Latest review: The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

By Ekta R. Garg

August 9, 2017

Genre: Psychological thriller/mystery

Release date: March 7, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman determined to turn her child into the symbol of academic and extracurricular perfection goes missing. The detectives on the case must piece together who would want to harm her and figure out whether her tendency to antagonize others may have been her undoing. British author Paula Daly will keep readers guessing until the end in her latest book The Trophy Child.

Physician Noel Bloom is doing his best to be patient with his second wife, Karen, and her obsession with the child they had together, Bronte. Karen has made it her mission in life to turn 10-year-old Bronte into the golden child: a star in all academics as well as music and the arts. If a person names an activity or a subject, chances are Bronte is going to those classes or to extra coaching for them.

As if Karen’s laser-like focus on Bronte wasn’t creating enough tension in the house, Noel’s older daughter (and Karen’s step-daughter,) Verity, is fighting her way through probation at school. After an incident in which Verity attacked Karen, everyone in their small community looks at Verity askance. Their family has become the talk of the town, and all Noel wants is for everything to go back to normal.

When Bronte goes missing, however, normal is the last thing possible. Detective Sergeant Joanne Aspinall and her partner look into Bronte’s disappearance, only for Joanne to discover she already has a connection to the Bloom family. Connection or not, Joanne has to deal with Karen’s melodramatic tantrums. Karen refuses to take anyone’s advice on the investigation; she talks to the press when the police tell her to stay quiet, she answers the phone when the police tell her to leave it alone, and she continues to spread gossip about anyone she thinks will stand in Bronte’s way of success.

Just as the community and Karen begin to enter a frenzied state, Bronte comes home. She arrives unannounced, unassisted, and unharmed. Joanne tries on several occasions to coax Bronte to reveal where she went and whether anyone hurt her. A physical exam reveals that no one harmed Bronte’s body, but her mouth stays shut. She’s not answering questions for anyone.

Life sort of settles down and then becomes wildly out of sync again when Karen goes missing. No one can figure out the logic of it, least of all Joanne. The more she digs into the family, the less she understands about Karen and the other members of the Bloom household. Nothing resembles the previous cases Joanne has worked, but her tenacity pays off when gets a small break. As she follows up on that break, everything starts to chip and crumble until the entire case cracks wide open.

Author Paula Daly uses what readers love most about British books to her advantage: the dry wit; the moody climate; the “prim and proper” societal expectations. She includes all this and more in The Trophy Child. Readers will find themselves forming opinions about characters and changing those opinions based on the information Daly reveals in painstaking fashion.

The mystery takes its time to unfold, and some readers might get a little antsy as they’re waiting for one clue after another to be revealed. The plot in some places does drag a little. Karen’s older teenage son from another relationship, for example, offers a nice diversion from the main story, but readers may wonder at times whether as a character he’s necessary. Also, while Daly offers hints to Karen’s motivation for her almost manic behavior when it comes to Bronte, readers don’t really get a good look at Karen’s back story. If by design, this may increase sympathy and frustration by turns.

Noel’s passive, almost hapless, approach to life may also make some readers shake their heads, but it is exactly his passivity that keeps the engine of the story moving forward. A more self-assured person would have taken matters into his own hands, which would have taken the story in an entirely different direction. Also, when it matters most to him, Noel, doesn’t hesitate to act.

A few of the minor plot points linger longer than necessary, but for the most part this book hits all the right buttons for a mystery. I recommend readers Bookmark The Trophy Child by Paula Daly.

Review: The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

By Ekta R. Garg

August 2, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 25, 2017

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

A couple enter into a covenant with a mysterious organization that promises to help the newlyweds with their marriage. When members of the group begin putting pressure on the husband and wife to conform to the agreement’s stringent ways, they find themselves squirming under the intense scrutiny. Author Michelle Richmond manages to keep readers flipping pages through a novel that can’t stand up under closer examination in the breakneck-paced novel The Marriage Pact.

After living together for two years, Jake and Alice have finally decided to take the plunge. They’re getting married, and Jake can’t wait to start their life as a married couple. He loves Alice more than anything else, but they’re both feeling a bit of strain from their careers. Maybe getting married will offer them mini reset.

As a founding partner of a new psychology practice in San Francisco, Jake has spent a lot of time in the office. Alice has been burning hours as a new lawyer in a large firm. She wants to make a good impression at the firm, so when big-shot client Liam Finnegan visits the office Alice invites Finnegan and his wife to the wedding.

Finnegan sends Alice and Jake an unusual present that shows up on their doorstep days before the wedding with a note that states, “The Pact will never leave you.” The goal of the Pact and all Pact members is to uphold, support, and help develop marriage as a sacred union between two people. There are rules to follow, of course, but Jake and Alice don’t seem to take that part too seriously. All clubs seem to ask for some level of commitment from their members, right? How could the Pact be any different?

But it is different, which they find out the hard way. The leadership demands strict adherence to the Pact’s bylaws, including reading and memorizing its hefty manual. Alice seems to get on board with the entire concept, but Jake can’t help feeling a little frustrated by the entire venture. On the surface, the Pact preaches the very things he tells his marriage counseling clients. Inside the group, it’s another matter entirely. Before long Jake begins to wonder whether joining the Pact was a mistake, but regardless of what he thinks the Pact doesn’t seem quite so ready to let go of him and Alice.

Author Michelle Richmond manages to accomplish a puzzling feat: she writes a novel with a relentless pace that will make readers moving through the entire book, but the plot’s main turning points don’t stand up to closer analysis. Alice seems to have no problem accepting the Pact’s ways. Jake is more resistant to the Pact, especially when he discovers that an old college friend is also a Pact member but wants to get out.

The friend’s ambivalence about the Pact makes Jake suspicious, but at a key moment in the story he does what looks like an about face. In a follow-up scene, Alice reacts in a way that doesn’t keep in line with her character to that point in the novel. The rest of the book will certainly engage and maybe even shock readers, but the events that follow and the end don’t line up with the first part of the book.

At one point a character states that Jake and Alice are in a position to upend the entire Pact, but nothing in the story really explains how or why. In fact, in the larger narrative of what the Pact is trying to accomplish, Jake and Alice’s transgressions don’t come across as that egregious. It doesn’t make sense, then, why the Pact targets them in particular, and in hindsight all of Richmond’s devices to build up the suspense feel weak.

Readers who don’t mind a fast read without gravity may want to check this book out; otherwise, The Marriage Pact Borders on Bypassing it.

 

Newest review: The Island by Victoria Hislop

By Ekta R. Garg

July 26, 2017

Genre: Historical fiction

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman travels to the island of Crete off the mainland of Greece in search of her ancestral heritage and the answers her mother refuses to give her. She hopes that what she finds there will help her make decisions about her own life challenges. Instead she discovers secrets about her family that come from a world and era unlike her own. British author Victoria Hilsop uses the backdrop of the real-life defunct leper colony in Greece as the location of a sweeping family saga in her award-winning novel, The Island.

The restlessness Alexis Fielding experiences comes as much from her boyfriend’s impatience as it does her own questioning of their relationship. On the surface, Ed seems perfect for her. They epitomize the “opposites attract” philosophy. Despite their trip to Greece for a long-deserved holiday, however, Alexis can’t help but wonder if this is the beginning of the end of their life as a couple.

Greece offers plenty of other distractions too. Alexis knows her mother grew up in Crete off the coast of the mainland, but that piece of information and an old photograph on her mother’s bedside table provide the only real chinks in her mother’s implacable façade. Sofia Fielding doesn’t yield to emotion, and she certainly doesn’t bend to requests for stories from her past. Even then, Alexis can’t help pressuring her mother for answers before she and Ed go away. In a rare moment of sentimentality, Sofia tells Alexis about an old friend in Crete and gives Alexis a letter to deliver.

Alexis knows Ed won’t want to visit the small fishing town of Plaka, some 150 miles away from their lodging in Iraklion, so she makes the trek alone. She finds her mother’s old friend, delivers the letter, and sits down to hear a story almost 50 years old. The story spans generations, includes love and jealousy, and ultimately centers on the island of Spinalonga.

For Alexis the name evokes a sense of history, but for many in Plaka it meant a death sentence. Spinalonga served as the Greek government’s main leper colony for more than 50 years in a political bid to rid the island and the surrounding area of entrenched Turkish settlers. As Alexis visits the island and hears about her own family’s connection to it, she begins to understand her mother’s reticence and the need for Sofia to keep her story to herself.

Author Victoria Hilsop wrote The Island after visiting Spinalonga and finding it draw her into its past. The real-life citizens of Spinalonga found themselves cast away from society, yet they determined to stay resilient. They turned Spinalonga into a thriving community with shops and church services, movies on the big screen, and a hospital dedicated to the well-being of the island’s residents. Hilsop’s passion for and dedication to the island’s existence shine in the research she obviously did for the book. As Alexis gets drawn into the past, so do the readers.

The book reads like a sweeping saga with the essence of the classic Russian novels. Readers might find it hard to follow all the storylines, and the head hopping (switching character points-of-view) takes a little getting used to. Also, some of the choices made by some of the characters feel a little pat. Hilsop fulfills some tropes, but for the most part she’ll keep readers guessing.

Alexis’s own story gets relegated to the background, so readers shouldn’t expect to hear much from her during the entire book. Her visit to Plaka really is meant just to set up the entire premise. In fact, Hilsop could have started the story in the early 1950s and still come away with just as successful a novel.

The people of Plaka and Greece overall appreciated Hilsop’s careful detailing. The Greek television industry turned the novel into a 26-part mini-series that went on to become, by most accounts, the most successful mini-series of all time on Greek TV. The book itself has sold thousands of copies, hitting the bestseller lists in many countries, and many shops in Plaka sell autographed copies of the novel in its paperback version.

While the mechanics in the writing may have a few issues, overall the story is enjoyable. I recommend readers Borrow The Island by Victoria Hilsop.

Brand new review: The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

By Ekta R. Garg

July 19, 2017

Genre: Psychological thriller

Release date: July 18, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

A woman finds herself passing a lone motorist during a stormy night only to find out the next morning that the motorist got murdered. The woman begins to experience anxiety and guilt over not helping the victim, and when strange things start to happen at home she doesn’t know if it’s her conscience or something else driving her to question everything. Author B.A. Paris offers readers a pounding beginning to a novel that slows down to a plodding pace before rushing to a thoughtful ending in the moderately successful book The Breakdown.

It’s the end of the school year, and high school teacher Cass Anderson is spending the evening with her colleagues at a pub to celebrate another successful term. A storm breaks out just as she gets ready to leave, and she calls home to let her husband, Matthew, know she’s on her way. He tells her to stay on the main highway, knowing her tendency to take the shortcut through the woods to cut down on driving time.

Despite Matthew’s advice, Cass decides on impulse to take the shortcut. The storm has frightened her, and she wants nothing more than to get home as soon as possible. If that means enduring a somewhat scary drive through the woods, so be it.

On her drive down the little lane, Cass spots a parked car. She slows down long enough to see the outline of a woman in the driver’s seat, but the rain prevents her from seeing any distinguishing features. Cass thinks about asking the woman if she needs help, but the storm’s ferocity makes her decide against it.

The next day the media deliver the shocking news that the woman was found murdered, and the police have narrowed down the time of the killing close to when Cass drove past her. In the overwhelming guilt that ensues over the fact that she didn’t stop to help, Cass doesn’t tell Matthew that she took the shortcut. Her guilt gets worse when Cass finds out she actually knew the victim, Jane. They’d met through Cass’s best friend, Rachel, and Cass and Jane hit it off right away. In fact, the two had had lunch only weeks before Jane’s murder and had made plans to meet again.

Cass can’t get over the fact that if only she had helped Jane, maybe her new friend would still be alive. When Cass thinks of Jane’s twin toddlers and sees news reports of Jane’s devastated husband, she convinces herself that in a roundabout way she’s just as responsible for Jane’s death as the murderer.

Around the same time, Cass begins to forget things. Items ordered from a home shopping network show up on the doorstep. She can’t figure out how to use the appliances in her own kitchen anymore. Friends call and wonder why she doesn’t show up for planned lunch dates. Then there are the mysterious phone calls where Cass answers and the person on the other end doesn’t say anything at all. Could it be the murderer?

The forgetfulness terrifies Cass. She was there when her late mother received the diagnosis of early-onset dementia and spent three years as her mother’s caregiver. Cass knows what those last months and weeks look like. She doesn’t want to live through them herself.

Nothing makes sense. Bit by bit she finds her mental faculties starting to fail her, and her frustration hits an all-time high. She’ll have to do something, she knows, if she ever wants her life back. But she doesn’t know how to trust herself anymore.

Author B.A. Paris caught the attention of readers with her first novel, Behind Closed Doors, but her second book falls somewhat short. Within the opening pages of The Breakdown, readers will most likely guess what’s responsible for Cass’s deteriorating condition. Paris manages to offer just enough doubt to make readers wonder, but at some point initial suspicions will be confirmed.

While Paris certainly offers an engaging opening to the book, soon thereafter the entire plot begins to crawl as Cass is caught in an exhausting cycle of receiving phone calls and enduring her forgetfulness. Because the chapters are dated, readers will see that literally weeks go by—almost an entire summer—where Cass really isn’t doing much of anything other than sitting around and thinking about how scared she is. At some point, her fear gets boring.

The end of the book picks up momentum once again as Cass tackles her situation with a more proactive approach, but many readers may be tempted to give up on the story by then. Paris fans will probably stick with it; others might want to consider passing on the book. I recommend readers Borrow The Breakdown by B.A. Paris.

Second review: Love and Other Alien Experiences by Kerry Winfrey

By Ekta R. Garg

July 12, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 11, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A teen suffering from mild anxiety finds her condition kicked into overdrive when her father abandons her family. She holes up at home, but when someone nominates her for homecoming queen she realizes this may be the only chance she’ll have to force herself out of her comfort zone and back into her life. Author Kerry Winfrey charms readers in her lovely debut novel about facing life’s challenges in Love and Other Alien Experiences.

Mallory Sullivan doesn’t leave the house. Ever. Some kids at her high school assume she got pregnant and stayed at home. Some think she’s doing meth. A few have wondered whether she got arrested and is currently in juvenile detention.

One girl swears Mallory died, although how Mallory could be dead and attend school via webcam is beyond anyone’s guess.

Because that’s the only option left to her. Every morning Mallory checks into first period physics along with other juniors, except she does it through a computer screen. Ever since her major breakdown in the Cheesecake Factory one night when she was at dinner with her brother, Lincoln, and her best friend, Jenni, Mallory doesn’t leave the house.

Of course, Lincoln, Jenni, and Mallory’s mother have all done their best to coax her outside. Mallory even has phone sessions with a therapist who talks often about working up her courage to step onto the front porch for more than a few milliseconds. But the mild anxiety Mallory used to experience before her father left consumes her now, and every time she tries to go get the mail her heart pounds and she feels severely short of breath.

So she spends her days searching online for any clues to her father’s whereabouts and watching the world through her computer. Her chief source of entertainment is the web forum called “We Are Not Alone,” a place where conspiracy theorists swap stories about alien abductions and all things unexplained. With an ardent interest in The X-Files, Mallory has spent quite a bit of time talking through favorite episodes with other members. She enjoys her exchanges with one in particular who goes by the handle BeamMeUp.

A deadline of sorts hangs over Mallory’s head. The teachers at school insist she show up in person to take the upcoming midterms. Then one day while video chatting with Lincoln and Jenni at lunch, Mallory logs in just in time to hear that she’s been nominated for homecoming queen. Now she’s going to have to find a way to make her presence known at the homecoming dance.

She’s never played the popularity game, but the nomination spurs Mallory on to start caring. The winner gets $500, which could kick her search for her dad into high gear. All of a sudden Mallory is scheming with Jenni and Lincoln on how to win the most votes.

It doesn’t hurt that she gets paired with hunky football player Brad, a shoo-in for homecoming king, for a major physics project. She finds out that Brad isn’t a stuck-up jerk, and that gets Mallory thinking. If Brad isn’t what he seems, what does that mean about the other kids at school? And what does that mean about how they see her?

Author Kerry Winfrey offers positive messages and a less sullied side of high school life in her debut novel. Readers will identify with her anxiety. Mallory’s worries may be elevated, but everyone knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Everyone, at one time or the other, has wanted to stay at home when life throws them a bevy of challenges.

Winfrey could have done a better job of balancing the reality of Mallory’s anxiety with what she’s built up in her head. She gets coaxed outside a few times but doesn’t ever really stop to analyze how this means that much of what she feels is manufactured by her sadness at being abandoned by her father. This small lapse notwithstanding, Winfrey doesn’t apologize in any way for the fact that she’s writing a fairly clean book. No salacious high school affair; no extreme cattiness. By giving Mallory a manageable, relatable problem, Winfrey reminds readers that sometimes a challenge really is surmountable.

I recommend readers Bookmark Love and Other Alien Experiences.

Newest review: Just A Normal Tuesday by Kim Turrisi

By Ekta R. Garg

July 12, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A girl receives a suicide note from the older sister she adores and rushes to save her, only to realize it’s too late. As she fights to understand why her sister, a seemingly happy person, would take such drastic measures, she begins to follow a path of self-destruction and alarms her parents enough to send her to a grief camp. Author Kim Turrisi mines her own heartbreaking experience to bring to life the reality of a sibling committing suicide in the very real novel Just A Normal Tuesday.

Sixteen-year-old Kai Sheehan thinks it’s a regular Tuesday until she gets home from school and picks up the mail. In it she finds a letter addressed to her from her big sister, Jen. Curious, Kai opens the letter. Jen just had dinner with Kai and their parents a couple of days earlier. Why the need for the letter?

As Kai reads, she realizes Jen hasn’t just sent her a letter: it’s a final goodbye. Jen tells Kai to be strong, to go forward with all her plans for life. To wear anything but black at the funeral.

Despite her efforts to get to her sister’s apartment as fast as possible, Kai reaches there only to realize she’s late by two days. Jen had dinner with the family and then went home and made her choice. Something drove her to make an irrevocable decision that will change Kai’s life forever.

Kai and her parents spiral out from one another in their grief as they struggle to understand just why Jen would do this. Jen’s friends, too, have no answers. No one can remember Jen ever appearing overly sad or upset. From what anyone can gather, she didn’t undergo any traumatic life experiences. So what would make her just give up and kill herself?

For Kai the burden of her sister’s death becomes too much. She begins to find solace in stolen prescription drugs and alcohol. Her two best friends, TJ and Emily, cover for her for a while, but eventually they start worrying about Kai. Eventually the truth comes out, and Kai’s parents make a decision: they’re sending Kai to a special camp for grieving teens.

At first Kai resents her parents for shipping her off. What do they know about losing a sister? And do they actually think sending her away is going to fix anything?

As Kai gets to know the other campers, some older, some younger, she discovers grief wears many faces. Someone has lost a parent; someone has lost a grandparent. Others have lost siblings like her. The kids at camp may come from different backgrounds, but all of them know what it’s like for parts of their hearts to be missing. If she’s ever going to learn how to move forward after Jen’s death, Kai will need to stay open to love and whatever form it takes.

Author Kim Turrisi shares in a note that she wrote Just A Normal Tuesday from personal experience. When she was a teen, her sister committed suicide. That painful experience allows Turrisi to give the most authentic voice possible to Kai and her pain. Instead of dressing up Kai’s grief in poetic phrases, Turrisi lets Kai express herself in some of the plainest language possible.

“I dread the sound of the locking dead bolt on the front door as my father seals us all inside,” Kai says after Jen’s funeral. “The finality is undeniable. The population of our family is now officially three.”

Later, as Kai argues with her parents, she doesn’t shy away from trying to guilt them into letting her get her way. “It’s not my fault that Jen killed herself,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to pay the price.”

At times, too, Kai’s thoughts compress into single words that say everything.

“Mad. Sad. Resentful. All colliding.”

When she’s dealing with the fallout from Jen’s death, Kai’s time at the grief camp comes across as just as authentic. Some of her interactions with the other characters feel a little less so, but the flip-flopping Kai does between emotions can also be attributed to the face-slap reality that grief causes without a moment’s notice. Turrisi’s commitment to the story, in any case, never wavers and carries Kai to the end.

Anyone who has dealt with the suicide of someone close or who knows someone contemplating the act would be well advised to read this book. I recommend readers Bookmark Just A Normal Tuesday.

Latest review: Textrovert by Lindsey Summers

By Ekta R. Garg

July 5, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

When a shy high school senior accidentally switches phones with a football star, she gets more than a week-long text exchange. The teen finds out she can be funny and outgoing and all the things she imagined only other girls embodied. As she finds out, however, people can only reveal the truth about themselves when they’re actually face to face. Wattpad author Lindsey Summers shares this sweet story with readers in her first novel, Textrovert.

Keeley Brewer knows one thing for sure: her twin brother, Zach, is way more popular than she is. And why wouldn’t he be? As a bona fide football star, the entire student body of Edgewood High is counting on Zach to take them all the way to victory at the state finals. Although she’d never really say it to his face, Keeley just doesn’t get what the big deal is with football. She’d much rather hang out with her best friend, Nicky, anyway.

The girls make a plan to visit the fair at the end of the summer as a sort of last bash before senior year starts, and Keeley could definitely use a night out. Despite her assertion at the beginning of vacation that she’d get all of her AP homework done, she hasn’t even cracked a book yet. Maybe a trip to the fair will help her with all the stress. Unfortunately going to the fair only makes the stress worse when Keeley accidentally leaves her phone on a food table. She rushes back to find it sitting there, only to realize much later that the phone she picked up isn’t hers.

Somehow she managed to switch phones with a boy named Talon. The two begin texting back and forth, and while Keeley would do anything to get her phone back ASAP Talon says he’s off to football camp for a week. After some banter, he agrees to contact Keeley any time she has a text or voicemail.

It may have started off as a simple message exchange system, but soon enough Keeley finds herself talking to Talon about all sorts of things. With him, behind the safety of the cell phone screen, she acts like a different person. She isn’t the introverted girl who lives in her brother’s shadow. She’s funny and flirty and can come up with some great one-liners to dish it right back to Talon.

Talon finally gets back into town, and the two agree to meet and exchange phones. Before Keeley knows it, though, their meeting leads to a disaster of identity. Talon has been hiding something about himself. When she finds out what it is, Keeley will have to decide whether she can keep talking to this guy who she’s been falling for one text at a time.

In her first novel, author Lindsey Summers offers the YA set something to balance other books in the genre: a sweetness that feels more authentic than much of the dystopian or heavy-handed fare available. Readers expecting a life-altering experience, such as in The Hunger Games, will find Textrovert all the way on the other end of the spectrum, and that’s a good thing. As much as target market readers need books to ground them in the grim reality of the world, they also need stories that reflect their most common experiences.

Some of the plotting feels a little rushed. Keeley’s brother, Zach, accepts what he perceives as her flaking out on him early in the book without questioning her on it even once. They may be twins, but often they don’t act within the cultural parameters expected of twin siblings. Summers may have taken this approach intentionally; readers might think it’s an oversight.

Still, Summers manages to offer teens issues they can identify with: cyber bullying; the uncertainty that comes with a first love; and feeling out of place even among one’s friends and family. All of these topics surface in the book in a manner accessible and solvable. Some readers might wonder if the problems discussed come across as too simplistic. Others may appreciate the lack of the heavy-handed approach that often accompanies YA novels.

I recommend readers Bookmark Textrovert.