Newest review: Maame by Jessica George

By Ekta R. Garg

February 1, 2023

Genre: Women’s fiction/Own voices

Release date: January 31, 2023

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young woman must juggle her mother’s sky-high expectations with the burden of being her father’s sole caregiver. Along the way she navigates a new job and forays into love while trying to figure out who she is and how her Ghanaian culture fits into her life. Debut author Jessica George leans into her own background as the child of Ghanaian immigrants in the sweet but ultimately middling novel Maame.

In London Maddie Wright is doing her best to keep track of everything: her job as a personal assistant as well as her father’s health. As his sole caregiver, Maddie spends all of her time either at work or at home taking care of her dad’s needs. His Parkinson’s has slowed him down enough that Maddie feeds her father by hand and helps him into and out of bed every day. He’s mostly stopped speaking, so Maddie is never sure that what she’s doing for him is enough or too much or completely wrong.

She resents her mother for leaving them and spending so much time in her home country of Ghana in a travel schedule that mostly benefits her. She lives in Ghana for a year and then returns to London for a year. She also expects Maddie to kick in funds for the hostel she’s running back in Africa. Maddie is living at home, but she doesn’t have much in savings.

Her older brother, James, made the decision to check out of the family early on . He offers Maddie moral support but not much else. Like their mother, James expects Maddie to help him out financially when his job as the manager of a band leaves him short.

Between all of her responsibilities, Maddie is lonely. Her boss, Katherine, expects her to solve all the problems that Katherine herself creates. When Maddie first got the job at the theater in London, she thought she’d have the opportunity to attend the performances. The only performance she sees on a regular basis, though, is Katherine trying to convince everyone she’s totally fine even though she spends plenty of time in the bathroom crying.

Then comes the day that Katherine makes a big mistake, blames it on Maddie, and fires her. Maddie thought things were starting to look up; her mother had called to say she was returning to start her year in London, and Maddie recently made the big decision to move out. But how can she do that when she doesn’t have a job?

Moving out creates its own issues. Although her flatmates are lovely people, Maddie discovers she’s never really learned how to navigate life as an adult on her own. Now she has to do just that, figuring out dating, the job search, whether a person’s comment has racial undertones, and why her mother won’t leave her alone already about getting married. Through it all, Maddie realizes she’ll have to make some hard decisions if she wants to reclaim any of her life for herself.

Author Jessica George draws from her own experience to create Maddie and some of Maddie’s circumstances. Like her protagonist, George’s parents migrated from Ghana. Also like Maddie, George studied English literature in college, worked in a theater, and then found her next job in a publishing company. For both professional experiences, George’s familiarity and ease with those job environments ring true.

Maddie also grapples with her culture at times in a way that feels realistic to children of immigrants. Her need to assert independence while honoring the legacy of her family weighs on Maddie in a way that is relatable. The Ghanaian impact in her life is dealt with as any other life challenges rather than being used as a prop for diversity’s sake.

Maddie’s voice, too, is fresh and interesting. Her naivete will appeal to anyone who has lived through their mid-20s and struggled with life decisions, no matter their cultural background. If anything rings false, it’s Maddie’s self-awareness and her ability to verbalize in crystal clear, succinct prose exactly what she feels about her life’s biggest challenges soon after they’ve occurred.

Instead of messy conversations that lean one way or the other and eventually find themselves upright again, Maddie’s pronouncements about her life stand ramrod straight. After the fourth or fifth time, her declarations feel put on and too polished. They become a major distraction, and some readers may wonder how on earth Maddie could find herself in the scrapes she does if she’s so self-aware. Why can’t she stand up for herself before something happens?

Those who enjoy reading and learning about other cultures in a book that includes witty inner dialogue might want to try this. Otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow Maame by Jessica George.

Newest review: The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh

By Ekta R. Garg

January 25, 2023

Genre: Middle grade historical fiction

Release date: January 17, 2023

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A young teen stuck inside his home because of the pandemic forges a new bond with his great-grandmother. As he encourages his great-grandmother to talk about the past, he learns the valuable lesson that resilience takes on many forms. Author Katherine Marsh brings to her target audience the immediacy of not one but two current world events while emphasizing the universal themes in her newest novel The Lost Year.

Life in Leonia, New Jersey, has come to a standstill for 13-year-old Matthew and his little family. It’s 2020, and everyone is stuck inside because of the pandemic. Matt never thought he’d miss going to school, but he does. He wants everything to go back to normal, even if that means dealing with dumb stuff like homework. He loves that he gets to play Zelda on his Nintendo Switch for hours on end, but, really, it just reminds him of how messed up everything is.

Like how his dad is in Paris and his mom is in New Jersey. Divorce sucks big time for kids, and it’s even worse when he can’t talk to his dad as often as he likes. A journalist for a big-time media outlet, Matt’s dad is busy covering the front lines and reporting all the most important stories of the moment. So Matt misses his dad and he worries about him getting Covid. And his mom is super stressed all the time. She spends most of her time in between Zoom work calls yelling at Matt to get off his Switch or to do his chores or go outside for fresh air.

His mom is also worried about GG, short for “Great-Grandmother.” When things started going sideways with the pandemic, Matt’s mom moved GG in with them. For the last month, his mom has helped GG with all the little tasks of the day. Then Matt does something dumb that makes his mom flip her lid and take away his Switch, so GG becomes his responsibility. Specifically, his mom says, Matt and GG need to work on the moving boxes GG brought with her from her assisted living facility and clean them out.

At first, Matt’s not sure how to talk to GG. Like, what could they possibly have in common? She’s literally a hundred years old, and she’s adamant about Matt not emptying her boxes. The more time Matt spends with her, the more he realizes that GG’s stubbornness isn’t just an old person being old. There’s a deep sorrow behind it. With some advice from his dad and his own curiosity driving him, Matt starts to talk to GG and get her to open up. The result is a history lesson and a personal one that Matt won’t soon forget.

Author Katherine Marsh takes on the monumental task of balancing two immensely important world events and does it with precision. The passages with Matt suffering through the early weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown will make readers empathize with him in an instant but also make his emotions and experiences feel new. There’s no doubt that the book, in regards to the pandemic, will become timeless and an important testament to this difficult era for school-age readers.

Equally challenging is the way Marsh tackles the second world event: the manmade famine known as the Holodomor that Stalin imposed on Ukraine when it was still a Soviet state in the early 1930s. GG tells the story of a trio of young girls living through the Holodomor; as one of the three girls in the trio, GG’s tale sounds heartbreakingly familiar, especially considering current events. Marsh’s careful research details for readers, in an accessible way, the perils of disinformation and how hearts are able to change, albeit at a high cost.

Parts of the novel might feel inevitable, but Marsh keeps several surprises for readers to experience throughout the book. That inevitability only reinforces the strength of the plot. This book should be considered required reading in social studies classes across the country; Marsh has given her readers a great gift in teaching them new things about these events. I recommend readers Binge The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh.

Newest review: City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

By Ekta R. Garg

January 18, 2023

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 10, 2023

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A detective investigates a case related to a personal tragedy. In order to do so, she’ll have to face one of her greatest fears and deal with the residents of a small town who all share a building. Author Iris Yamashita puts her screenwriting talent to work in her entertaining, compelling debut novel City Under One Roof.

Cara Kennedy has spent a year trying to get herself back on track with life. A detective on leave from the force in Anchorage, Alaska, Cara knows it’s not easy to get over the disappearance of her husband and son in a horrific hiking accident. Even though she finally received evidence of their death, she still grapples with how she lost her family in such a dramatic fashion, why it took so long to find them, and who is responsible.

When she gets word of a possible crime that might be related to the death of her husband and son, Cara jumps on the first chance to visit the tiny town of Point Mettier. Never mind that no one in Point Mettier knows she’s technically on leave from the force and that the only way to enter the town is through a tunnel under a mountain. Even with her claustrophobia on high alert as she makes that journey, Cara is determined to find out whether the events in Point Mettier are connected to her.

They’re also odd enough to warrant investigation on their own. A severed hand and a foot wash up on the shore of Point Mettier, sending the community into a frenzy. The entire town lives in the building of the Davidson Condos. Although tourist season brings its fair share of people, only a core group—just above 200—lives in Point Mettier year-round. Crimes are petty at best. No one commits murder, and they certainly don’t do it to such a gruesome degree.

At first, Chief Sipley, the police chief, and his younger partner, Joe Barkowski, are grateful for Cara’s presence. It seems almost fortuitous that she arrived just when they needed someone. But Cara hasn’t been forthcoming about her leave of absence, and when the chief and Joe find out it leaves them wondering whether they can trust Cara. Which she figures out is more or less the vibe for the whole town. Everyone has secrets, and everyone knows that they can only trust each other as long as their secrets can carry them.

Mixed into all this is teenager Amy who lives in the town under the thumb of her overbearing mother. At 17, Amy feels like she’s old enough to do what she wants, but that’s hard when her mother and the entire town knows what she’s up to. The fact that she has a boyfriend is a big enough secret for her to hide from her mother; then Amy finds herself caught up in the mystery of the murder victim, and things get even more complicated.

Author Iris Yamashita writes with an ease and deft not seen in the work of some debut authors. She clearly knows what she wants from her story and characters and how to get it. Her plot points link to one another in a tight chain of events that remains taut from start to finish.

If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in the fact that even though more than 200 people live in Point Mettier readers are only fully aware of a handful. While this handful consists of everyone important to the story, at some point it’s easy enough to forget that anyone else lives in the Davidson Condos. Were it not for the forced proximity of the characters because of the Alaskan weather, readers might mistake the setting of the book for any small town.

Regardless, the book has an almost noir feeling to it with only the best elements of that genre reflected here. The observations of Point Mettier resident Lonnie are excellent in their wordplay. The appearance of another minor character in various points of the book who also shows up at the end may not have been necessary, and the ending might make some wonder whether a sequel is coming. If it is, most readers won’t be disappointed.

I recommend readers Bookmark City Under One Roof.