Latest review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 29, 2015

Genre: Contemporary fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A young girl thinks the hardest thing she has to endure is losing her grandmother to cancer—until her grandmother leaves the girl with a series of letters to deliver. Despite the girl’s deep grief, she begins the task and learns about the woman who was her grandmother and best friend. Fredrik Backman, author of the amazing novel A Man Called Ove, delivers another book to remember in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

Elsa, an almost-eight-year-old, doesn’t have friends her own age, but she has someone better than friends. She has Granny, who isn’t the typical grandmother. Granny doesn’t wear cardigans and bake cookies. No, Elsa’s Granny breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and drives like a mad person in her car, Renault. She launches elaborate protests to the newspaper company for sending circulars in the mail and shares her thoughts as soon as they pop into her head.

And she tells Elsa stories—amazing stories about a secret land where only Elsa and Granny go. The two share a secret language too, and Elsa knows that nothing is impossible with Granny. She also understands, as a child of divorced parents who have each found new partners, that Granny’s outlandish behavior acts as a diversion from the hardships of Elsa’s life. The kids in school don’t like her because she’s “different,” and with a new half sibling on the way Elsa can admit to Granny that she’s unsure of how her life will progress with the baby in the picture.

When Granny dies, though, all of the best things in Elsa’s life disappear…or so she thinks. Elsa learns that Granny’s spunky spirit still lingers; she’s left a series of letters for Elsa to find and deliver to various people. Quickly enough Elsa realizes the letters contain apologies to their recipients. Granny’s forthright, outspoken behavior often caught people off guard and sometimes offended them, and Granny knew that. So she takes the opportunity to apologize to them from beyond the grave.

As Elsa works through her grief and carries out her beloved grandmother’s final wish, she learns more about this woman who she had only ever known as “Granny.” In time, Elsa realizes, Granny held a special place in other people’s lives. Angry at first that she has to share her Granny with so many others, Elsa begins to understand that it is by sharing someone that we really keep that person alive.

Author Fredrik Backman’s second novel follows his phenomenal debut novel at the same level of skill, wit, and heart-wrenching reality. Once again Backman gives his readers characters who move into the mind and heart and stay there long after the book ends. In Elsa Backman creates a young girl liberated by the imagination of youth and entrapped by its limitations, and readers will want nothing more than to gather Elsa into their arms for a big hug.

Elsa’s Granny, too, deserves a special mention; she exhibits all of the classic traits of a grandparent willing to do anything to protect a grandchild. In Granny’s case that “anything” often rolls right over extreme limits, but she doesn’t care—and that’s exactly why readers will love her. Everyone needs a Granny in their corner.

The star of the book, once again, is Backman’s prose. He balances whimsical word choices with literary brilliance and takes readers along for a magical journey that brings them right back to what is good, and not, in their own lives. The cultural nuances of Backman’s native Sweden, where the book is set, only enhance the overall story.

I highly recommend readers Bookmark My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

(I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased, honest review.)

Brand new review: The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

By Ekta R. Garg

July 20, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A family along with the other residents of a small town get ready for the town’s sesquicentennial in pre-World War II West Virginia. Once a prominent standard in the town’s society, the members of the family now spend their days trying to live down infamy. When a young society woman joins the town for a summer, truths come out and the family members will do what they can to hold on to the little bit of self-esteem they have left. Author Annie Barrows, co-writer of the lovely novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, goes solo for the mostly sweet book The Truth According to Us.

In Macedonia, West Virginia, Willa decides she doesn’t want to be treated like a child anymore. At the age of 12 she’s old enough to understand what the adults know, and she knows of no reason why the grownups can’t just tell her everything. For instance, why does her aunt, Jottie, get all red in the face when she sees Mr. McKubin?

Jottie has plenty of reasons to blush but no one in her life to receive the blushes and the affection behind them. After a dramatic tragedy took the one boy she’s ever loved, Jottie found a companion in grief in her older brother, Felix. Felix understands Jottie’s pain; her first love was also his best friend, and the three formed a trio that people took for granted. Until the trio lost one of its members.

After a failed marriage, Felix has brought his two daughters home to Jottie. Willa is the elder child, curious about the world, and Bird, her younger sister, revels in her position as the youngest family member. Felix supports the family with his business, although no one really talks about what that business is. Willa has decided she wants to know what her father does and why some people smirk or cross the street when they see Felix coming.

Things get complicated when Miss Layla Beck, daughter of a prominent senator, comes to spend a summer in Macedonia as a boarder in Jottie and Felix’s home. Her arrival upsets the family’s routine—or, at least, that’s what Willa thinks. She notices the way Layla and her father begin to orbit one another like a planet and its moon, and Jottie and the other members of the household try to stay off the collision course. There are many things Willa doesn’t understand, and her father’s attraction to Layla Beck is definitely one of them. But she’s determined to discover the truth of that attraction and everything else the adults want to hide.

Author Annie Barrows captures small-town life in all its glory. The research she highlights in her acknowledgments shines. Barrows shows readers everything from the dialogue of a West Virginian town to the despondency of a nation in the grip of its worst financial crisis. It won’t take readers long to feel like they live right down the street from Willa and her family, thanks to Barrow’s arresting narration.

Some story points might feel a tad cliché. Layla and Felix’s attraction to one another seems like a foregone conclusion from the time Layla enters the house. Bird’s position as younger sister seems to fill a character requirement, nothing more. Even the tragedy that led to the family’s downfall before the story begins feels tried and true.

With Willa, Jottie, and Layla taking turns as narrators, however, Barrows shines in the characters she chooses to develop to the fullest. And in reality the true star of the book is Macedonia itself: the quirks of its residents, the fading hope of those residents in the one major employer left in town, and the revelations that not all small-town stereotypes hold true.

I recommend readers Borrow The Truth According to Us.

(I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased, honest review.)

New review: Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World (anthology)

By Ekta R. Garg

July 15, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

Falling in line with all things digital and byte-sized, W.W. Norton released this spring its third anthology of flash fiction.Called Flash Fiction International, the book shares three editors: James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill. The difference between this book and the previous two collections comes in the addition of international authors, no small undertaking by the editors and the publisher. The result brings readers a deep collection of stories that will leave them wanting more, albeit at the small concession of extensive plots.

Flash fiction, unlike other forms of stories, doesn’t take its time to offer readers a buildup. Readers must jump into the story worlds like jumping into a pool of cold water and allow the shock of the prose envelop them quickly and completely. Because of this, some stories build on concrete ideas right away.

In this collection stories like “Not Far from the Tree” by South African writer Karina M. Szczurek gives readers a chance to ponder with Madolyn, the protagonist, the meaning of marriage as she defends her own. Author Chen Qiyou from Taiwan details the way a person can hold one’s self responsible for tragedy in “Butterfly Forever.” In “Prisoner of War” from Muna Fadhil in Iraq, main character Sahira deals with the practical challenges of a family member who comes home after spending time in prison.

Several stories start to blur the lines between the concrete and the abstract. Alberto Chimal, a Mexican writer, details a baptism in “The Waterfall” but chooses an unexpected protagonist and pushes the story to a greater sense of depth as a result. In “Late for Dinner” by British author Jim Crace, the main character thinks about the consequences of delaying his arrival at a family gathering; by doing so, Crace gives his protagonist—and the reader—the space to accept those thoughts that normally get pushed away. The concept of secret thoughts gets explored even more in the story “Reunion” by United States author Edward Mullany when a woman runs into her ex-husband’s new wife.

Some stories push completely into the world of the abstract, leaving the reader to glean whatever meaning s/he can. For example, from Italy writer Giorgio Manganeilli gives readers “An Ouroboric Novel” about a woman who gives birth to a sphere. What does the sphere represent? Every reader gets to decide. The collection opens with “The Story, Victorious” from Israeli author Etgar Keret, a short tale that extols its own virtues—literally. What does this mean for readers in the figurative sense? Polish writer Natasza Goerke’s tale “Stories” ends the entire collection by asking the reader what matters.

In an homage to the legacy of flash fiction, the editors included a few choice favorites and older tales. Readers will travel with Death in Somerset Maugham’s “Appointment in Samarra.” Franz Kafka’s native Czechoslovakia gets represented by his story “An Imperial Message” about an emperor’s missive and the messenger trusted with it. From ancient Rome readers will enjoy Petronius’ “The Young Widow” about a woman who can show practicality even in the midst of grief.

The book contains stories for a variety of appetites, but readers who like a little more meat to their tales may need to remind themselves that the demands of flash fiction don’t allow for much more than an appetizer. Also, in an age where digital technology allows readers fast access to quality fiction across the internet, the editors and the publisher should probably look into making the next anthology available much sooner (the previous collection released in 2005.)

I recommend readers Borrow Flash Fiction International.

Second review for today: The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell

By Ekta R. Garg

July 8, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A man who loses his wife must deal with the emotional consequences of her death…especially because she wasn’t his first wife. She was, in fact, his third. While the death is definitely a shock to his first two wives and the five children between them, the man starts to realize in the months afterward that what he thought of as a happy, well-adjusted extended family may be anything but that. Lisa Jewell offers readers British charm and wit in the engaging novel The Third Wife.

On the surface, Adrian Wolfe seems to have it all: a successful career as an architect at the head of his own firm and a young sweet wife. But to the world Adrian’s bonus comes in the fact that even though Maya is his third wife, she gets along with his first two wives and the five children he had with them. The entire complicated family even vacations together every year, and they meet the world with smiles and their arms around one another.

When Maya gets into an accident and dies, however, Adrian spends the weeks after her death in extreme grief. The rest of his family also reacts with shock, but when the shock wears off for Adrian he starts to notice cracks in the perfect image of his family…and the reality of his previous two divorces begins to seep through the cracks. Then Adrian’s oldest son finds something that makes everyone question the cause of Maya’s death. Could her death have been something other than an accident? Is Adrian’s “perfect” family—with stepmothers and stepchildren, with Adrian flitting between everyone like a minor celebrity—actually less than perfect?

Author Lisa Jewell injects The Third Wife with trademark British humor and with characters who will (mostly) grow on readers. At the outset of the book, readers will find themselves reacting with incredulity to Adrian’s confidence. How can a man actually believe that three women who call themselves his wives can meld their separate lives and their own children into a happy-go-lucky family?

In reality Adrian’s cluelessness becomes the driving force for the book, and the story becomes as much about his internal transformation as the mystery surrounding Maya’s death. Did someone cause her accident? Did she commit suicide? The reasons for Maya’s death seem tangential at first, but as the book progresses the reasons begin to loop back to Adrian and his family.

Readers will need to stay patient through the first few chapters and what amounts, at times, to ridiculous assumptions by Adrian about his family. Also, they might wonder whether Jane, a secondary character was really necessary, and Susie, Adrian’s first wife, doesn’t seem as grounded in the story as the others. Jewell doesn’t give Susie her due, and at times her inclusion almost seems like a plot device needed to make Maya’s death more plausible.

For the most part, though, Jewell manages to keep her story balanced, and if nothing else readers will stay engaged to the end to find out how a key plot element unravels.

I recommend readers Borrow The Third Wife.

First review of two today: Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge

By Ekta R. Garg

July 8, 2015

Rated: Bookmark it!

A detective in Southampton, Great Britain, must follow the track of a serial murderer while trying to figure out the murderer’s motives. The victims have no connection to one another—at least, not at first. When the detective starts to figure out what the murderer wants to achieve, she must move fast before the murderer comes for her. British author M.J. Arlidge offers readers a fast-paced thriller in Eeny Meeny, the first novel of the Helen Grace series.

Detective Helen Grace receives word of a new crime by way of a victim who escaped, and the details are gruesome. A murderer kidnapped two people and left them with nothing except a gun and a cell phone that contains a pre-recorded message. A strange voice dictates the terms for release. The two victims must make a decision and use the gun so that one dies. When that person dies, the other gets to walk away.

The two kidnapping victims thought they would survive, but with no one coming forward to offer any information or even threats and no food or water the victims soon succumb to their circumstances. At some point one of them makes a choice, and Helen Grace must now find the kidnapper. As she and her team set out with the minimal amount of information, the kidnapper strikes again—and all of a sudden Helen Grace finds herself tracking a serial criminal.

Grace and the others can’t seem to make sense of the criminal’s choices, though. While most serial murderers choose victims who share a trait, these victims don’t seem to have any common factors. The ages and social standings vary wildly, and none of them seemed to know one another. Why would the murderer target these people?

Little by little Grace puts the pieces together, and she comes to a horrifying conclusion: the victims have connections to her. But why would someone target people she knows? And why these people? As the kidnapper starts choosing victims Grace knows well, the detective realizes she needs to work faster if she wants to save herself.

Author M.J. Arlidge hits all the right notes for a thriller, keeping his readers on edge throughout the entire book. The identity of the murderer will surprise many, and the murderer’s motivation will also catch people off guard. In a refreshing departure from some thrillers, Arlidge keeps the criminal’s hands fairly clean. The grisly elements of the crimes come from the victims themselves and their desperation.

Unlike some male authors, Arlidge handles his female protagonist with a great deal of gentleness. He allows Grace to be a woman when she needs to be a woman but also balances that femininity with the strength she needs as a police detective. That strength makes Grace’s vulnerabilities all the more troubling.

Because Eeny Meeny serves as Grace’s to readers for the entire series, Arlidge allows a few glimpses into her personal life but doesn’t dwell on those moments for too long. The result reveals a deft touch by Arlidge and will keep readers coming back for more.

Even with somewhat graphic moments that might make readers wince, I recommend readers Bookmark Eeny Meeny.

Second book review for this week: Those Girls by Lauren Saft

By Ekta R. Garg

July 1, 2015

Rated: Bypass it

Three high school girls at an exclusive private school spend their junior year navigating their love lives, friendships, and life challenges. Along the way they’ll learn just how far they will go to help—and hurt—one another. At the end of it all, they’ll need to decide whether they want to stay friends. Lauren Saft gives readers a hard look at life in high school today in the cliché-ridden novel Those Girls.

Alex and Mollie have been best friends for so long they can’t remember a time when they didn’t know one another. Veronica joined them in the fifth grade, but now she’s just as integral a member of their friendship. At the start of their junior year in their exclusive all-girls school in a Philadelphia suburb, though, things are about to change.

Of the three, Mollie is the only one who has the steady boyfriend…if dating the big guy on campus while every girl throws herself at him can be called steady. His wandering eye convinces her that she needs to do what she can to make him fall hopelessly in love with her all over again, and that includes staying in shape for him. If staying in shape means skipping a few meals, well, it’s a small price to pay to keep Sam by her side.

Alex starts off the year with an agenda: to make it into a band. Even though Alex has never talked to the girls about it, she really wants to become a part of something that doesn’t have anything to do with her life at school. Her best guy friend is all for it, and Alex knows she can count on his support. Trouble is, lately she’s been seeing him as more than a friend and she wants to count on him for more than friendship. But so far he doesn’t see her that way.

Everyone knows Veronica has it all and doesn’t mind giving it up—literally. Her extra nice attitude doesn’t quite eclipse her reputation as the girl who has done every guy worth doing in town. With parents more interested in their own lives than hers, Veronica has the run of the house. Even though her reputation as the party girl is intact, though, Veronica starts to realize that there may be more than a rep to life.

As they start their junior year, situations get complicated as much by the unfolding of circumstances as by their personalities. Alex, Mollie, and Veronica will need every ounce of whatever bond they share if they’re going to get through the year intact.

Author Lauren Saft reinforces and fortifies every single stereotype people across the country have about the exclusive type of institution her characters attend. In the world of Those Girls parents are nonexistent and leave their teens to do whatever pleases them. The girls at the school indulge in every single vice known to man and don’t mind egging one another on in those indulgences. Conversations are dominated by the desire to do drugs or their sex lives: who they want to do, who they’re currently sleeping with, and an in-depth breakdown of the intercourse after it happens.

If someone completely unfamiliar with American life were to pick up this book, that person would come away with the impression that all American teens have foul mouths, want to spend more time getting high than getting an education, and are in the ever-persistent pursuit of the perfect orgasm and what that implies (i.e., love for girls, a reputation as a stud for guys.) Some might applaud Saft’s detailing of this particular slice of American life. I just shook my head at the lengths the book went to fulfill all of the clichés shown in movies and other books of this nature.

I recommend readers Bypass Those Girls.

First review for today: The Lake Season by Hannah McKinnon

By Ekta R. Garg

July 1, 2015

Rated: Bypass it

A woman uses her sister’s wedding as a legitimate way to take a break from her life. When she arrives in New Hampshire from Boston, though, she realizes that may she need more than a break; maybe she needs a fresh start. By getting back in touch with old friends and reviving her relationships with her family, the woman finds that fresh start. Hannah McKinnon tries to entice readers in the predictable, plodding novel The Lake Season.

Iris Standish can’t seem to do anything right lately. Her teenage daughter offers her nothing more than an eye roll as conversation. She doesn’t know how to relate to the other mothers from school. And her husband has become distant lately. Iris has begun holding her breath, waiting for a shoe to drop.

When her husband says at the beginning of the summer that he wants a separation, though, Iris feels an entire rack of shoes has fallen on her head. After all the sacrifices she’s made with her career and everything they’ve gone through to have children in the first place, she doesn’t know what she could have possibly done wrong. But her husband has made his intentions crystal clear. As far as he’s concerned, their relationship is over.

A mysterious postcard shows up in the mail and turns into Iris’s ticket out of the house for a little while. Her younger sister, Leah, is getting married at the end of the summer to a man no one in the family has met. Iris and Leah haven’t shared a close relationship in many years, but now it seems Leah needs her big sister. The postcard simply says “Please come,” and Iris decides to answer her sister’s call.

She drives to her parents’ farm in New Hampshire and discovers that what started as a small stand of vegetables at the end of the driveway has turned into a thriving business. What’s  more, Iris discovers that free spirit Leah acted as the driving force behind the farm’s success. Iris also finds out that her old crush, Cooper Woods, has begun spending considerable time helping her parents restore their old barn and other farm structures. As she tries to sort through her relationship with Leah and her parents, a renewed attraction to Cooper, and a revitalization of her career as a literary agent through an unexpected opportunity, Iris begins to regain the confidence she needs to face her future.

Author Hannah McKinnon’s novel doesn’t offer readers anything new in terms of plot or character. From the overtly cliché opening conflict to Iris’s longing for escape and the fact that she finds it in an upcoming family event that requires her presence, McKinnon hits every single box on the list of predictability. Readers will have a hard time understanding how Iris can allow herself to be taken for granted to such a degrading degree by her husband, and that provision guarantees Iris’s attraction to Cooper even before she reaches New Hampshire.

In fact, readers won’t find it difficult to guess all of the secrets held by Leah or anyone else in the book. Long before Iris and Company hit the forced climax, readers will know what’s coming. The only redeeming factor of the entire book comes in the form of a secondary character from a different part of the country. Unfortunately he doesn’t get enough “screen” time to make much of an impact.

I recommend readers Bypass The Lake Season.