become too spoiled and materialistic anyway. Maybe some time in their home country will remind them how to be grateful.

Shocked, Juliana doesn’t understand how this version of Mahaz could be the same one she married. Their seventeen-year-old son has a medical condition that requires constant monitoring. How could Mahaz even consider taking him to Saudi? And what about their beautiful daughter? Has Mahaz forgotten how women are sidelined in the Middle East?

She can’t spend a lot of free time thinking about his menacing words, however. In an effort to offload tasks he deems less important, Mahaz has tagged Juliana to be his representative on a task force that has assembled to combat the super virus. While the task force much rather prefers Mahaz’s help and expertise—he is a leading expert on computer network security, after all—Juliana joins them instead.

What starts as an assignment meant to demean and distract her, however, becomes a real concern for Juliana. Something about the information the task force has shared doesn’t make sense. She’s equally mystified by Mahaz’s lack of interest in the virus. Little by little her home starts to feel like the inside of one of the infected computers—a toxic environment that is choking the life out of her.

Author Lynn Lipinski begins her book on a high note and doesn’t let the action or the tension dip for long before ratcheting the story back up to another high point. While many cyber thrillers may miss the emotion of other genres, Lipinksi strikes that fine balance. The result is a book that is both exciting and heartfelt.

Readers will have no problem identifying with Juliana. Some might question why she stays in the relationship, but Lipinski answers that question with enough conviction that even those with little familiarity of other cultures will find a modicum of understanding here. A mother will do anything for her children, Lipinski reminds readers, even if that means staying in a situation detrimental to herself.

Other readers might decry the book’s clean-cut lines defining protagonist and antagonist. In a world that fights for political niceties, it’s refreshing to read a book that doesn’t hesitate to name a villain. Some authors might avert the question of responsibility; within the confines of her story, Lipinski looks responsibility dead in the eye.

Equally gripping is Lipinski’s knowledge of just how connected the world has become due to computers and the internet. While there’s no way of knowing whether the scenarios she presents could actually happen, readers certainly can’t deny the plausibility with which she writes. In a word, the situations she poses are frightening.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark God of the Internet.

Latest review: The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat

By Ekta R. Garg

September 14, 2016

Rated: Bookmark it!

A girl moves to a new town with her family and thinks any chance of friendships are doomed. Then her little sister goes missing and the girl sets out on a quest to find her, which turns her new town into an adventure. Author Christina Soontornvat gives middle grade readers an enjoyable story in the pleasant book The Changelings.

Izzy Doyle can’t believe her family has moved to Everton. By her estimation, it’s the most boring town on the planet. But her parents wanted to get back to the fresh air and the land. It was hard enough for Izzy to try to make friends in her old hometown. How, she wonders, is she supposed to make friends in a brand new place?

During her first few days, Izzy visits the lone grocery store with her mother and her sister, Hen, and they all hear about the local witch. Suddenly Everton starts to sound more interesting. It becomes even more so when Izzy discovers the witch is her next-door neighbor. She wants nothing more than to go check out this witch, but her mother forbids her to bother the woman.

Not one to let an opportunity for excitement go by, Izzy and Hen decide to visit the witch’s home. They notice several strange things around the house, including tall piles of rocks. Then they hear music, which draws Hen’s attention. Before Izzy knows what’s happening, Hen disappears.

Izzy goes after Hen and plunges into the forest. But she soon discovers these are no ordinary woods. They’re full of magic and creatures she’s never seen before. Suddenly, Izzy realizes she’s stumbled onto something bigger than just moving to Everton.

She meets the most unusual group of people who call themselves the Changelings. They can change from their human forms into animals, which comes in handy considering that the Changelings are being pursued by a group of creatures called the Unglers. The Unglers are headed by a mysterious queen who seems to have a plan.

Izzy and the Changelings don’t know what that plan is, but as they make their way to find Hen it quickly becomes clear that the plan somehow involves the Changelings. Now, not only does Izzy have to save her sister, she has to find a way to help the Changelings…her new friends.

Author Christina Soontornvat gives readers a likeable and believable heroine in Izzy. Readers in the middle grade range will find themselves cheering along with Izzy’s successes in finding Hen and frowning in worry during various plot twists. Her friendships with the Changelings develop naturally, offering both Izzy and readers the valuable lesson that friendships must be earned. Once earned and sealed with trust, however, they can be some of the most precious relationships a young person can form.

Soontornvat drops several clues early on and throughout the book as to why Izzy, of all people, must save the Changelings, and the story does get a little muddy in detailing in some parts. Once in a while the story drifts away from its core plot, and it’s unclear whether Soontornvat built those tangents into the book with intention or to offer readers a pleasant diversion from the action at hand.

On the whole, however, middle grade readers will most certainly enjoy Izzy’s story. I recommend readers Bookmark The Changelings.

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

Brand new review: The Cabin by Natasha Preston

By Ekta R. Garg

September 7, 2016

Genre: YA thriller

Rated: Bypass it


When two teens get murdered under mysterious circumstances, their friends will have to deal with the fallout from the police investigation and their growing suspicion of one another. Everything about the murders points to the group, yet no one takes responsibility until it becomes clear the murderer has unfinished business left. Author Natasha Preston fails to follow up her previous strong novels with the insipid book The Cabin.

Mackenzie can’t wait to graduate from high school, and she and her friends have planned a weekend away. One of the group, Josh, has offered his parents’ cabin as a hangout space, and even though Mackenzie has issues with Josh she chooses to overlook them in favor of spending time with everyone. Soon enough they’ll head in different directions, and Mackenzie wants to make the most of every moment they have left together.

In planning their weekend away, Mackenzie thinks it will just be the usual suspects: Aaron, Courtney, Megan, Kyle, and Josh. At the last minute Josh’s older brother, Blake, asks to come along. Mackenzie can barely stand Josh; she certainly doesn’t want to deal with an older version of him for two whole days. Because it’s his parents’ cabin, though, she doesn’t get a vote in whether Blake gets to come.

Her apprehension about Blake quickly dissipates when she meets him. He and Josh may be related, but they seem nothing alike. As the evening at the cabin progresses, Mackenzie finds herself more and more attracted to Blake. The two end up spending the night together, oblivious to the others in the house.

They come downstairs the next morning, however, and reality comes back full force when they find Josh and Courtney’s bodies on the kitchen floor. The discovery horrifies all of the friends, and they contact the police right away. The police investigation quickly becomes a pressure test for the friends. Officers on the scene report no forced entry from any of the outer doors or windows. Their conclusion: one of the group must have been involved.

Mackenzie refuses to believe any of them could possibly have committed the heinous crime. She begins asking questions, but the friends start to crack. Bit by bit Mackenzie begins gathering information that makes her wonder whether she really knows her friends as well as she thought. Soon enough it’s apparent that whoever killed Josh and Courtney may not be done yet.

Author Natasha Preston tries to shore up the gravity of murder in this latest YA thriller but fails to keep the pace even. In accordance with her chosen genre, Preston spends quite a bit of time on the relationship between Mackenzie and Blake. Understandably, Mackenzie seeks Blake’s company for comfort. Because she’s just a teen, however, she doesn’t have the resources or the emotional fortitude to make it through a police investigation.

As Mackenzie begins looking into her friends, she doesn’t gain much traction. Instead she starts spinning her wheels. The result is that Mackenzie ends up more or less staying in place until the murderer is revealed, which keeps her role in the entire venture passive. Readers in the YA market may forgive her inactivity; other readers may not.

I recommend readers Bypass The Cabin.