Latest review: All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

By Ekta R. Garg

July 13, 2016

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Bypass it

 

When a woman returns to her hometown to help her brother take care of their ailing father, she must face the tragedy that forced her to leave in the first place. As she deals with her father’s bad health and the people from home, she’ll learn that even moving several states away isn’t enough to keep her past from her. Megan Miranda tries to wow readers in her first adult novel with an unusual setup in the vapid, self-absorbed book All the Missing Girls.

Nicolette “Nic” Farrell got the chance ten years ago to leave Cooley Ridge, North Carolina, and she took it. Nic’s best friend, Corinne, disappeared ten years earlier, and no one ever found her. As rumor spread like wildfire in Cooley Ridge, Nic left town and found a new life in Philadelphia. But the small town’s vise doesn’t lose its grip on her. Now in her late twenties, Nic must come back to North Carolina for her father.

Her brother, Daniel, has urged her to come. The previous year Nic and Daniel put their father in an assisted living facility, and Daniel has run out of money. He needs help fixing up their childhood home to put it on the market, but more than that he needs Nic’s help in convincing their father that selling the house is the right move.

Nic arrives in Cooley Ridge, rolls up her sleeves, and gets to work on the house. Her father doesn’t prove to be such an easy task, but she does her best to talk to him. Then another young girl from town goes missing, and Nic feels like time has rolled backwards to the horror of Corinne’s disappearance. What follows is a story in reverse, starting from the last day of Nic’s trip and working its way to her first day. It’s the only way, Nic tells readers, that she can process the entire situation and come face to face with what happened to both girls.

Author Megan Miranda has published several young adult novels, and All the Missing Girls is her first novel for adults. Unfortunately the book reads more like a novel for and about young adults. Because Miranda chooses to let Nic lead as the first-person narrator, readers never really get to know any of the other characters. Nic does all the talking, and she spends copious amounts of time describing just how serious the situation is.

She also spends too much time trying to convince readers of the importance of a tragedy. While platitudes may offer weight to a story, the number in Nic’s repertoire will make the book feel clunky. It’s not hard to believe that a best friend’s disappearance can have a deep impact on a person. Nic takes the meaning of “impact” to a completely different realm, however.

The result is a protagonist who comes across as self-involved and self-absorbed. From Nic’s observations, Corinne’s disappearance really revolves around Nic and not Corinne herself. Even their friendship has more to do with Nic and how much Corinne meant to her both in good ways and bad.

The entire approach feels more suited to a story about teenagers. Everything else about Nic’s life seems fine: successful fiancé, a steady job that pays well, and a new place to live in Philadelphia far away from the events of a decade earlier. Most people with so many positive variables would find it possible to move on from a tragedy. Nic seems to revel in that time period.

As is often the case with YA novels, here, too, serendipity plays a major role in the unraveling of Corinne’s disappearance. A perpetrator who spends most of the book in the background gets thrust into the limelight in a clumsy effort to keep readers guessing. Miranda’s choice in storytelling—going through the story backwards—will entertain readers for a while, but in many places the emotion feels misplaced, the tension ratcheting up against the timeline.

Despite the fact that Miranda’s book does tick off some of the boxes in the “thriller” category, I recommend readers Bypass All the Missing Girls.

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

Newest review: First Comes Love by Emily Giffin

By Ekta R. Garg

July 6, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it

Two sisters deal with the aftermath of their brother’s premature death years after the fact. One decides she needs to make a major life leap based on her biological clock, and the other fears she’ll need to make a life leap regarding her marriage. Both will need to figure out whether they can move forward and also what the future will look like if they go ahead with their decisions. Author Emily Giffin examines the long-term effects of grief in the fairly even novel First Comes Love.

Fifteen years after their brother, Daniel, died in a car accident, sisters Josie and Meredith continue to link everything they do to that day. Josie, the middle child of the family, finds only partial fulfillment in her job as a first grade teacher. Lately she’s been yearning for a child of her own. Now that she’s in her late thirties, she has all but given up the idea of finding a husband. Maybe, she thinks, she can just skip the husband component and go straight to the baby via artificial insemination.

Meredith, the youngest sibling, already has the husband and the child. She also has a grueling career as a lawyer in Atlanta, where she and her siblings grew up. In fact, she lives in the same house. Every day she walks by Daniel’s childhood room and remembers him.

She remembers how Daniel carried their parents’ expectations with grace and poise. After he died Meredith picked up the mantle and threw it over her own shoulders, but she’s not so sure she can carry the burden of those expectations as well as Daniel’s memory. Add to that her misgivings about her relationship with her husband, Nolan, who also used to be Daniel’s best friend, and lately Meredith feels like she’s about to buckle under the weight of everything.

With the fifteenth anniversary of Daniel’s death approaching, the sisters must confront their memories of that day. When their mother expresses a desire to commemorate Daniel’s death with a visit to New York City to visit a significant person in Daniel’s life, Josie and Meredith both have their misgivings for different reasons. Neither of them wants to deal with the obvious empty spot in their lives in such a tangible way, but with their personal situations rolling forward at full speed neither of them may have a choice.

Author Emily Giffin gives her characters ample room to express and exercise their grief. The story, told by both sisters in alternating first person narratives, unfolds at a steady pace. Readers should note how Giffin doesn’t hold back on either Josie or Meredith. Her handling of the event as well as its consequences will most likely ring true for those who know of someone or who themselves have lost a sibling.

The book’s sensitivity and emotional weight get thrown off balance by the sisters themselves. Josie’s yearning for a life partner are understandable, familiar even. Her childish behavior in many situations belies the fact that she’s 37 years old. Often her reactions in both action and word may confuse readers; she sounds like a twenty-something and not someone close to 40. The characterization of Josie becomes even more muddy by the fact that on the professional front she seems accomplished, prepared, and someone who gets recognized for her work. How can someone so good at her job be so flaky in the rest of her life? The dichotomy feels unreal at times.

Meredith may have the stable career, but she herself doesn’t seem so grounded. After Daniel’s death, Meredith appoints herself as the sibling who would fulfill all of her parents dreams. She sees herself as the family’s emotional glue, which would make sense if there was something there to hold together. By the time the story starts, Josie and Meredith’s parents have been divorced for years and the family has experienced years of dysfunction because of it. Readers may question Meredith’s logic in wanting to hold something together that fell apart anyway.

Still, Giffin does make some valid, thoughtful points about relationships, families, and death. For those reasons I would recommend readers Borrow First Comes Love.

Brand new review: Strange History by various authors

By Ekta R. Garg

June 29, 2016

Genre: Humor/trivia

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

Curious to know how a Roman rental property listing from the first century reads? Want to know what Gandhi had to say about Hitler? Did concubines get any perks other than being concubines? History offers a variety of lessons as well as amusing anecdotes. Readers will find both in the trivia-filled but slightly scattered Strange History: Mysterious Artifacts, Macabre Legends, Boneheaded Blunders, and Mind-Blowing Facts.

The book flits from one subject to another. While this format allows for noncommittal reading, the lack of theme from section to section will encourage readers to put the book down time and again. The authors may have intended for the book to be used more in coffee-table format—something cute to be commented on and read from at cocktail parties. However, the book’s length may make readers question the value of reading it from start to finish in a few settings.

The writing itself definitely engages readers. Clearly the authors had a sense of humor both about the facts they present as well as language itself. The book also doesn’t waste time with each fact; the necessary information is imparted with a few lighthearted comments, and then the next section begins. Ironically it is this very setup that may intimidate readers.

If the information is coming in bite-sized pieces, the size of the entire meal may cause indigestion. The book contains way too many facts in a single work to be consumed in a timely fashion. In our current age of technology, the authors would have done better to release Strange History as a series. In fact, this kind of book almost begs for a cross-platform release, using the web, ebook, and hard copy formats in conjunction with one another to best promote these unusual facts from cultures and peoples across the globe.

Strange History may make more than one teacher grin, but it’s hard to imagine people outside of the education profession willing to read the entire thing start to finish without any long breaks. I recommend Strange History for readers who enjoy funny little tidbits of information. Other readers may choose to Borrow the book or possibly even bypass it completely.

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

Latest review: A House for Happy Mothers by Amulya Malladi

By Ekta R. Garg

June 15, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it

Two women whose lives would never intersect find themselves on perpendicular paths. One desperately wants to have a baby. The other volunteers to be the surrogate. Both will undergo an experience that will change their lives and bind them to one another. Author Amulya Malladi highlights the industry of surrogate mothers and the effects it has on women and families in the uneven halting novel A House for Happy Mothers.

Priya and her husband, Madhu, live and work in Silicon Valley. They possess everything a young couple would want: a nice home and burgeoning careers. One of Priya’s desires remains unfulfilled, however: she can’t conceive and carry a baby to term. She and Madhu have experienced several miscarriages, and those lost babies have tried their relationship. Still, Priya remains persistent. She wants a baby, and she thinks she’s found a solution when a friend tells her about surrogacy.

Her research leads her to Dr. Swati and the Happy Mothers clinic in Hyderabad, India. With Dr. Swati’s guidance Priya and Madhu choose Asha as their surrogate. Asha has never been a surrogate before, but the husband and wife remain undeterred. Their instincts tell them that Asha, despite her inexperience, is the right choice.

The idea of surrogacy doesn’t exactly sit well with Asha, but financial need drives her. Her husband, Pratap, works as a painter and doesn’t have a steady income. Blessed with an academically gifted son, Asha knows he needs a stellar education. Stellar educations in small villages are hard to come by and astronomically expensive for their family, however, and when Asha and Pratap find out how much their sister-in-law got paid to be a surrogate the solution seems tailor-made for them.

Asha has her doubts, but she also doesn’t see where she has much of a choice. With the utmost of reluctance, she volunteers to carry the baby of a stranger. For the next nine months, on different sides of the world, both Asha and Priya will deal with their misgivings, their families, and a variety of social and cultural issues as they wait for the major event that will tie them to one another for life.

Author Amulya Malladi delves into her subject matter with enthusiasm bordering on abandon. She alternates between Priya and Asha as point-of-view characters, allowing both enough time to share their experiences. In terms of character involvement, Malladi keeps it straightforward. For the most part Priya and Asha drive the story.

The trouble comes with writing mechanics. Malladi deals head on with the tension created by the situation, and she offers a variety of situations where the tension affects the characters in full force. The story lacks any major conflict, however. There is no significant obstacle in the way of either main character. They both set out on an objective and proceed to achieve that objective. Family and friends question their actions, they spend time second-guessing themselves, and they do their best to stay within societal expectations. But the book doesn’t contain a single event where readers might have to wonder whether Asha would carry the baby to full term or whether Priya and Madhu’s relationship will ride out the emotional challenges of surrogacy.

As characters, too, Priya and Asha come across as flat in many places. The narration steamrolls over them, keeping them from sharing their story on an intimate level. As a result readers will feel like someone is telling them this story secondhand instead of feeling like they’re experiencing it in real time with the characters.

Issues of minor head hopping and even a few changes from third person limited point of view to second person will jar readers out of the story for a minute or two. Ultimately Malladi’s subject may keep some readers going to the end, but others may elect to drop the book before it comes to its logical conclusion.  I recommend readers Bypass A House for Happy Mothers.

Brand new review: Forgive Me by Daniel Palmer

By Ekta R. Garg

June 1, 2016

Genre: Mystery

Rated: Borrow it

A private investigator uses her resources and her instincts to solve two mysteries at the same time, one of them tied to her own family. As one mystery begins to wrap up, she finds the other getting more entangled and must question everything she knows as truth to solve it. Author Daniel Palmer offers readers a riveting look inside the world of trafficking and the profession of private investigating in the well-intentioned novel Forgive Me.

Angie DeRose spends her days looking for runaways. A strong personal reason drives her: as a college student she lived through the horror of the disappearance of one of her best friends. Angie keeps a picture of her friend on the wall along with photos of all the runaways she’s brought home safely. She’s determined to bring her friend home too one day.

In the meantime, Angie receives a new case. A sixteen-year-old has left home. The facts of the case seem fairly clear cut to Angie: Nadine, an only child, probably ran away because of her alcoholic mother and absentee father. Despite Nadine’s dreadful home life, Angie knows she needs to be found.

As she begins piecing together the last days that Nadine’s mother saw her, Angie finds out that her own mother has died. She splits her time between her parents’ home and Nadine’s case, and in the process of helping her father clean out her mother’s belongings Angie makes a disturbing discovery. Bits and pieces of an alternate life begin to surface, and Angie’s instincts make her start to question everything she thought she knew about her mother and her own life.

In another part of the region, Nadine discovers that life as a runaway can have grave consequences. A handsome man lures her with the promise of becoming a famous model. Following the bread crumbs he drops for her, Nadine makes her way into a forest of dark intentions. Now she waits and hopes for someone who can bring her back to the trail.

Author Daniel Palmer takes readers into the world of runaways and the dismal world of trafficking. The book falls into two parts, one following Nadine and the other following Angie. The sections from Nadine’s point of view will keep readers deeply engaged all the way to the end of the book. Palmer hits all the right notes of a teen’s way of thinking, and it’s easy to follow Nadine’s rationale as she tries to escape her home life. The one objection readers might have is that Palmer allows Nadine’s arc to come to a resolution before the end of the book, which shortens the time spent with her.

By stark contrast, the portions from Angie’s point of view come across as much less polished. The clunkiness of the words Palmer chooses gets in the way of the story. The result is excessive narrative and dialogue that weigh down Angie’s arc. A convoluted subplot involving Angie’s family may also leave readers underwhelmed.

The glaring differences between the characters’ trajectories might lead readers to wonder whether the two points of view were written by two different authors. Angie’s might not have as much of an impact as Nadine’s, but the teen’s circumstances more than make up for the protagonist’s lacking story. I recommend readers Borrow Forgive Me.

(I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Brand new review: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

By Ekta R. Garg

May 18, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman gathers her courage to leave her husband and moves to a new town so she can start a fresh life. Despite the idiosyncrasies of the town’s residents, the woman eventually gets to know them and finds a place among them. Swedish author Fredrik Backman offers readers an introspective of one of his former characters in the thoughtful novel Britt-Marie Was Here.

After forty years Britt-Marie knows she must make a change. She leaves her husband, Kent, and goes straight to the unemployment office for some direction on a job. Never mind that she hasn’t held a job in all the years she’s been married. Surely her experience and impeccable track record as a housewife should make her qualified for something.

Reality sets in when the unemployment office offers her the one position available for someone who hasn’t worked in decades: a temporary caretaker of a recreation center. Temporary because the rec center will close within a matter of weeks. It’s located in the small town of Borg, hard hit by the economic recession and on the verge of losing all hope.

Undeterred, Britt-Marie gathers all of her possessions, as well as a healthy dose of resolve, and goes to Borg where upon arrival her car promptly gives out on her. And she gets hit in the head with a soccer ball. Kicked by a child.

Her first impressions of Borg are less than stellar.

In the process of trying to get her car repaired and take care of the rec center, Britt-Marie finds out that the town’s residents harbor a plethora of idiosyncrasies. They don’t understand the concept of sitting down to dinner at precisely 6 p.m. or the importance of making lists only in pencil. A champion crossword puzzle solver, Britt-Marie knows how crucial it is to use only pencil for any and all handwritten notations.

More than anything else, she can’t comprehend the obsession everyone seems to have with soccer. Britt-Marie can’t stand the game. So when she accidentally becomes the coach of the ragtag youth soccer team—because clearly something like this can only happen by accident—she begins to realize that maybe coming Borg to assert her independence wasn’t quite the clear-cut idea she originally imagined. Despite all of her best intentions, however, the town has begun to mean something to her, and when the opportunity arises for Britt-Marie to return to her old life she must decide where she will go.

Author Fredrik Backman brings back a character from his last novel, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry in his latest offering of Britt-Marie Was Here. Here he takes the opportunity to delve into Britt-Marie’s life, completely flipping over any impressions readers might have had from the previous book. Britt-Marie gets the opportunity to share her point of view, and readers will find out just what drives her obsession with perfection.

Backman wins full marks once again for his prose, which simultaneously delights and endears his characters and locations to readers. Every paragraph creates an image or an emotion, a tall order to fill given the success he’s achieved with his previous books. Britt-Marie spends quite a bit of time in consideration, and readers sit alongside her as she tries to sort out exactly what she wants from herself and her life.

By her very nature, Britt-Marie doesn’t like to create a scene. She has a desperate need for people to know she exists, but she’s far from flamboyant. Because of this, readers may need to exercise just a little bit of patience as Britt-Marie mentally works through her challenges. The town and its residents will keep readers engaged all the way through the end, though, and the sheer pleasure Backman creates through his writing is reason enough to make it to the end of the book.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark Britt-Marie Was Here.