Brand new review: At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

By Ekta R. Garg

March 18, 2015

Rated: Bypass it

A young socialite wife embarks on a trip with her husband and their best friend that she takes for a lark…at first. When she realizes the gravity of the world’s condition around her, she learns that life means more than impressing her high society mother-in-law. She also starts to understand that she doesn’t have to fulfill the prophecy for her life set down by her own troubled past. Author Sara Gruen, known for the bestseller Water for Elephants, brings her readers a World War II period piece to test readers’ patience but ultimately entertain them in her new novel At the Water’s Edge.

Madeline “Maddie” Hyde lives with her husband, Ellis, in Philadelphia and embodies high society life, including the disapproving mother-in-law who doesn’t miss an opportunity to express her condescension toward Maddie. When Maddie, her husband, Ellis, and their best friend, Hank, make a dynamic splash at a party—where all three of them manage to put their feet squarely in their mouths—Ellis decides he needs to make amends by embarking on a quest. Years ago his father traveled to Scotland to look for the Loch Ness monster and suffered a deep embarrassment as a result. Ellis announces his intention to redeem his father, all the while reassuring Maddie on the side that he’s only undertaking the trip to appease his parents.

After a difficult sea voyage, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank land in Scotland. Once they arrive Ellis and Hank begin making plans in earnest, and little by little Maddie learns that her husband intends to use what started as a joke on her father-in-law as a way to get back into his parents’ good graces. If he can’t revise his mother and father’s opinion of him they will stifle his finances for good, and more than anything Ellis wants that money.

Maddie decides she doesn’t want to participate in Ellis and Hank’s ridiculous adventure. She begins to spend time with the help in the inn and gets to know them. As the lines between the classes blur, Maddie finds her awareness increasing about the world. Soldiers fight near and far in the Second World War, and Maddie starts caring about more than her wardrobe. Ellis doesn’t share her world view, however, leading Maddie to re-examine her life as a wife and a woman.

Author Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants received critical and public acclaim, including a movie adaptation, but she lets down her readers in At the Water’s Edge. The first 40 percent of the book includes Maddie’s observations of her in-laws, her voyage to Scotland, and her general cluelessness about life. In a book with 46 chapters, the action finally starts to pick up around Chapter 21. Unfortunately by that time Gruen will have lost most readers.

Admittedly once the pace of the book picks up, the story does become engaging…to an extent. Those readers who stay around for the second half of the book will follow Maddie down a predictable path. While Gruen offers some entertaining moments in the plot, the false start of the book overall and Ellis’ ridiculous behavior may continue to turn readers off until the expected end. Even a subplot about Maddie’s past doesn’t really offer much in the way of depth to the story, other than to provide Gruen with a device that Ellis uses to threaten Maddie.

Die-hard Sara Gruen fans might want to pick this one up out of loyalty; otherwise I recommend readers Bypass At the Water’s Edge.

Brand new book review: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly

By Ekta R. Garg

February 25, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A man suffers from heart failure and becomes a celebrity after a life-changing surgery turns him into a human anomaly. He joins two other people in similar situations, and the three of them form the latest international sensation. They experience the ups and downs of public life together and learn to navigate the emotional challenges that come with that life. Paddy O’Reilly gives readers this premise in the touching but sometimes ambivalent novel The Wonders.

Leon Hyland’s heart has failed, and he receives a heart transplant. When his body starts to reject the second heart, however, Leon decides this is it. There’s no point in prolonging the inevitable: he should just accept the fact that he will die. Then he gets a phone call that literally gives him another life.

A surgeon and a scientist couple in Leon’s native Australia tell him about a highly risky surgery. They have technology at their disposal that hasn’t received any kind of approval, but they also believe it could help Leon. After some deliberation Leon decides to undergo the ordeal. The worst that could happen, he reasons, is that he would die.

Against every imaginable odd Leon survives and feels better than he has in ages. The trade off? His privacy. The new heart is unlike anything anyone has ever seen, and he finds it difficult to stay anonymous. An American entrepreneur gets in touch about turning Leon’s newfound fame into a business venture. She tells him about two other people she’s met who have also undergone dramatic physical transformations and how she’s convinced them to join her.

Once again Leon does a mental shrug. In this way he meets Kathryn, an Irish woman who suffered from a terrible condition and who now has sheep wool growing from her skin. Leon also meets Christos, a statuesque man from Greece who uses his body as his personal canvas; he had ceramic implants inserted into his back to support a pair of wings that he can open and close with muscle strength.

The entrepreneur, Rhona, acts as their manager and confidante by turns. With a solid background in the circus, Rhona uses all of her experience along with twenty-first century technology to make Leon, Kathryn, and Christos—collectively The Wonders—as the next big thing. Within weeks the entire world has begun talking about The Wonders.

The three discover the real meaning of the word “celebrity” and do what they can to navigate every avenue their new status brings. They deal with crazed fans, religious fanatics, awestruck attendees, and the people from their past that everyone wants to forget. Through it all The Wonders start to learn what it means to be a family.

Australian author Paddy O’Reilly treats her characters with sympathy and humor. She also keeps them refreshingly real; while Leon accepts his life as a public figure, he does so with reluctance. Kathryn doesn’t mind standing strong and proud and accepting financial compensation for her affliction, and Christos seeks it out as much to feed his vanity as to satisfy his creative urges. Readers will find elements of regular people in all three characters.

The book’s aforementioned ambivalence comes in the medical issues that turn the three characters into The Wonders in the first place. As the sole point-of-view character for the entire novel, Leon’s medical issues should have received more attention. O’Reilly describes Leon’s new heart with just enough detail to make readers wonder about it but not quite enough to create a full mental picture.

Because readers get the benefit of Leon’s observations they’ll find out more about Kathryn and Christos’ circumstances than about Leon himself, which is a shame. Leon is an incredibly likeable character. Also Leon’s introverted nature prevents him from getting to know everything about Kathryn and Christos’ medical histories, and readers suffer the same fate.

The camaraderie the three main characters share provides rich material for interesting situations, although for a while the book might make readers feel like O’Reilly is treading water before getting to the climax. A little bit of editing for content would have helped tighten a few of those spots.

Loose spots in the plot and mild ambivalence aside, readers will most likely enjoy The Wonders. I recommend they look for it at their libraries.

Latest book review: Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

By Ekta R. Garg

February 18, 2015

Rated: Bookmark it!

After spending her whole life training for what she thought was a noble calling, a teen learns that the position actually requires her to participate in less-than-honorable acts. The boy she considers the love of her life becomes driven by his own ambition, and the teen realizes she must go the edge of herself and life before she can save those most precious to her. Author Arwen Elys Dayton gives readers an admirable new heroine in the exciting YA novel Seeker.

Quin Kincaid knows two things for sure: she has always wanted to be a Seeker, and John is the boy she loves. As they train alongside Shinobu, Quin’s distant cousin, to prepare for the final test that will allow them to take their Oath, Quin thinks she sees a clear path in front of her. She and John will spend their lives searching for injustice and making it right, the calling of all Seekers for generations before them. Her father, Briac, has invested a considerable amount of time in training Quin, John, and Shinobu, and while Briac can be hard on his pupils Quin feels he employs stringent ways to make them tougher and prepare them for their calling.

Trouble begins to ripple across the surface when John fails the final test and Quin and Shinobu pass. Quin tries to balance her disappointment for John with her excitement for herself and Shinobu. When she walks with Shinobu to the grounds where they will take their Oath, she feels like she is at the cusp of the best time in her life.

After the Oath ceremony, however, trouble emerges as a hurricane. Quin and Shinobu go on their first official quest as Seekers, but they learn the horrifying truth: Briac’s definition of “justice” differs wildly from Quin and Shinobu’s definition. In addition to this revelation, John decides he must take revenge for what he feels is an unjust judgment of his final test. He must uphold his family’s legacy as Seekers, and he won’t let Briac stand in his way.

John’s need for his own personal justice blinds him, and Quin and Shinobu decide their only option is to run away from everything familiar to them. The caveat? Quin possesses an athame, the official weapon of the Seekers, and John will stop at nothing to get it from her. Although Quin goes into denial at first, she realizes soon enough that John no longer loves her as much as he does his own goals. The problem is that Quin doesn’t want to give John the athame, but he may leave her no other choice.

Author Arwen Elys Dayton provides fans of The Hunger Games and Divergent the start of a promising new series in Seeker. Although she alternates points of view primarily between Quin, John and Shinobu, it’s clear from the outset that Quin’s plight drives the story forward and Dayton doesn’t hold back on either the good or the bad. If Quin is brave and smart, she’s also vulnerable to her affection for John and readers can identify with that vulnerability. It makes Quin that much more real, that much more relatable and someone readers will cheer on until the end.

Dayton balances modern-day elements, like cell phones, with her own unique story elements. Readers may begin the book expecting the typical dystopian setting—lack of resources or modern equipment or technology—and it may take them a few chapters to understand what Dayton wants to offer. As she draws readers into her story world, however, it becomes easier to accept, and eventually thoroughly enjoy, the book’s parameters.

The second book in the series, Traveler, releases in spring 2016, and readers will certainly anticipate it with excitement. I recommend readers Bookmark Seeker.

New review: The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

By Ekta R. Garg

February 11, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

When a woman finds herself in the depths of China surrounded by fairy tale monsters come to life, she must use every ounce of her strength and intelligence to escape the enclosed space. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Chinese officials will do everything they can to keep her from getting out and reporting to the world the fiasco she has witnessed. Author Matthew Reilly brings to readers this high-octane plot in the fun but exhausting novel The Great Zoo of China.

Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron gets invited to represent National Geographic as part of an incredibly select group of journalists and dignitaries that will visit China. Chinese officials can’t wait to show the Americans their brand new zoo and promise CJ and the others something that will defy their expectations. An expert on reptiles, CJ wonders just why she received an invitation to the display.

She finds out soon enough. After a ride in a plane with blacked-out windows CJ, accompanied by her brother and photographer, Hamish, arrive at the zoo with the other members of their party. While everything looks like a normal zoo in the beginning, the big reveal yields exactly what the Chinese promised: scientists there have found ancient dragon eggs, allowed them to hatch, and bred new dragons. In order to prepare the beasts for the world, the Chinese have built a zoo specifically to house their dragons.

In the first several minutes of seeing the magnificent beasts, however, CJ notices something about them that doesn’t quite square away with everything she knows about reptiles. Her concerns become justified when the dragons become aggressive. After several run-ins with the dragons CJ discovers the horrifying truth: the dragons don’t just want to kill the people who shackled them. They want to escape—and they’ve got an active plan in place to make it happen. Now CJ has to formulate a plan to fight back, which includes battling the demons of her own past.

Author Matthew Reilly offers readers a book with the highest level of action, and he doesn’t let the pace drop for a single page. His writing style conveys the idea of dragons in a believable way, which makes the first part of the book a fun ride. Readers will find themselves grinning at the entire premise as they follow CJ through the Chinese outback.

When the dragon attacks begin, however, Reilly, increases the level of action and doesn’t give his readers any time to breathe. After a while readers will start to flag, and what begins as a fun adventure will make them heave a sigh of relief when it’s all over. Action may be a good thing, but in answer to Reilly’s question in the “Ask the Author” section of the book, yes: a book can have too much action.

The inclusion of so many events to challenge the characters causes Reilly to sacrifice some character development. As the protagonist CJ comes out with the best deal; readers will understand why she’s doing what she’s doing and what makes her hesitate or pull away. Also, in choosing a female protagonist Reilly shies away from normal thrillers, which is a welcome change for any reader.

Unfortunately other characters become reduced to either stock characterization or under development. Reilly sticks with tropes that are tried and true, drawing thick black lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Offering more information about the characters would have added dimension to the story and given the pace a break, but Reilly chooses to play it safe with his plot.

Frenetic pace aside, readers will probably enjoy The Great Zoo of China and I recommend they borrow this book from their local libraries.

Early reviews of Two for the Heart — by me!

February 4, 2015

(I’m taking a different tack with book reviews today, sharing two early reviews of my first publication. Two for the Heart released yesterday, and I hope you take a chance on it like these reviewers did. To find out where to buy it, visit The Write Edge. Thanks, readers!)

Sandra at opens with her frank opinion: she didn’t know if the whole idea of stories in pairs would work. She changed her mind after reading the book:

When I first heard of this set of stories, I was kind of worried. Mainly because I have never heard of short stories in ‘pairs’. However, after I picked them up, I did not want to stop for anything.  The writing style was amazing and the stories, though short, make you fall in love with the characters with ease.

She’s also hosting a giveaway of my book on her other blog, Unshelfish. You can click on this link to enter.


Amy’s review really got me excited, because she hit the point of the stories right on the head:

I think what makes [the stories] work is that being connected makes you realise everyone has a story to tell; and being a background character in someone’s story does not mean you are not the main character of your own story. Which sounds very philosophical I’ll admit, but I did find myself thing about that when I had finished reading, very clever, intentional or otherwise, on Garg’s behalf.

Brand new review: Since You’ve Been Gone by Mary Jennifer Payne

By Ekta R. Garg

January 28, 2015

Rated: Bookmark it!

A teenager moves with her mother to start a new life away from her abusive father. When her mother goes missing, however, the teen realizes she will need to take charge of her own life, and the thought terrifies her. Author Mary Jennifer Payne keeps young adult readers on the edges of their seats with the action-packed novel Since You’ve Been Gone.

Edie Fraser loves her hometown of Toronto. She has a best friend and an adorable cat named Peaches. Best of all, her mother, Sydney, seems to have figured out how to keep the two of them safe from Edie’s father, an abusive man. Then all of Sydney’s efforts fail once again, and Edie and Sydney leave Toronto with whatever they can pack in a rush.

This time Sydney chooses London as their escape, and Edie hates it. She doesn’t want to go to a new school—she’s done it too many times and knows what to expect. She misses Peaches, because they couldn’t bring her across the ocean. Edie didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to her best friend. Not to mention the weather in London seems so dreary all the time, which only underscores Edie’s dislike for the entire situation.

But Edie knows she doesn’t have a choice. She does her best to settle into her new school even though a bully targets her on her first day. Her mother even gets a job where she can get paid under the table. On her first day of work Sydney promises to come home by a certain time. When she doesn’t show up Edie begins to worry. When Sydney stays missing, Edie fears the worst: her father has found them yet again.

She doesn’t know anything about London, but the idea of going to the police terrifies Edie. That’s the fastest track to end up with a foster family, she knows, and there’s no way she can go stay with a foster family if she wants to find her mom. But where will she begin? How will she search through the myriad of London’s streets all by herself? And how much time does she have left?

Author Mary Jennifer Payne scores a winner with Since You’ve Been Gone. Edie’s dilemma will challenge teens to think about a host of issues in their lives today, everything from bullying to trusting rumors and gossip. Payne uses first person for Edie’s voice, and the choice allows readers access to more than just Edie’s thoughts. It increases the tension and gives readers the opportunity to feel everything Eddie feels: her fear; her desperation; and her certainty about why her mother disappeared.

Payne doesn’t shy away from the reality of life on the streets, and even though her protagonist is a teenager Payne allows Edie a glimpse into adulthood. Teen readers may want to take note: life as an adult may look uncomplicated until you have to act like one. Edie discovers this firsthand and deals with her situation with bravery and fortitude.

Still, the tension will increase on every single page, and readers won’t want to stop until they come to the book’s climax and Edie has exhausted all of her options. I highly recommend readers Bookmark Since You’ve Been Gone.

Brand new book review: The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward

By Ekta R. Garg

January 21, 2015

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

A woman in the United States deals with the consequences of a life-changing illness. A young girl in Honduras tries to lead her family despite the worst economic conditions. The two will meet in unexpected circumstances that will once again change both of them. Amanda Eyre Ward gives readers this plot in the well-intentioned but deeply lopsided novel The Same Sky.

Alice and her husband, Jake, run a celebrated barbecue restaurant in Austin. The restaurant has begun to receive national attention and Alice couldn’t feel happier for Jake, the son of an experienced barbecue restaurateur. After her breast cancer diagnosis, a double mastectomy, and premature menopause, Alice feels like she’s finally getting a chance to partake in something productive.

Not that all is perfect in Austin. Alice’s deep longing for children provides the couple with a stumbling block. A failed adoption only makes things worse; the birth mother reneges on the adoption just days after Alice and Jake bring the baby home. Since losing the child, Alice can’t think of anything else.

In Honduras Carla does all she can to display bravado. Her mother left the family when Carla was only six years old, making the dangerous, exhausting trip to enter the U.S. illegally, so she can earn money and raise the family’s economic status. Since her mother left, Carla has run the house. She takes care of her twin brothers and their grandmother.

Carla’s mother eventually saves enough money to send for one brother. Carla keeps hoping her mother will send for her and her other brother, Junior. When Carla’s mother left, town life hadn’t become so unbearable. As economic hardships strike the town, however, money becomes even more scarce. At one point Carla begins digging through dumpsters for any items to salvage and sell.

When her grandmother dies, Carla knows she can’t stay in Honduras any longer. Junior has begun engaging in dangerous activity. If she wants to keep both of them safe, Carla will have to find a way herself to cross the border. Despite stories of failed border crossings, Carla knows she will not stop trying until she reaches her mother.

Author Amanda Eyre Ward creates two diametrically opposed characters, albeit unintentionally. Carla’s sweet voice underscores the gravity of her situation. In the end notes of the book Ward shares the fact that she spoke to girls in situations similar to Carla’s, and the research certainly shines. Carla’s three-dimensional will draw readers in, shock them, and make their hearts ache.

By sharp contrast Alice doesn’t kindle any feelings of sympathy in readers; in fact, if nothing else, by the end of the book readers may sigh in relief in the fact that Alice’s side of the story has ended. No one can dispute the fact that Alice has suffered hardships. Her reactions to those hardships seem too pat, almost trope-like. Alice’s laser focus on the child issue guarantees that she doesn’t change throughout the entire book; readers hoping for a protagonist who travels a character arc will feel disappointed by Alice.

Because Ward chooses to tell the entire story in first person, alternating chapters between Carla and Alice, readers may find it difficult to sit through the Alice portions. Had she simply chosen to tell Carla’s story Ward would have given readers a book that drew them in and refused to let go. Unfortunately The Same Sky doesn’t do that.

If readers want to experience firsthand the journey of an illegal immigrant I recommend readers Borrow The Same Sky. Otherwise Bypass it.