Newest review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

February 8, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Binge it!

A mother to a three-year-old disappears, and 10 years later that daughter wants to know where her mother went. The girl ropes in two reluctant adults to help, and the three of them work together to solve the mystery with an end no one could have guessed. Author Jodi Picoult will make readers pause and want to start over at the beginning of the book as soon as they’re done with it in the thought-provoking novel Leaving Time.

Jenna Metcalf knows one thing for sure: her mother, Alice, left when was three years old. Her grandmother raised her, but her grandmother doesn’t fit the stereotype of a soft-hearted woman who bakes cookies and wears sweaters and comfortable shoes. Jenna knows her grandma loves her, but she desperately misses Alice. All she has of her mother is the journals Alice kept during her research into elephant grief in Africa.

She has read and re-read Alice’s journals hoping for some clue to her mother’s whereabouts. More disturbing is the question of what made Alice leave in the first place. The logical person to ask would be her father, Thomas, except that not long after Alice’s disappearance Thomas got admitted to a psychiatric ward. On his better days, he treats Jenna with gentleness. On his bad days, he sees her as his lost wife.

It doesn’t help that Alice’s disappearance came at the end of a night of tragedy. One of the employees at the elephant reserve in New Hampshire that Thomas built died in a horrible accident. The police found Alice unconscious and took her to a hospital. When she regained consciousness, she left the hospital before anyone could find out what happened that night. No one has seen her since.

But that isn’t good enough for Jenna. She’s spent hours looking into her mother’s disappearance and trying to solve the mystery, if only to get an answer to the question of why. Why would her mother leave her behind? Why didn’t she come back for Jenna at some point?

Having exhausted all other options, Jenna enlists the help of psychic Serenity Jones. By the time Jenna finds Serenity, the woman is doing fake readings for whatever meager prices she can charge. Despite her genuine talent of talking to the dead, a botched reading from her past leaves her unable to communicate with who have passed away. Serenity really doesn’t want to help Jenna, but Jenna eventually talks her around.

Jenna isn’t done recruiting her team, however. She tracks down Virgil Stanhope, the officer on the case when Alice disappeared. After copious cups of coffee to get him sober, Jenna convinces Virgil that helping her is better than spending the rest of his days at the bottom of a bottle. Virgil opposes the entire operation, but Alice’s disappearance has haunted him as much as it’s haunted Jenna.

The three start working through all the details of Alice’s disappearance. The more time they spend together, the more they realize the information from the police investigation isn’t the full story. What the three of them discover will keep them second-guessing until the end of their new search.

Author Jodi Picoult delves so deeply into her story world that before long readers will live and breathe the details of the characters’ lives. She handles younger characters and older ones with ease. Jenna’s voice during her chapters comes through loud and clear. Readers’ hearts will ache for her as she describes life without a mother. The fact that Jenna doesn’t even know whether Alice is alive or dead makes her longing worse, for both her and readers.

Picoult’s mastery with characters’ voices continues with Serenity and Virgil. Both of them have spent considerable time in their careers hiding from the truth. Both of them need Jenna as much as she needs them. They just don’t know it when they meet her. Picoult winds the threads of all three characters with such delicacy that readers won’t see the ending coming. When it does, everything makes sense in the most right way possible for the mystery.

I recommend readers Binge Leaving Time.

Newest review: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

By Ekta R. Garg

February 1, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

An illegal immigrant and a woman wanting a child will cross paths when the immigrant’s son goes into the foster system. Both women pursue the child, and neither will ever be the same when she reaches the end of her journey. Author Shanthi Sekaran explores the world of wanting a child and keeping one in the grossly lopsided novel Lucky Boy.

At the age of 18, Solimar Castro-Valdez only knows two things for sure: her small village in Mexico is running out of options for a viable life and America will change everything beyond her wildest dreams. After all, her cousin, Silvia, made it to America, and everyone knows how well Sylvia’s life turned out. If Soli wants a chance to help her family improve their economic standing, she knows she’ll have to undertake the dangerous journey across the border.

Some people have tried and failed, come back in utter distress or disgrace, but Soli knows she won’t end up like that. Her father has made arrangements with a man who guarantees Soli’s safety—until the journey begins, and he doesn’t anymore. When Soli learns he intends for her to be a drug mule, she runs away and joins another migrating group. Then she meets someone who will change her life forever.

But that isn’t the only change Soli will experience, and she learns that all the stories people told in Mexico about the arduous journey to America are true. Weeks after leaving her hometown, she arrives on Silvia’s doorstep forlorn but not broken. Despite the discovery that she’s pregnant, Soli gets a job as a cleaning lady and nanny to a family in Berkeley, California.

On the other side of the city, Kavya and Rishi are living any young couple’s dream. Kavya gets to exercise her cooking skills as head chef, albeit at a sorority house, and Rishi works at a successful startup. They feel like they should be grateful for what they have, yet they can’t get around the one thing they don’t: a child. Fertility treatments don’t work, so Kavya and Rishi decide to adopt.

Rishi in particular becomes convinced that adopting out of the foster system will ground his place in the world. Kavya, less sure, agrees to look into the process. Through a complicated series of events they meet Soli’s son, now one year old, and Kavya falls in love with the boy immediately. What they don’t realize is that Soli never intended to give him up; he was taken from her, and after losing everything else she will do whatever it takes to get him back.

Author Shanthi Sekaran tackles the foster care system as well as issues of illegal immigration and infertility in a book that could have made a deep impact, and it does to an extent. Soli’s story will draw out readers’ hearts and make them look twice at themselves as well as the immigrants, legal or not, who believe with wholehearted desperation that the United States offers solutions to all of their problems.

Less successful, by a wide margin, is the story of Kavya and Rishi. Kavya comes across as self-absorbed and someone with too great a sense of entitlement. Rishi handles everything tentatively to the point that even when he and Kavya welcome Soli’s son into their home, readers will begin to wonder whether he really wanted to be a father in the first place. Kavya starts the process with her yearnings to be a mother; Rishi becomes the one to champion the foster care system. Neither of them seem to understand the far-reaching consequences of what they’re doing.

Had Sekaran chosen to cut out Rishi and Kavya altogether and simply followed Soli’s story, the impact would have been much deeper. As it is, the book during Soli’s portions will astound readers with its initial force and then leave them with too many unanswered story questions after they’ve absorbed the impact. Those unanswered questions come mostly from Kavya and Rishi’s involvement in the plot.

Due to the title, readers will assume Soli’s son has a much larger role to play but ultimately he becomes a placeholder for an immigrant’s dream. While the book is worth reading for Soli’s perspective, readers may not be able to fully appreciate the story Sekaran is attempting because of her other protagonists. For this reason, Lucky Boy is Bordering on Bypass it.

Newest review: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

By Ekta R. Garg

January 25, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Bypass it

A woman discovers that the previous tenant of her home died a tragic death, and her interactions with the architect/landlord of the house convinces her something odd happened before she moved in. The more she finds out, the more she realizes she may be in danger herself. Author JP Delaney shares the story of the two women and the man who links them in the fast paced but ultimately disappointing novel The Girl Before.

Emma wants to move out of her London flat as soon as possible. After surviving a break-in at her current home, she just can’t face staying there any longer than necessary. When the realtor shows Emma and her boyfriend the home at One Folgate Street, Emma feels the home calling to her.

The clean lines and austere décor only become more intriguing when she and her boyfriend receive the tenant application that has more than 200 questions. The rules for the home confound Emma—no trash cans or books; no shampoo left out after a shower—but they also make her curious. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the curiosity aspect of the house, however, and eventually the two break up. After a whirlwind relationship with Edward Monkford, the architect-cum-landlord, Emma dies under tragic but unsettling circumstances.

After delivering a stillborn infant, Jane wants to get away from everything in her life that reminds her of her baby girl. She feels the same draw to One Folgate Street that Emma did, and Jane takes the questions on the application as a challenge. Most never make it past that first application, but Jane does and she has the opportunity to meet Edward in his office before the final decision.

Jane finds herself attracted to him, and when her application to live at One Folgate Street is approved she realizes the attraction must have been mutual. Her guess is correct. One day Edward approaches Jane for what he calls an unfettered relationship. No strings attached; no commitments. They simply stay together until one of them decides the situation no longer makes sense.

Despite her initial hesitation, Jane agrees. As she spends more time with Edward, however, she realizes that some of his actions must be motivated by his relationship with Emma. Jane begins to question whether Emma’s death really was an accident. She’s afraid to find out, because she doesn’t want to know whether she’ll be next.

Author JP Delaney gives readers a book that moves at a breakneck pace. Telling the story in chapters that alternate between Emma and Jane’s points of view, Delaney pushes the story forward in an engaging effort. Readers won’t want to stop moving through the novel until they find out all of Emma’s secrets and how Jane handles the fallout from them.

Unfortunately, Delaney doesn’t fulfill the promises he makes in the first handful of chapters of the book. Edward Monkford’s entrance and character arc suggest someone worthy of Fifty Shades of Grey; in the end his entire outlook falls flat. Midway through the book, one of the two main women completely flips her entire profile. Delaney may have wanted to create an unreliable narrator similar to Gone Girl, but the transition isn’t nearly as smooth.

Ultimately Delaney builds the entire story up and then lets it fall off a cliff. Instead of making a terrific smash, it flutters to the ground in a heap of feathers. The end is just as disappointing as the beginning is fascinating.

I recommend readers Bypass The Girl Before.

Latest review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

By Ekta R. Garg

January 18, 2017

Genre: Historical fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

When a new bride must bid goodbye to her soldier husband during the Civil War, she has no idea of the challenges that will come her way. In addition to running an entire farm, she will deal with rogue slaves and wayward men taking full advantage of the separated families caused by the war. Author Susan Rivers writes with compassion and brings her experience as a playwright to the fore of her moving, timeless novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday.

At the age of 17, Placidia Hockaday has no thought of marriage. During the festivities of a family wedding, however, she meets widower and single father Major Gryffth Hockaday and feels a connection to him. When Major Hockaday asks her father for Placidia’s hand, Placidia agrees with little reservation.

The newlyweds get to spend a scant two nights together before Major Hockaday must return to the front lines of battle. Placidia learns to run the huge farm that was once the home of Major Hockaday and his late first wife. In addition to managing the farm, Placidia learns how to handle the slaves and also her most precious charge: her husband’s toddler son, Charles.

Placidia loves Charles immediately, and she proves herself resourceful in running the farm. But when the major comes home at the end of the war, he receives word of a horrifying fact: during his absence, Placidia became pregnant, gave birth, and lost a child who she then buried on their land. Enraged, the major asks for legal proceedings to begin against his wife.

He confronts Placidia but gets no information from her and takes her silence to mean that she was, indeed, unfaithful. Within months Major Hockaday drops all the charges, and he and Placidia reconcile. Their relationship, however, is forever altered, as much by Placidia’s unspeakable circumstances as by Major Hockaday’s post-traumatic stress.

Author Susan Rivers shows her strength in the extensive research she did for The Second Mrs. Hockaday. Setting the book in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the country during the Civil War, creates somber overtones for a book that drives right at the heart of a conflict of this magnitude. Some facets may apply only to the era of the Civil War, but Rivers shows with ease that the struggles of war are timeless.

Despite this being her first novel, Rivers sets for herself an ambitious format: she tells the entire novel through letters, journal entries, and court documents. Not a single standalone piece of narrative comes into play. Some authors would attempt this format and end up letting their story down. Rivers succeeds on every front.

The result is a book that feels intimate on all levels. Its heartbreak and its terror become real because readers hear directly from Placidia, Gryffth Hockaday, and even their children and other family members. The letters the characters share as well as Placidia’s journal all go to show that war can affect people decades after it ends, and no one should take that consequence for granted.

Rivers does use some terms and language from the Civil War era, but she doesn’t let the language get in the way of the story. Readers will find themselves settling into the rhythm of the novel soon enough. For those who enjoy literary or historical fiction with universal overtones, I recommend readers Bookmark The Second Mrs. Hockaday.

Latest review: Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

January 11, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it

A student is brutally murdered, and the town’s sheriff vows to find the killer. The more he investigates the death, however, the more questions arise. He realizes that the girl, hailed as a great actress, may have kept the majority of her life off stage. Author Mindy Mejia takes readers into a small town and its scandals in the heart-wrenching novel Everything You Want Me to Be.

Hattie Hoffman knows she’s meant for something more than what her small town of Pine Valley, Minnesota, can offer. As a high school senior, she feels like she’s at a turning point in her life. Once she graduates, she’s leaving southern Minnesota behind and moving to New York City. It’s only in NYC, she knows, that she can find what she was meant to do.

She already has an inkling. She’s spent so much of her life playing a part: the obedient daughter; the gracious best friend; the model employee in the town’s drugstore. If she can play so many different roles every day, surely she can put that talent to good use on stage.

When the new English teacher, Peter Lund, comes to town, Hattie realizes she’s met a kindred spirit: someone who doesn’t belong in Pine Valley. Peter feels it too. He came back to Pine Valley as a kindness to his ailing mother-in-law. His wife, Mary Beth, is a townie and slips right back into life as a farmgirl, but Peter feels increasingly estranged from her and the girl she was back in Minneapolis.

Peter and Hattie inevitably get close, so when Hattie is found stabbed to death on the night of the big school play sheriff Del Goodman begins digging into the people around her. That includes Peter and also Hattie’s boyfriend, Tommy. The difficulty gets compounded by the fact that Del has known Hattie’s family since before she was born; he thinks of Hattie like a daughter.

It’s excruciating for Del to look her parents in the eye and share the details of her murder. He starts to pull apart the various facets of Hattie’s life and then must go back to her parents with her secrets. The adults who care so deeply about her realize they only knew the parts of Hattie that she chose to share, and if they want to find her killer they will need to understand all of her.

Author Mindy Mejia creates vivid characters. Hattie is definitely a young woman of this day and age but one who feels the trappings of small-town life. No matter how far the digital revolution carries the world, people in close proximity to one another will still take a scrutinizing interest in their neighbors. Mejia charts Hattie’s discomfort with the scrutiny in a delicate manner.

Peter’s anguish and inner conflict ring true to real life. While readers may not approve of his actions, they may sympathize with his plight. Mejia creates enough space around Peter to allow for that sympathy, not an easy task for an author.

Mejia has her hero in Del, the father figure who must keep fighting and doing his job to find justice for Hattie. Del balances his own grief with his job in an admirable manner that doesn’t come across as fake; again, Mejia sets up a complex character with success.

If the book can be faulted anywhere, it might be in the fact that Peter wishes to distance himself from small-town life and then lands right in the middle of a stereotypical small-town scandal. His conscience won’t leave him alone about it, however, and therein lies Mejia’s saving grace for Peter and the book. People from all walks of life, Mejia seems to say, are prone to stupid mistakes when they’re not thinking clearly.

Also, the big reveal of the killer’s identity comes across as a little clumsy, which is a shame given how cleanly the rest of the book is plotted. The murder itself and the way authorities find out both feel a touch serendipitous, and readers may feel cheated on that point but by then they may be happy just to know who actually did it.

The book alternates between Hattie, Peter, and Del’s points of view, teasing out the thriller aspect and leading and then misleading readers in the best ways possible before reaching the end. Everything You Want Me to Be Borders on Bookmarking it.

First review of 2017: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

By Ekta R. Garg

January 4, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Rated: Borrow it

 

A cop must delve into his own troubled past when he lands one of the hardest cases of his career: to find a local professor accused of murdering his entire family. The case becomes complicated because the officer and the professor had begun a friendship well before the murders. Now the entire town believes the professor has committed a horrible crime, and the officer will need to fight his own suspicions if he wants to prove his friend’s innocence. Author Randall Silvis tackles the thriller genre with strong literary overtones in the mostly successful novel Two Days Gone.

Sergeant Ryan DeMarco spends his days fighting crime and his nights fighting his inner demons. An accident years earlier left him with a broken family, and even though it’s been more than a decade he still struggles to make it through each block of 24 hours. Still, he knows his job requires him to remain alert and vigilant, especially when he receives word of a terrible crime.

Thomas Huston, bestselling author and an English professor at the local university, has gone missing at the worst possible time: his wife and three young children were discovered brutally murdered in their beds, and no one has seen Thomas since. DeMarco asks for permission to lead the case, citing the challenge, but even DeMarco’s supervising officer knows it’s the sergeant’s budding friendship with Thomas that drove him to ask for the lead.

DeMarco first met Thomas when the author contacted him about questions for a new book. The two shared a rapport and DeMarco begins to appreciate the presence of a new friend. Life was so much lonelier without one.

When the call comes, then, that Thomas has fled the area after the murders, DeMarco decides to trust his gut that Thomas didn’t kill his family. His faith in Thomas wavers at times but never breaks, and it allows him to start seeing patterns and finding leads no one else can. What he discovers is that a writer’s passion can often conflict with real life in the worst of ways, and Thomas may have allowed his drive to create his next bestseller override common sense.

Author Randall Silvis goes deep into the thriller genre with a decidedly literary slant and succeeds for the most part. Readers get the opportunity to explore the natural landscape of the small Pennsylvania town through Silvis’s description. Many thrillers skim over the weather and the topography of a book’s setting. Silvis offers his readers the chance to see the book’s setting, contributing to the tone, mood, and pace of the book.

The literary approach works in many places but only to a degree. Readers experience the story both from DeMarco’s point of view as well as Thomas’s perspective. Because Thomas is on the run at some point his observations begin to drag, especially due to the unanswered question of whether he did in fact kill his family. Not providing all of the answers right away leaves Thomas’s thoughts circling around the same feelings and ideas. After hearing about his pain and grief for the fourth or fifth time, readers may find themselves getting restless.

Fortunately Silvis takes the story away from Thomas about halfway through and lets DeMarco lead both the case and the book. While readers may feel a dearth of information after having spent so much time with Thomas throughout the beginning portions, it’s also almost a relief not to have to listen to his considerations that can border on the maniacal.

Less satisfying is the entire premise of the book. Thomas helps a minor character with a deeply personal decision, putting in motion most of the events in the story. The explanation for how he got in touch with that character and decided to help her doesn’t quite ring true to real life. That lack of realism also comes across during an attack on DeMarco. When the police sergeant asks repeatedly why another character would want to come after him, readers will most likely wonder the same thing and feel themselves pulled out of the story.

The book definitely hits all the checkmarks for a murder mystery, however. It’s mostly an enjoyable read. For those who want a thriller with a more literary approach, I recommend readers Borrow Two Days Gone.

Latest review: The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch

By Ekta R. Garg

December 14, 2016

Genre: Middle Grade series

Rated: Bookmark it!

A plucky young girl who calls herself a survivalist must battle a vengeful secret society and navigate a mystery of her own all while helping her best friend deal with his parents’ sort-of separation. The two get into all kinds of trouble and learn the true meaning of friendship as they handle over-protective guardians, a school principal who lives for the rules, and a narrator whose obsession with chocolate frequently interrupts the story. Author Pseudonymous Bosch presents middle grade readers with the cleverly-written books known as The Secret Series.

The books have been out for a while, I know, and they’ve gained a fair amount of recognition, as they should. Cass, the main character, is endearing. She’s an only child to a single mother and has two grandfathers who dote on her. She spends all of her time preparing for every kind of disaster imaginable, which includes carrying a backpack full of supplies that will help in any emergency.

Cass’s best friend, Max-Ernest, is the kind of kid you want to hug on every other page. He’s a nerd and doesn’t have any friends at the start of the series. Worse, his parents are separated but insist on spending time with Max-Ernest together. Talk about awkward family dinners—the kind where Max-Ernest has two separate conversations while sitting at the table with both his parents.

In a departure from the way I normally experience books—that is, to read them—my daughters and I are working through the series one book at a time with my older one reading them aloud and my younger one and me listening. We’ve done this in the car on the way to various activities and at home while I prepare dinner. Truthfully, I never understood the appeal of audio books until my ten-year-old volunteered to read aloud The Name of This Book Is Secret, the first book.

Pseudonymous Bosch’s writing will make readers laugh and furrow their brow in concern as Cass and Max-Ernest deal with this grand adventure. He takes an incredibly active role as narrator, spending several pages extolling the virtues of dark chocolate and commenting on Cass and Max-Ernest’s exploits. A bevy of footnotes will keep target readers informed about a variety of topics, from ancient art to facts about animals and even the difference between castles and palaces. At times, Bosch will have readers rolling their eyes at his involvement even while those same readers know the whole thing is in good fun.

Part of the charm, I think, is going on this adventure as a family. My older daughter has taken her role as reader seriously, using different voices for various characters and even tapping her feet against the floor at one point to simulate the hoof beats of a horse. Max-Ernest and Cass have, through my daughter, become as much a part of our family as anyone else. We talk about them, joke about them, and use observations about their world in talking about ours.

Of course, most of the credit goes to Bosch for his sparkling writing. He treats his readers as equals, co-conspirators, and he doesn’t hesitate to reprimand, warn, and cajole those readers as he sees fit. He also reminds us repeatedly that we’re going through the books at our own risk. If the secret society named in the book comes after us, he says, we can’t complain that he didn’t warn us.

Some people who reviewed The Name of This Book Is Secret have noted the dangerous situations Cass and Max-Ernest get into during the climax, and there were a few moments I was holding my breath, as much for my kids’ sake as for the sake of the characters. As parents we always want our children to feel safe. But Bosch’s underlying premise does just that. Even in the worst of circumstances, Bosch leaves no doubt that Cass and Max-Ernest will be okay. The trick, then, comes in waiting patiently for the kids to get out of their latest jam.

It’s refreshing to find a book that talks to kids right at their level. I would highly recommend readers Bookmark The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch!