Newest review: House of Gold by Natasha Solomons

By Ekta R. Garg

December 5, 2018

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: October 23, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A powerful European family finds itself bowing under the weight of war. Family members will find themselves on opposite sides of the lines in ideology as well as geography, and they will face hardships unlike any they’ve ever experienced. Author Natasha Solomons offers readers a studied look at how war affects the rich and famous in her unnecessarily drawn-out novel House of Gold.

In Austria, Greta Goldbaum ponders marriage—her own, that is. As a member of the influential Goldbaum family, Greta knows her lot in life is set. She’s expected to marry within the family to keep the name, and their Jewish heritage, intact. Marrying inside of the family also allows for all the money to stay in one place, and no one can deny that when it comes to money the world tips its hat to the Goldbaums.

Greta isn’t so sure about what’s expected of her, however. She’s agreed to marry her distant cousin, Albert, from England, and she’ll have to leave her beloved Vienna for the damp English weather. She just hasn’t made up her mind yet about how much she likes Albert.

Life in England brings a drastic change and, in some ways, a welcome one. Greta escapes her overbearing mother, for one thing. Also, despite missing home, she starts to feel freedom in her new country; the kind of freedom she didn’t feel in Austria. When Greta and Albert’s relationship gets off to a rocky start, her mother-in-law offers a distraction: a garden for Greta to call her own. Greta puts her attention and energy into it, and like a young seedling given the right space her marriage with Albert also begins to blossom.

Even their budding romance can’t shade itself from the threat of World War I, which brings a whole host of complications. The greatest one comes in the monetary cost: war officials count on the resources the Goldbaum family can provide, even while discriminating against “common” Jews all in the same breath. The double standard makes Albert and some of his other cousins think twice about just where the money is going, but no one can doubt the power of currency. If it’s gone, the only thing that matters is that it’s been spent. The Goldbaums must do all they can to preserve their fortune or risk becoming destitute themselves.

Author Natasha Solomons gives readers some pleasant tidbits about life as a member of the most elite level of society. The Goldbaums consume lavish meals. They travel in private transportation of every form. They own hothouses where teams of gardeners force flowers and fruits and vegetables to grow at the family’s pleasure, regardless of the season.

However, the story itself meanders from topic to topic. Readers will go from scenes of Greta and Albert and the awkwardness of the first months of their semi-arranged marriage to scenes between senior Goldbaum men as they discuss politics and finance. Thrown into the mix are moments with Henri, a member of the French branch of the family as well as Otto, Greta’s brother, in Austria and then in England when he comes to visit. Albert’s brother, Clement, also features somewhat prominently for a while but then inexplicably gets relegated to the background until he almost disappears.

Solomons interjects with a subplot about Karl, a beggar boy who eventually connects with one of the Goldbaums to show that war doesn’t care about bank balances; it devastates anyone. While Karl’s story offers a mild distraction from the other plot points, it doesn’t enhance the overall book. In fact, had Karl not been in the novel, the book wouldn’t have suffered in any way.

The biggest challenge for readers will be the scope of the novel. They may wonder exactly what it is Solomons wants her target audience to glean from the book. An insipid end that brings the Goldbaums to two years before the end of World War I doesn’t offer any answers. The Goldbaums find themselves limping along in their every-day lives to survive the financial and emotional toll of the war, and readers who stick with the story to the end will find themselves frustrated with the lackluster conclusion.

Those interested in historical fiction might find House of Gold interesting. Otherwise, I recommend readers Bypass it.

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Newest review: Lies You Never Told Me by Jennifer Donaldson

By Ekta R. Garg

November 28, 2018

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: May 29, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Two teens in different cities battle the perils of first love: unmet expectations, surprise demands, and the reality that relationships are hard once they get past first blush. Neither of them can predict the challenges headed their way; both of them will have to navigate situations much beyond their years. Author Jennifer Donaldson performs a neat literary trick but misses a major plot point in her debut novel Lies You Never Told Me.

In Austin, Texas, high school junior Gabe Jimenez has begun to realize that his girlfriend, Sasha, may not be right for him. A member of the drill team, Sasha monopolizes Gabe’s attention and it’s starting to get old. Even when a mystery driver knocks Gabe down in a hit-and-run, Sasha manages to make every situation about herself.

When Gabe runs into new student Catherine, he realizes she’s the one who called the ambulance for him the night of the accident. Despite her initial reluctance, Gabe pursues a friendship with Catherine and the two get close. He realizes that Catherine is truly the girl for him, but he also knows that she’s hiding something from him. The more time they spend together, the more Gabe begins to understand that Catherine’s secrets come from a dark place.

Across the country in Portland, Oregon, Elyse McCormick can’t believe the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, has cast her as the lead in her high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Brynn, her best friend, has always been the star; she’s the born actress. The only reason Elyse even joined the drama club in the first place was because of Brynn’s gentle encouragement.

Despite a challenging home life with a single mother struggling with drug addiction, Elyse stays up to date with her schoolwork and the demands of the play. Mr. Hunter begins taking time out of his schedule to help her run lines and prepare for her role. In time, Elyse and Mr. Hunter—Aiden, he urges her to call him—get closer. Both of them know the relationship is inappropriate, but neither of them has the willpower to fight it. Then Elyse makes a choice that changes her entire life and the lives of those close to her.

Author Jennifer Donaldson writes with her target audience in mind but in many places misses the mark. Gabe complains about Sasha’s stalker-like tendencies but exhibits similar behavior in his pursuit of Catherine. He says he does it out of genuine concern; Sasha says many times that the stunts she pulls are all because she loves Gabe. Some readers may interpret this as Donaldson’s justification of behavior that encroaches on personal boundaries as long as it’s done “for the right reasons.”

Because Donaldson chooses to tell both Gabe and Elye’s stories in first person, in alternating chapters, readers don’t get to interact with other characters much. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Gabe and Elyse will have to connect somewhere. The question is how and when.

Although she chooses a clever literary device to make that connection happen, Donaldson requires her readers to suspend their disbelief after that to the extreme. Characters get away with criminal offenses, but the police don’t investigate. Also, when it comes to the choice Elyse and Aiden make, one question that keeps cropping up is “why”. Why does Aiden continue on the path he’s chosen when it’s clearly jeopardizing his entire life? And if secrecy is their only weapon, why does he relinquish it with such abandon later in the story?

Unfortunately Donaldson sacrifices logic for an “aha” moment, the charm of which only lasts a couple of pages. Once it does, more astute readers will scratch their heads at the way the story unfolds in the last few chapters. It seems as if the story tries to mask sloppy plotting with grand gestures of drama and romance. In the end, when it comes to Lies You Never Told Me, readers are better off Bypassing it.

Newest review: The Reckoning by John Grisham

By Ekta R. Garg

November 14, 2018

Genre: Mystery

Release date: October 23, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 1 star

A man commits murder in broad daylight. Despite repeated requests from his family and law enforcement officers, he refuses to say why and the fallout from the murder changes the family forever. John Grisham comes back with his latest novel, a plodding, meandering story in the lackluster book The Reckoning.

After surviving horrific conditions as a soldier and a POW in the South Pacific in World War II, Pete Banning comes back to a hero’s welcome in Clanton, Mississippi. Even his severe injuries—in a cast from his hip down to his feet—can’t stem his enthusiasm for being home. During his months in captivity, thoughts of his wife, Liza, and his children, Joel and Stella, gave him the will to survive. Pete has seen and endured the worst that human beings can do to one another.

Clanton residents receive a rude shock, then, when they learn that Pete has shot and killed the pastor of the Methodist church. Pete doesn’t deny it, and he doesn’t try to run when witnesses find him at the scene. He cooperates with the police, giving them the murder weapon and following them without a single word to the local jail.

His reticence, however, is exactly the problem. Every time anyone—his lawyer; the sheriff; his sister, Florry—asks him why he did it, all he says is, “I have nothing to say.” The small-town gossip mill churns at a furious rate, but Pete refuses to confirm any of it. While he does feel a pinch of remorse for the pastor’s wife and three young children, he believes he made the right decision.

Despite his lawyer’s best efforts, Pete receives the death penalty. Everyone in town agrees the killing was senseless, and they struggle to reconcile the image of war hero with that of common murderer. Surely Pete of all people would understand the sanctity of life, wouldn’t he?

Author John Grisham lets his story flounder from the beginning. In the first 90 pages of the book, the characters spend their time talking about how awful the murder is and the fact that they don’t understand it. By page 175 Grisham takes that part of the story to its conclusion with the exception of one major fact: the motive. Pete Banning remains steadfast in his silence throughout all those pages, but the gossip mongers—and common sense—will lead readers to draw a realistic conclusion on why Pete killed the pastor.

Divided into three parts, the second section goes back to Pete’s time as a soldier and a prisoner of war. Grisham’s research is thorough and meticulous, but his prose keeps readers at arm’s length by simply narrating the story. Even the horrors of prisoner camps receive monotonous treatment. The juxtaposition turns the second part of the book, all 123 pages of it, into a dry history tale. Readers will feel some sympathy for Pete, but they wouldn’t be faulted for wondering about halfway through the narrative just what his experiences there have to do with the murder he commits later.

Grisham attempts to answer that question in the last 112 pages (the final section of the book) and fails in a catastrophic manner, only because readers will already have guessed why Pete did it. A clumsy plot twist four pages from the end will likely disappoint and even anger longtime Grisham fans. The author, at one time known for smart, sharp plots, makes a lazy attempt at an ending that doesn’t fit with the storyline presented and seems more designed for sensationalism than anything else.

The dialogue throughout is stilted and unrealistic. Pete Banning’s family members spend all their time in the book wringing their hands and weeping at this horrible turn of events at their lives. No other characters received the development they so rightly deserved, leaving the Banning family to make the biggest impact. That impact is minimal, because they have nothing to do in the story.

Even the most ardent Grisham fans will find it difficult to justify their loyalty after reading The Reckoning, which is why I recommend readers Bypass it.

Latest review: The Girl I Used to Be by Mary Torjussen

By Ekta R. Garg

November 7, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: April 24, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A business owner finds herself being blackmailed by a prospective client. As the threats become more intense, she scrambles to make sense of them and learns that they may not be as random as she first thought. Mary Torjussen returns with another thriller and takes her readers through a refreshing turn of events in the cheer-worthy novel The Girl I Used to Be.

It’s taken Gemma Brogan years to establish her real estate business, but she’s doing it one client and one house at a time. Even in a challenging housing market not far from London, Gemma has found her footing. Her husband, Joe, stays at home with their son, Rory, and she works with people she likes and respects.

Gemma reaps the benefits of owning her own business, but she also works the hardest. The long hours often mean she doesn’t see Rory in the morning or get to put him to bed at night. She envies Joe’s relationship with Rory; when the three of them spend time together, Rory looks to Joe first.

She wants things to change, and when a potential client arrives in her office with a healthy housing budget Gemma thinks she’s received a prime opportunity. A big win on a home sale means she can breathe easy. It doesn’t hurt that the new client, David Sanderson, is tall, handsome, funny, and friendly. They spend the day together, and Gemma feels confident he’ll commit to one of the pricey homes they visited.

Not long after, Gemma runs into David during a work trip and the two spend the evening together over dinner and drinks. Years earlier Gemma experienced a horrible attack that convinced her never to drink to excess again, yet over dinner with David she finds herself loosening up in an effort to sway his decision about one of the properties. She drinks more than she meant to, more than she has in years, and the next morning she wakes up feeling awful.

The hangover doesn’t bother her as much as the complete lack of memories from the previous night. She doesn’t remember entering her room or going to bed. She has no clue when she and David bid one another good night, and she can’t shake the sense of dread that something terrible happened.

Then Gemma begins receiving pictures and videos of that night with David, select snapshots and clips that put her in compromising situations. Gemma is horrified and tries to contact David. Her efforts to find him fail, but she makes a connection with someone else from her past. As Gemma works with this new person to figure out what happened, she’ll find herself facing her worst fear and weaknesses.

Author Mary Torjussen comes back with a strong novel after last year’s Gone Without a Trace. In this new book, she lays down the foundation for what seems at first a typical thriller. In fact, some of the story elements do follow the tropes of the genre. Then, halfway through the story, Torjussen takes an unexpected detour.

Readers will love the twists as they come along. Gemma’s greatest ally starts out as her greatest enemy; even as the two form a relationship, readers may doubt with every step that they have actually become friends. It’s a sign of the genre as well as our current times that makes it difficult to believe two people on opposite sides of an issue can come together to fight the greater evil. Torjussen resists all temptation to take the cliché route and gives readers a protagonist they can root for all the way to the end.

Getting to that point takes a little bit of patience, however, because it comes halfway through the book. Gemma spends a reasonable amount of time questioning the reason for the pictures and videos, but she spends a little too much time wondering what to do. When the first major twist happens in the story, the pace picks up.

Once again Torjussen chooses first person point of view for her characters, but she’s improved the balance between internal dialogue and external events. Even as Gemma sits and thinks about how her life could possibly have reached this point, readers will get the sense that something is about to happen and it usually does. Despite her husband and office colleagues coming across as stock characters, Gemma herself is real and well-rounded.

All in all, I think readers will enjoy The Girl I Used to Be and recommend they Bookmark it!

Latest review: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

By Ekta R. Garg

November 7, 2018

Genre: Literary fiction

Release date: June 12, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it

A brother comes home for his older sister’s wedding after years of estrangement from his family. As the festivities progress, everyone reflects on the causes of the rift and how they might have saved themselves from heartache. Debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza offers her readers prose with heft and a story of love and family in the mostly satisfying novel A Place for Us.

In sunny California, on the night of her wedding, Hadia worries about her younger brother, Amar. Despite him being the baby of the family and the beloved son, no one else wanted Amar to come. Of course, they never stated it outright, but Hadia knows her family like she knows her own heartbeat. Amar deserted all of them three years earlier. He ran away without an explanation. What right does he have to stroll back into their lives?

As Hadia battles her nerves, her parents, Layla and Rafiq, do what they can to act as gracious hosts. Layla’s constant companion is the fear that Rafiq will dress Amar down in front of everyone, however, and no matter how many people she greets with a smile and a “thank you” her fear doesn’t seem to ebb. Raising Amar proved difficult enough; managing him for one evening might be more than she can bear.

The family wants to maintain their composure, but the evening brings back memories for all of them. Some good; others bad. All heavy with the realization of how the family has changed since Amar’s desertion. Hadia and Amar both reflect on the exacting demands of their father, how Rafiq monitored each action and word against the high standards of Islam. Layla wants to reach out to Amar and beg him to move back home. She doesn’t know where her son lives now or how he supports himself, but she’s willing to forgive anything if he just comes back to them.

Amar waffles between his own identity and his family. They took something precious from him. Never mind that he knows he may not have deserved it. But ever since that time, he’s been adrift and he doesn’t think he can drop anchor any time soon. The temptation to do so gets stronger throughout the night, however, and by the end of it he’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to forgive and forget or forget and move on.

Author Fatima Farheen Mirza draws readers into her story world with prose reminiscent of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri—elegant, careful, measured. She doesn’t dress up her narrative but lets it carry the story. At one point during the wedding, during a conversation between Amar and Layla, Amar pauses to reflect on how his mother has just responded:

“He felt at the edge of discomfort, made worse by how desperately [Layla] was trying to protect him from discomfort. He could lean into the feeling as it advanced toward him or he could deny it and remain present.”

True to its genre, most of the book focuses on the personal reflections of the characters; what they thought, what they felt, and how they interacted with one another dominates the story. Throughout the novel Mirza succeeds in creating a photo album with words where readers encounter snapshots of different situations in the characters’ lives. Despite the fact that these snapshots don’t follow a chronological order, readers will have absolutely no trouble at all following the events that bring Layla and Rafiq’s family to their present state at the wedding.

In the current political climate, when so many are willing to denounce a particular faith, Mirza shares the positives of her characters’ religion and gives them the dignity of being what most people are: a family just trying to do its best. Rafiq is no radical or extremist; he’s a man trying to pass down his heritage and his belief system to his children. In some cases he’s successful, which reassures him that he’s done right by his family and his faith. In other instances, he fails in spectacular fashion and the failure drives him deep into sorrow.

Less successful is the explanation for the actual cause of Amar’s desertion. One main reason is offered, but Amar suffers from enough issues that readers will spend time guessing others. This minor weakness in the plotting may surprise readers, given Mirza’s otherwise astute observations of her characters and their dilemmas.

For the most part, however, readers curious about another culture or faith will find A Place for Us enlightening, which leads me to rate the book as Bordering on Bookmarking it.

Newest review: Lies by T.M. Logan

By Ekta R. Garg

October 31, 2018

Genre: Psychological thriller

Release date: September 11, 2018

Rated: Binge it!

A chance encounter for a man begins a chain of events that leaves him scrambling. The more questions he asks of everyone around him, the more problems it creates until he gets backed into an impossible situation. Author T.M. Logan will keep readers guessing until the end with the tight thriller Lies.

Joe Lynch leads a respectable life. He and his wife, Mel, live in a well-to-do suburb of London with their adorable four-year-old son, William. Because Joe’s hours as a teacher offer him more flexibility during the day, he bears the bulk of the responsibility for taking care of William and he enjoys every minute.

On their home one day, Joe and William spot Mel’s car in traffic. Joe makes a spontaneous decision to follow her; they can surprise Mel, he thinks. He follows her to a hotel where he sees her meet with Ben, a mutual friend. From a distance, Mel and Ben’s conversation looks heated. The interaction makes Joe uneasy and suspicious.

After Mel leaves, unbeknownst to her, Joe confronts Ben in the parking garage of the hotel. The men share a barbed encounter that ends with a physical challenge and Ben injured and bleeding. Joe runs, but he tries to get in touch with Ben soon thereafter to find out if he’s all right. He receives a few cryptic responses from his own cell phone, which he lost in the scuffle. Then Ben disappears.

The police come to Joe asking questions about Ben’s whereabouts, and Joe is dumbfounded. Ben initiated the conflict between them in the parking garage, but there’s no way to prove it. He confronts Mel who first denies anything intimate between her and Ben but then admits that they did have an affair. Joe tries to contact another friend only to be rebuffed.

It seems like everyone close to him has either betrayed him or wants nothing to do with him, and every time he gets over one lie he discovers another. Nothing makes sense anymore. Then the police come back for Joe, and he decides to make a run for it just to buy enough time to prove his innocence.

Author T.M. Logan keeps his thriller straightforward, which allows for a deliciously taut story. Readers will stay up long into the night to find out whether Joe can cross each and every hurdle that appears in his path. Logan answers every question he poses and does so with deft and panache.

More admirable is the choice of point of view. Joe narrates his own story, a plot device that often keeps readers inside the protagonist’s head for too long. Logan strikes the right balance between Joe sharing his thoughts and keeping the action moving. The result is a satisfying descent into the world of an entire host of people who resort to lying to benefit themselves.

Even Joe isn’t above telling a few fibs, a choice that will haunt him because he’s the one who stands to lose the most. Readers will rub their hands in glee at the novel’s pacing while at the same time worrying about Joe. A likable protagonist, he will have readers rooting for him all the way to the end.

The twist ending will make readers sit up and take notice, and even though the last few pages may seem like a quick wrap-up by that time Joe seems to deserve it. I believe readers will find with Lies by T.M. Logan that they will want to Binge it!

Latest review: The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

by Ekta R. Garg

October 24, 2018

Genre: Middle grade fantasy

Release date: August 28, 2018

Rated: Borrowing on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

Twin brothers make an arrangement with an enemy in order to break a much bigger pact: the one that has kept their family apart since they were born. Along the way they’ll have to solve a murder and battle against the fantastical elements that keep their small town captive. One thing is clear to the boys: embarking on this adventure means their lives will never be the same. Author K.E. Ormsbee sets her latest middle grade novel in the folds of the Tennessee hills in the mostly entertaining book The House in Poplar Wood.

Everyone knows the Vickery family in the small town of Boone Ridge, Tennessee. Judith, resident psychiatrist, offers an objective, sympathetic ear to the town’s troubled residents. She also works as an apprentice to the Shade known as Memory. It is Judith’s job to assist Memory as she extracts those remembrances people either want to store for safekeeping or forget forever.

Vince, some say, is the greatest healer in the entire state. He’s the town doctor, but he’s also apprentice to Death. He does Death’s bidding, assisting in relieving people’s pain or easing them into the end of their existence. Vince doesn’t get a say in who lives or dies. He simply does Death’s bidding.

Their sons, Felix and Lee, live with them but apart from one another. Felix has never met their mother. Lee has never met their father. More than 13 years ago, in a moment of desperation when the boys’ lives hung in the balance, their parents made the Agreement with Death and Memory. They may share the same house, but they’re all physically incapable of crossing the boundary to the opposite side.

Even living with an invisible boundary separating them, however, all the Vickeries can agree on one thing: their ongoing enmity with the Whipple family. As summoners, the Whipples have spent generations ruling Boone Ridge. They make deals with the Shades in exchange for the well-being of the townspeople.

It doesn’t make sense to Gretchen Whipple, then, when she eavesdrops on her father and hears a strange conversation regarding the recent mysterious death of Essie Hasting. In fact, to Gretchen it almost sounds like Essie’s death wasn’t an accident. What would her father have to do with Essie?

Gretchen’s determination to find the answer leads her to the Vickery twins. The three form an uneasy alliance, knowing full well they’ll have the full wrath of the Shades, not to mention their parents, on them if anyone finds out. But as the three search for information, it becomes more clear that matters regarding the Shades and the balance of power have gone awry in Boone Ridge. It’s possible, in fact, that Gretchen, Felix, and Lee are the only ones who can save the town and themselves.

Author K.E. Ormsbee will charm readers with the overall premise of her novel. Ormsbee gives a fresh twist on the idea of lifelong servitude handed down from one generation to the next. The fact that Death, Memory, and Passion aren’t all-encompassing beings—the twins and Gretchen often mention other Shades with the same roles in other towns—personalizes these intangible concepts.

Ormsbee’s prose sparkles in places. She describes the burial of Essie Hasting as such: “Two men with shovels were piling dirt into the six-foot hole—a careless motion, like how Gretchen’s father scooped sugar into his coffee.” In another place, she likens Felix’s growing restlessness with the Agreement to a sphere in which he’s trapped. She writes, “Now Felix felt himself expanding, a great balloon growing larger and larger, pressing at the edges of his small sphere’s glass confines. He was not sure he’d fit inside much longer.”

Poetic prose can’t quite cover some of the book’s problems, however. While it’s clear from the start that Gretchen’s mother has long since died, no mention is made of how long ago, from what, or even what kind of relationship Gretchen had with her. Also, while Ormsbee shares several details and scenes of Felix’s relationship with Vince, Judith Vickery makes a cursory appearance throughout the story. Several other details about the way the Shades operate and interact also go unexplained, which may distract readers to asking questions and pull them out of the story.

Plot problems aside, readers will most likely enjoy the story, and I believe The House in Poplar Wood Borders on Bookmarking it.