Latest review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

By Ekta R. Garg

April 27, 2016

Genre: Techno Thriller

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman gets to use her career to investigate a strange childhood occurrence. What starts as a fascination with a scientific anomaly turns into an obsession for her and her team, and they vow to solve the secrets of their discovery…if the government doesn’t get in the way first. Debut novelist Sylvain Neuvel offers readers a book that is part science fiction, part political thriller, but most of all a compelling story with the best balance between character and plot in the exciting new release Sleeping Giants.

Renowned physicist Rose Franklin receives the assignment of a lifetime: she gets to examine a rare artifact to determine its origin and also its purpose. But this artifact holds more than professional weight for Rose. It’s a giant hand made of a mysterious material. When Rose was a girl, she went for a bike ride and found herself falling through a hole in the ground. Rescue workers found her in the palm of the giant hand, and almost as soon as Rose was rescued the hand disappeared.

Now, years later, Rose gets the opportunity to study the hand. A government agent gives Rose unlimited access to resources and a top-notch team of scientists, but he gives her no details about himself or exactly what he wants with the hand. He does make one thing clear, however. The hand is not an isolated body part. There are more.

Rose juggles the relationships with and between her colleagues as well as the excruciating efforts it takes to recover the other parts, and soon enough they put together the form of a woman. The unnamed government agent knows the woman, some sort of sophisticated robot, belongs to a larger set. The agent wants to find all of the robots, and he wants Rose and her team to get the first robot working to access its potential power.

Everything about the robot suggests it wasn’t created by a human faction. The more Rose and her team work on the mission, the more they realize the robot could finally provide the world with a key to communicate with an alien race. As Rose grapples with her own past connection to the hand as well as its implications for her future career, she and the others navigate a bevy of challenges. Only the unnamed government agent understands, however, just how grave the situation has become.

Debut author Sylvain Neuvel accomplishes a rare feat: a book that technically falls under the heading of one genre while fulfilling the attributes of so many others. Moreover, he tells the entire story through meeting transcripts, diary entries, and newspaper articles. At first glance readers might suspect that Neuvel’s method will keep them at arm’s length from the characters and the main plot, and in the hands of a less capable author this would certainly be the result. Neuvel, however, proves himself to be more than capable. His story and his approach to it are both brilliant.

The characters balance each other well, and Neuvel allows readers to get close to the key players. He saves his masterstroke for the unnamed government agent. The agent comes across as a politician, a person serving his own interests. Further into the book, however, readers will realize that the agent’s motivations go deeper than greed or a brash display of power, and that’s when the real fun begins.

The book contains all the elements of an enthralling novel: action; intrigue; romance; and a delicious twist. Lovers of most kinds of fiction will thoroughly enjoy this book, the first in the proposed Themis Files series. I highly recommend readers Bookmark Sleeping Giants.

Latest review: Relativity by Antonia Hayes

By Ekta R. Garg

April 13, 2016

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it

 

A single mother tries to protect her son from the truth about his father, but events force her to share the past. When her ex-husband reappears, the mother must choose whether to forgive the one man she loved the most for the one act she can’t forget. Debut author Antonia Hayes takes readers on a virtual tour of Sydney, Australia, in her ho-hum novel Relativity.

Former ballerina Claire Forsythe spends her days as the head of philanthropy for the very discipline she once practiced. In many ways Claire still thinks of herself as a dancer, but she doesn’t let her mind wander too far in that direction. Ever since she became a single mother to Ethan, now 12 years old, she has put him first.

Claire never imagined she’d spend her life as a single parent, but after the conviction of Mark, her ex, for shaking Ethan as a baby to the point of unconsciousness she knows she doesn’t have a choice. She can’t let herself get wrapped up in any romantic entanglements. Ethan is her top priority. No questions asked.

Except that Ethan does ask questions, a lot of them. As an exceptionally bright middle schooler, Ethan understands the laws of physics and astronomy in a way that both confounds Claire and makes her proud. When he tries to press her on his father’s identity and why Mark left, Claire dodges the issue. But Ethan isn’t satisfied with Claire’s evasiveness.

Their lives become complicated when Mark comes back to Sydney from his new home in northern Australia. Mark gets a call from his brother, Tom, with the news he has dreaded: their father is dying. Despite the fractious relationship he and his dad have always shared, the inevitability of his father’s condition spurs Mark into making the trip to the city he swore he’d never see again.

Coming back to Sydney reminds him of the trial, of his conviction and time in prison, and Claire. Despite his insistence that he didn’t shake Ethan, that the judge and jury got it wrong, she allowed herself to believe what everyone else said about him. His relationship with his ex-wife is just as complicated as his relationship with his father.

He contacts Claire, but she wants nothing to do with him. His arrival in Sydney inevitably draws her in, though, like a planet to a star, and this time Ethan becomes entranced by Mark. Ethan decides to embark on a personal quest to prove his father’s innocence, and the results will bring all three of them face to face with the events of the day that split them apart.

Author Antonia Hayes manages to charm readers with physics metaphors. Her in-depth knowledge of the subject will offer a solid backdrop to the world she’s created for her characters. Likewise, her verbal tour of Sydney will take readers to familiar and less-familiar sites and induce fondness for the city.

Hayes keeps the revelations of the day Mark shakes Ethan until the end, letting readers guess through the characters’ recollections whether he actually did hurt his child or not. That guessing game more than anything else will motivate readers to continue reading. Hayes offers a fresh take on the ultimate revelation, on Mark’s feelings about the situation and especially on the stark challenges parenting presents.

Ultimately, however, the novel as a whole probably won’t surprise readers much. Hayes hits all the “good enough” benchmarks of a book about the complications of parenting and separated families. Also, while she hints at troubles in Mark’s childhood, she doesn’t offer enough concrete information to justify his behavior. Because the book deals with a crime readers may find those gaps frustrating.

In the end the book joins the legions of other novels that tell a story well but don’t make a lasting mark. I recommend readers Borrow Relativity.

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

New review: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

By Ekta R. Garg

April 6, 2016

Genre: Historical fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

The paths of three women—a prisoner, a physician, and a consulate employee—cut through Ravensbrück, the all-female Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. The women begin their lives in separate locations but meet because of Hitler’s location of horrors. Inspired by real people in history, author Martha Hall Kelly’s dynamic debut novel Lilac Girls will stay with readers for days afterward.

New York City socialite and former actress Caroline Ferriday has willingly given up the stage for work in the French consulate. Caroline’s personal project involves assembling care packages for French orphans, and she derives a deep amount of pleasure from communicating with the orphanages and sending them the items they need. She also does everything she can to duck her responsibilities as a woman of society, but her family’s standing and her own minor celebrity-hood don’t allow her to escape for long.

Teenager Kasia Kuzmerick lives in Lublin, Poland, and she just wants to spend her days with her best friend, Nadia, discussing Pietrik, the boy they both love. In September of 1939 when World War II breaks out, Kasia’s life becomes bigger and more dangerous than she or her friends ever realized. Pietrik joins the underground resistance, and Kasia convinces Pietrik to enlist her. Soon enough Kasia begins delivering secret messages, but her eagerness to help becomes eclipsed by the cunning of the Nazi party.

In Germany, female physician Herta Oberheuser fights gender bias from colleagues and others. Herta wants to be a surgeon, but she doesn’t get the opportunity to practice her skills much. She notices an ad in a medical journal for a position in a “reeducation camp” not far from Berlin. A former medical school classmate, Herta recalls, also works at the camp, and she decides to apply for the job.

Herta arrives at Ravensbrück energized by the idea that she will serve the Fuhrer’s vision for her country. Her optimism quickly dims when she understands that Ravensbrück’s description as a reeducation camp was grossly exaggerated. Ravensbrück is a prison camp, nothing more, nothing less. Still, Herta sees an opportunity to practice medicine with the authority normally given to male doctors.

It is there she meets Kasia and Kasia’s mother and sister. The three women, arrested and sent to the camp, become a part of camp life. They also become victims of the cruel, vicious medical experiments that Herta leads.

Back in New York, Caroline gets involved with the war effort. As she discovers more about how Hitler’s forces are ravaging Europe, Caroline abandons all proprieties to help. Her determination leads her to the survivors of concentration camps…and, eventually, Kasia and Herta. What the three women experience, independently and with one another, will change all of them irrevocably.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s book will reach inside of readers and not let go until the end. Bolstered by the stories of real people—namely Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser, among others—Kelly’s strength in research shines. Unlike other novels, Lilac Girls continues the story past the end of the war. The book spans almost 20 years, giving readers a chance to live with characters through major events in their lives.

Told in first person from the points of view of all three women, Kelly accomplishes what many seasoned authors can’t: authentic, independent voices for her lead characters. Most amazingly, Kelly induces sympathy for ardent Nazi supporter Herta Oberheuser. No one will doubt where the line is drawn between right and wrong, but readers will certainly see how Nazi propaganda manipulated German citizens to do what they could for the Third Reich.

The book does contain a few minor flaws. It begins with equal time given to all three women, but Herta’s story gets relegated to the background deeper into the novel. It’s a shame, really, because of all the protagonists readers might find Herta the most compelling and will want to know more about her. Also, Caroline comes across as a touch naïve at times; her eagerness to help seems a little too shiny-faced, a little too optimistic.

For the most part, however, these small issues won’t hold anyone back from flipping or swiping pages as fast as possible. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly books about World War II, will enjoy this novel. I highly recommend readers Bookmark Lilac Girls.

Latest review: Melvin Invents Music by Claire and Monte Montgomery

By Ekta R. Garg

 

March 30, 2016

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

 

When a teen starts making loud noises in patterns—what he calls “music”—his parents send him to a school for young people with disabilities. He meets others who also enjoy his new hobby, and the teens set out to convince the world that music isn’t an affliction to be feared. Authors Claire and Monte Montgomery take this seemingly lightweight premise and give it heft and a fantastic sense of humor in the fun middle grade book Melvin Invents Music.

It’s the year 3200 B.C., and Melvin lives in the small fishing town of Grimstad (on the coast, assert the authors, of modern-day Finland.) From the time he’s born to Lars and Sonya, Melvin can’t stop observing noises and how they work together. He drops, hits, and rubs things for hours on end in utter fascination of the sounds produced. His parents, fearful for their son’s sanity (and their own,) decide not to have any more children.

By the time he’s 16, though, Melvin’s “problem” becomes too much to bear. His parents consult with the Hegoumen, Grimstad’s spiritual leader, for guidance. After a counseling session, the Hegoumen recommends that Melvin be sent to the Shivrkalt Home for Hopelessly Eccentric Youth. By coincidence—or maybe not—the home is run by the Hegoumen’s brother, Gustav.

Lars and Sonya send Melvin to the facility. At first Melvin can’t stand his new home—the food is terrible, none of the other teens like him, and Gustav runs the place with an iron fist. But soon enough Melvin figures out that the other teens have the same problem he does. They all hear rhythms in their heads.

They all want to make music.

Melvin convinces his new friends to embrace their music instead of being ashamed of it, and soon enough he leads a revolution. The students, along with cook and cleaning woman Olga, join forces and break out of the home. They go back to their hometowns and start spreading the joy of music. Rebuffed by his clientele, Gustav shows up and convinces Melvin that he and his friends (who have formed a band) need to tour the world. He’ll be their manager, he says, and take care of all the details.

Thus begins a new phase in Melvin’s life: that of a celebrity. He and the band start with untarnished enthusiasm, but soon infighting and Melvin’s ego force the group apart. Melvin will need to decide whether inventing music in the first place was such a good idea, what his art ultimately means to him, and how he’s going to get out of the entire mess he’s created.

Authors Claire and Monte Montgomery treat Melvin and his challenges with an irreverence that will make target readers and their parents laugh aloud in several places. The authors balance modern-day cultural references with life in an ancient fishing village with ease; even Justin Bieber gets a mention. The narration never gets snarky or sarcastic, choosing instead to keep the jokes rolling right along and moving into and out of the more serious moments without pause. In some stories this would create a railroading effect. Here the perfect balance will make readers grin from start to finish.

Melvin and his cohorts deal with everything from bullying and being shunned to widespread acceptance and even the pitfalls of fame. Claire and Monte Montgomery give the trappings of celebrity-hood a light touch but manage to include it all, including substance abuse. Unlike the fluidity of other parts of the story, the consequences of bad choices come through loud and clear. Treating your friends badly and relying on a substance to solve problems only brings about disaster. And yet even the disaster gets treated with just enough humor for kids to absorb the lesson without getting scared by its details.

Parents can let their middle grade readers devour the book without reservation, and I highly recommend they let them do so. Readers should definitely Bookmark Melvin Invents Music.

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

 

Brand new review: Once Upon A Dream by Liz Braswell

By Ekta R. Garg

March 16, 2016

Genre: Young adult fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

What if Sleeping Beauty didn’t wake up? What if Maleficent, the evil fairy, manages to keep her under a spell? What would cause such a twist? And what happens next? Disney author Liz Braswell offers young adult readers a solid story filled with surprising depth in Once Upon A Dream.

At Aurora’s christening an evil fairy, Maleficent, curses the newborn princess: when she turns 16, she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. To counteract Maleficent’s spell, one of the good fairies in attendance amends it: instead of dying Aurora, and everyone else in the entire kingdom, will slip into a deep sleep. Love’s true kiss will wake her up and save her and the kingdom.

In an effort to keep their daughter safe, the king and queen order the destruction of all spinning wheels. They also charge the good fairies with Aurora’s safekeeping, and she grows up in the woods thinking she’s living with three aunts. Unfortunately the fairies can’t keep Aurora safe. On her sixteenth birthday, when they escort her to the castle for an arranged marriage and to meet her parents for the first time, Maleficent leads Aurora to the lone spinning wheel in existence. Aurora pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep.

Distressed, the fairies find Prince Phillip and help him slay Maleficent when she turns into a dragon. They think everything will get solved the minute Phillip finds Aurora. He rushes to her side, touches his lips to hers…and then falls asleep as well.

The entire scenario goes awry. Despite the fact that Maleficent is technically dead, a surprise addendum to the curse she cast so many years ago keeps her alive in Aurora’s dreams. Through those dreams she convinces Aurora of a different reality—that the king and queen never loved Aurora, that they only wanted a male heir, and that Maleficent alone cares for Aurora and can protect her from the mysterious blight that has overtaken the land outside the castle.

Aurora spends her days lounging around the castle and planning grand monthly balls. She adores Maleficent and abides by the status quo. But bit by bit Aurora’s world comes apart. She starts asking questions after certain confusing circumstances, and the answers confuse her even more. Aurora starts to understand what’s actually happening, and she will need to defeat a myriad of forces—including, in some ways, herself—if she’s to save everyone and finally wake up.

In her second book for Disney, author Liz Braswell comes up with a winner. As with her first book, A Whole New World, Braswell uses the original Disney film as the foundation for her story. She preserves the film’s original features while expanding on them and adding more details of her own.

The most successful components come in the depth Braswell brings to Aurora. She creates a protagonist within the confines of the original story, particularly within the strictures of the stereotype of a princess who spends her time twirling and singing and needs rescuing from her enemies because she can’t defend herself. Braswell manages to toe that line and then step daintily over it by offering a concrete back story for Aurora and then giving her guts.

The result is a book that feels contemporary and fresh while still balancing the time period of Aurora’s story. Also, Braswell is clearly enjoying herself; readers will grin when they find a subtle nod to other Disney princesses in a scene where Aurora spends time exploring a new wardrobe. Braswell’s first book didn’t quite make the grade. She definitely earns back any marks lost and more for this second novel.

I recommend readers Bookmark Once Upon A Dream.

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

Brand new review: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Thriller

Rating: Bypass it

 

When a woman’s husband dies under suspicious circumstances, she doesn’t stick around to offer the police any answers. Instead she runs, knowing she needs to stay away from the law. An incident from her past sent her into hiding; her husband’s death compels her to stay there. Before she knows it, however, she finds herself heading back to her hometown where she’ll need to face tough questions. Author Lisa Lutz offers readers the promise of a thriller but doesn’t deliver on that promise in the almost farcical novel The Passenger.

The day Tanya Dubois finds her husband dead at the bottom of the stairs, she knows she doesn’t have a choice. She has to leave town. Once the police arrive, they’ll start asking her questions and she has no solid proof to offer them that she didn’t kill her husband. All she has is her word, and that may not be enough—especially considering she’s had a serious run-in with the law in the past. So Tanya packs her things and leaves the state.

She searches for a new identity and thinks she’s found one as Amelia, but in her first stop when she runs into a bartender with a sharp eye Tanya knows Amelia won’t work. The bartender, Blue, turns out to be a good friend and a necessary resource for Tanya to succeed in disappearing again. With Blue’s help Tanya becomes Debra and starts teaching at a small private school.

Life seems to start resembling normal, but an unexpected visitor sets Tanya running again. She finds herself wandering from location to location until she receives word that it might be safe for her to go home. But going home means facing the circumstances that sent her running in the first place, and it means staring down the people who put her on that path. Tanya doesn’t know if she’s ready for either.

Author Lisa Lutz doesn’t do her main character justice. Protagonist Tanya tells readers she’s been on the run for a long time. If that’s the case, the way she fumbles after her husband’s death doesn’t make sense. For someone who has spent so much time hiding, she does a lousy job of staying under the radar.

Blue’s purpose in the story is ambiguous at best. When Tanya needs some sort of concrete advice and guidance, Blue shows up. For the majority of the story, though, she disappears, coming back only in the end for a clumsy resolution. Without Blue Tanya’s plans flounder and ultimately fail. Lutz could have followed Blue’s story instead and found a more compelling character and story as a result.

As the story progresses, readers will find themselves yanked from situation to situation with no warning—one minute Tanya is walking down the street and talking to someone. Within a few steps she’s fighting for her life. Then she’s on the road again but without a plan or any indication that she can handle the life she’s pursuing.

Tanya’s reason for leaving her hometown in the first place, too, seems forced. Mysterious email correspondence and shady phone calls between Tanya and an unknown character all hint at some dramatic, horrific past. Readers will ultimately be disappointed, first at the revelation of the reason for Tanya leaving and then at the way the characters react to everything. In the end it seems like Tanya spent all those years running for not very much.

I recommend readers Bypass The Passenger.

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

Latest Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon

By Ekta R. Garg

March 2, 2016

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Borrow it

A freelance journalist comes across a story that could boost her failing career: that of a young woman living in a coma in a hospital for half her life. In order to write the story, however, the journalist will need to confront the challenges that contributed and ultimately caused her downfall. Short story author Holly Seddon offers readers Try Not to Breathe, a debut that builds with promise and then lets down readers in a major way.

Alex Dale spends her days following a meticulous routine: an early-morning run followed by a few hours of cobbling together inane freelance writing pieces. When she gets to lunch, however, she faces her past. Alex is a functioning alcoholic. She has her addiction down to a science almost, knowing how much to drink and when, which only goes to emphasize that alcohol is now the only constant in her life. She’s lost everything else: a promising career, an adoring husband, and the chance to balance the scales of a life off kilter from her childhood.

Still, Alex has managed to pull herself together long enough to pursue a story about comatose patients in a special hospital ward in her London suburb. During a round of interviews one day, Alex comes across Amy Stevenson. The sight of Amy rouses Alex in a way she hasn’t felt in a long time.

She remembers the horrible circumstances that brought Amy to the hospital. At the age of 15 Amy disappeared one day on her walk home from school and was found several weeks later, alive but just barely. Since that time Amy has lived in the hospital in the same comatose state.

Alex feels a kinship with Amy. They’re both the same age, and neither got to enjoy the normal benefits of adulthood. As she works on the story about the new research that some comatose patients may have a limited ability to communicate with their caretakers, Alex begins to regain a little bit of her old self. The self who once had the opportunity to live the life Amy missed.

What starts as a story for Alex becomes a desperate need to find out who attacked Amy. However, with no family members on hand to answer questions and a case that went cold long before Alex found her, the truth about Amy’s attacker and the details of the tragedy might remain in the same place Amy is.

Author Holly Seddon employs some of the best elements of her experience with short fiction in Try Not to Breathe. Seddon keeps her cast of characters small, making it easy to follow Alex’s trajectory and her daily struggles with her addiction. Readers may censure Alex’s deliberate choices early in the novel, but as the book progresses Seddon builds sympathy for both Alex and Amy with expertise.

American readers, in particular, will find themselves charmed by British slang and the vernacular. While Seddon’s choice of language may simply fall in line with her native readership, it goes a long way to setting the scene and ensconcing readers in that world. Clearly Seddon knows how to draw the lines of her story with broad, definite strokes.

The novel’s ultimate failing, however, comes from the same area of Seddon’s strength. Readers will spend early pages guessing the identity of Amy’s attacker. When the revelation comes, readers may feel cheated. Seddon names a convenient perpetrator instead of challenging her characters, her readers, and even herself with a more subtle choice. The small cast of characters, so crucial in drawing readers into Alex and Amy’s world, works against Seddon in limiting her options for an antagonist. She spends so much time developing Alex and those closest to her that readers may feel like the real criminal was thrown in as an afterthought.

I recommend readers Borrow Try Not to Breathe for fans of British fiction and stories about England and English characters, with the caveat to be prepared for a major letdown at the end.

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