Newest review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Ekta R. Garg

November 25, 2015

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A pre-teen girl breaks the rules and ventures beyond the great estate where she lives to try to find the children who have begun disappearing from the estate. During her quest she makes an unlikely friend and discovers an essential part of her identity. That part of her identity, however, might just be the one thing to put her at risk for becoming the next abductee. Author Robert Beatty presents middle grade readers an engaging plot in his well-researched book Serafina and the Black Cloak.

As far back as she can remember Serafina has always lived with her pa in the basement of the home of the great Vanderbilt family known as the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. From an early age Serafina understood two things clearly: the first was that she needed to stay out of sight of anyone who lived in or worked at the estate; the second was that she had the grave responsibility as the estate’s C.R.C., or Chief Rat Catcher.

At the age of 12, Serafina doesn’t really mind—much—that her pa insists on their secrecy. His work as the Biltmore’s chief engineer keeps him busy fixing the elevators, steam heating systems, and Edison’s complicated electricity mechanisms. Serafina spends most of her days staying out of sight and part of her nights hunting rats and releasing them far from the estate’s grounds. Even though the Vanderbilt family doesn’t even know she does the job, Serafina takes her work as seriously as her pa takes his.

One night Serafina hears odd noises, and she tracks them down. They lead her to a terrifying sight, and Serafina manages to escape a kidnapper. The next day word trickles down through the chain of servants that a little girl visiting the Biltmore has disappeared, and Serafina knows she has to find a way to help. During her mission to find a solution to the problem, Serafina meets Braeden, the Vanderbilts’ nephew, who lives at Biltmore.

Between the two of them, they decide to solve the mystery. As more children start to disappear, one thing becomes painfully clear to Serafina: whoever is doing the kidnapping is coming for Braeden next. But she and Braeden don’t have much information to go on, other than the fact that the determined, zealous kidnapper wears a sinewy black cape with magical properties. Serafina realizes that if she wants to stop the kidnapper, she may have to put herself directly in harm’s way.

Author Robert Beatty captures the essence of life in a Southern state to a T. His delightful, but prudent, use of Southern language at just the right times contributes to pinning the scene to its setting. Readers will definitely sense the world of Asheville without feeling like they’re being inundated with tropes about the area.

Serafina is most certainly a plucky character, one readers will have no problem whatsoever cheering on. Braeden, too, is incredibly likeable, and the cast of other supporting characters fill out the story nicely. Along with the main plot of the missing children, Beatty folds in a subplot about Serafina’s past that adds just enough flavor to the story without overpowering it.

A long forest scene in the middle of the book slows down the pacing for a few pages, and Serafina’s pa doesn’t appear as frequently as some readers might think or expect. Also, some of the fight scenes might make younger readers in the target audience a little anxious. But for the most part, Serafina and the Black Cloak is an enjoyable read, and I recommend readers Bookmark it.

Brand new review: The Five Times I Met Myself by James L. Rubart

By Ekta R. Garg

November 17/18, 2015

Genre: Christian fiction

Rated: Borrow it

When a man gets the opportunity to alter his present by visiting his past through his dreams, he jumps at the chance to fix the errors he’s made in life. Despite his best intentions, however, situations become more complicated, and the man will need to make everything right again or risk losing those he loves most. Author James L. Rubart offers readers interested in faith-based fiction this plot that melds The Time Traveler’s Wife and A Christmas Carol in his new book The Five Times I Met Myself.

Brock Matthews runs Black Fedora, a highly successful Seattle coffee company. On the outside Brock’s life looks perfect: a beautiful home, a supportive wife, and a company he runs with his brother. Brock knows the truth, however. His relationship with his wife, Karissa, began eroding years earlier as Brock began devoting more and more time to Black Fedora. He and his son, Tyson, acknowledge one another as residents of the same home and nothing more. He and his brother, Ron, engage in a daily battle of one-upping each other.

Because their father granted Ron 51 percent ownership in the company, Ron takes the business. He reminds Brock to stay in his place as the marketing expert. Brock struggles with his brother’s leadership, which becomes even more apparent when they discover someone has cleaned out the company’s funds. Ron and Brock need to make a decision, and quick, to sell the company to an investor or risk losing everything they’ve spent years building.

In the midst of all this tension, Brock has begun dreaming of his father. His relationship with his dad has always floundered; in his childhood his father always favored Ron. The dreams, then, don’t make sense to Brock, especially considering that his father is making overt efforts at reconciliation in those dreams.

After consulting a close friend Brock decides to try lucid dreaming, in which the brain remains aware during a dream in the hopes of learning more. But Brock doesn’t just learn more about the dreams; he finds out he can meet and counsel his younger self to make different choices. Every time he wakes from the dreams, though, his present life becomes even more complicated from the new choices his younger self made. Through all of the challenges and the choices he makes in his dreams, Brock must grapple with his faith and how far it can carry him if he will ever restore any of the relationships in his life and bring Black Fedora back from the brink of bankruptcy.

Author James L. Rubart makes no apologies for Brock’s faith or the fact that his faith plays a decisive role in his life. This confidence in Brock anchors the story. Readers—especially those looking for faith-based novels—will feel comforted by how often Brock seeks God’s help and mercy.

Unfortunately Rubart’s book suffers from the same tropes that many faith-based novels do. Characters often fill an “either/or” role, falling under the categories of good or bad. His characters, as a result, come across as flat. The story, too, travels well-worn paths of challenges to faith and personal beliefs. Rubart doesn’t really surprise his readers, which may lead many readers to believe they’ve read this book before. The elements that surprised and engaged readers in The Time Traveler’s Wife or the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol don’t appear quite as convincingly here. Also, Rubart’s tendency to tell rather than show his story results in narratives that plod along in parts.

Despite the title, because there are no visual markers or cues to keep track, readers may feel like Brock indulges in the dream option to fix his life more than five times. Short of marking every single dream encounter with sticky notes, bookmarks, or one’s fingers, readers will probably lose track of whether Brock does, indeed, meet himself five times or more. With such a strongly worded title, Rubart would have done well to offer readers some clever tool to keep track of those “five times” Brock meets himself.

Given the parameters of the genre, however, for the most part Rubart offers readers a fairly enjoyable book. In the end Brock’s affirmations about God and faith will certainly encourage those readers looking for it. I recommend readers Borrow The Five Times I Met Myself.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Latest review: Hostage by Kristina Ohlsson

By Ekta R. Garg

November 11, 2015

Genre: thriller

Rated: Bookmark it!

When an international flight comes under the threat of a hijacker, a trio of investigators must work together to uncover the hijacker’s identity and intentions. Despite a deep pool of collective resources, the investigators will need to navigate through the murkiness of various factions and international relations before they can douse the threat. Swedish author Kristina Ohlsson brings back characters from her previous books in the electric, compelling novel Hostage.

On an October day in the middle of the lunch hour in Stockholm, someone sends the police a tip: four bombs will go off starting at 5:00 that evening. The four locations mentioned endure high foot and car traffic every single day, ideal places for a bomb to go off. The police, led by Superintendent Alex Recht, lead the way in evacuating the targets. Then they sit and wait.

The appointed hour comes and goes, and no bombs erupt. Nothing blows Stockholm’s popular sites to bits. The police and members of the justice department as well as the counterterrorism unit wonder why anyone would call in a bomb threat and then let the threat go empty. While the residents of Stockholm quickly resume their lives, the police and other officials responsible for the security of the city start to consider just what the bomb threats mean.

Less than twelve hours later, a Boeing 747 bound for New York from Stockholm gets hijacked, and the note with directions for the captain are unsettling. He realizes the flight is under a tangible threat—that he truly has no choice but to follow the instructions. His co-captain doesn’t agree, but the captain refuses to budge.

The police, justice department, and counterterrorism unit on the ground start scrambling to figure out who issued the hijacking demands, which target both the United States and Sweden. Worse, the hijacker’s timeline only allows for the amount of time it takes for the flight to get from Sweden to New York. If the demands aren’t met by then, dire consequences will follow.

The demands, however, are unrelated to one another, and security officials can’t understand why the hijacker wants these demands met. Moreover, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the terrorist event. How can security officials even begin to put together a recovery effort if they don’t know who has engineered the threat in the first place? And will this threat turn out as empty as the one from the previous day?

As the day wears on Alex Recht reaches out to former police colleague-turned-Justice Department employee Fredrika Bergman as well as new counterterrorism recruit Eden Lundell in an effort that crosses all previous known levels of tension. All three will need to handle the politics of their own individual factions as well as the politics that cross the ocean while watching the clock if they want to keep the passengers on the plane safe.

Author Kristina Ohlsson offers a novel that speaks directly to current headlines, which enhances its appeal. Readers will feel like they’re sitting right next to Alex, Fredrika, and Eden as they deal with their respective departments. Ohlsson’s experience as a senior terrorism analyst shines, lending immense credibility to the characters as well as the threats Sweden faces in the book. The pacing will definitely keep readers up at night and thinking through the day about the challenges that security officials face in these situations, situations that no doubt are playing out across the world today.

The one place where Ohlsson might have strengthened the book comes in the scenes aboard the plane, which are few and far between (although strong when they do appear.) For the most part, however, Ohlsson hits all the right notes for a thriller. I highly recommend readers Bookmark Hostage.

(I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest, objective review.)

Brand new review: Welcome to Monstrovia by Mark Newhouse

By Ekta R. Garg

November 4, 2015

Genre: Middle grade fantasy mystery

Rated: Borders on Bypass it

A pre-teen boy thinks he’s headed to Florida to spend the summer with his uncle as part of a grassroots effort to curb his acting out in school. The boy ends up, instead, in a land where his uncle is a lawyer to magical creatures. When his uncle runs across one of the biggest cases of his career, the boy realizes he’ll have to help his uncle—whether he likes it or not. Author Mark Newhouse offers readers this plot in the well-conceived but poorly executed middle grade novel Welcome to Monstrovia.

Brodie Adkins doesn’t want to go to Key West, never mind the beautiful Florida beaches. Key West means spending the summer with his uncle, and Brodie doesn’t want to be with his uncle. He wants to be with his mom. Since his parents’ divorce she’s all Brodie has. But his mother is in China for the summer selling the rubber bands kids need for their braces to dentists. That means Brodie has to stay with his Uncle Jasper.

Things get out of hand right away when strange creatures greet Brodie at the airport and escort him to his uncle’s home, which he discovers is in that part of Key West known as Monstrovia. The oddities don’t stop there, however. Uncle Jasper turns out to be a lawyer who defends the magical creatures of Monstrovia, and shortly after Brodie arrives a new client comes to Uncle Jasper for help.

The teenage girl who shows up on Uncle Jasper’s doorstep brings a photograph of the family cow and a sincere request for Uncle Jasper to help her brother, Jack, get acquitted. Jack has been accused of murder. He claims the incident was an accident, but because the murder victim and his wife are giants it’s harder to ignore the widow’s claims.

Before Brodie knows what’s happening, he finds himself as involved in the case as Uncle Jasper and Emily, the sister, who is a year older than Brodie and just as exasperating as she is kind of…not. Soon enough Brodie realizes that if he wants a shot at going home, he’ll have to help Uncle Jasper out of what increasingly becomes a mystery.

Author Mark Newhouse hits all the right notes in the language for middle grade readers. The pace moves fast, as evidenced by the book opening during the near-crash landing Brodie endures into Florida. Newhouse doesn’t spend a lot of time on description, and transitions are minimal. A younger set of readers impatient to find out what happens next may find these attributes of the novel conducive to reaching the end faster.

Unfortunately the minimal description and focus on pace outdo the book’s full capabilities. Newhouse may have intended to target middle grade readers, but he lets the narrative dip too far into the world and language of that audience. Trouble spots with punctuation and odd grammar choices may distract readers from the scene at hand. Newhouse also favors the book’s plot over character development, and more advanced middle grade readers may get frustrated by the way the book skirts over the fundamentals of storytelling to get from start to finish.

I say Welcome to Monstrovia Borders on Bypass it.

Book giveaway info and a brand new review

Fans of YA thrillers, this one’s for you! Author Marieke Nijkamp’s new book, This is Where It Ends, comes out this coming January. To enter for a chance to win this YA thriller about a high school held hostage, you can check out the book’s page on Tumblr. Then be sure to watch for my own review of the book closer to publication.

Good look on the giveaway!


By Ekta R. Garg

October 21, 2015

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A young detective on temporary leave discovers the ruins of a home and stumbles into a family mystery decades old. An author miles away enjoys the fame gathered by the efforts of her novels but feels scattered by the heartbreaking mystery. The mystery of her family. The detective wants to investigate; the author fears what the detective might find. Author Kate Morton offers readers this storyline in the lushly detailed novel The Lake House.

Sadie Sparrow has come to Cornwall from London for an enforced vacation. A hasty decision in a case has led Sadie’s superiors to think a little time off will help her clear her head. She decides to use the forced time off to visit her grandfather who has recently moved to Cornwall.

Sadie owes her life to him and her late grandmother. A stupid mistake in her teens brought Sadie to a crossroads with her own parents who threw her out of the house. Her grandparents, up until then strangers, took her in and showered her with the love, patience, and grace that she needed. Since then Sadie has accepted her grandparents as her parents by proxy.

Her grandmother’s death sits deeply in her heart as it does her grandfather’s, so she knows this time together will be good for both of them. But Sadie isn’t used to so much free time on her hands, and she starts exploring the grounds around her grandfather’s new home. One day on a walk she almost literally falls into the ruins of a home, and her detective instincts kick in when she sees the grandeur of the house.

She finds out the house belonged to the Edevane family, once the high society benchmark of the Cornwall area. People looked to the family as a gold standard and especially to the family’s grand summer parties as the high point of the year. That’s why when the Edevanes’ young son, Theo—less than a year old—goes missing the night of the annual party, the family’s devastation only gets matched by the way they leave the home. When Sadie finds it decades later, she swears someone will enter the room in just a moment. The family, she supposes, must have just walked out the front door and not looked back.

Meanwhile, in present day London, Alice Edevane has forced herself to leave the painful memories of that night and that summer behind. A storyteller from her childhood years, Alice has become a celebrated and well-known author. Her mystery novels draw high praise from readers all over; only Alice knows the motivation for crafting such compelling mysteries comes from the fact that she could never deconstruct the most haunting mystery of all. Worse, she feels partially responsible for Theo’s disappearance. She remains a recluse, communicating with the world only through her novels and correspondence.

Eager to prove to herself that she still has the sharp skills of a detective, Sadie makes it her mission to crack the Edevanes’ case. So what if she left behind a case in London that still bothers her? She can solve this. She must solve this. No matter that Alice Edevane ignores her requests for a meeting. Sadie is determined not to let her past and her mistakes keep her from getting this one right.

Author Kate Morton’s prose brings Cornwall and England to life. Readers will settle into her lush narrative like settling into a warm blanket on a cold winter day. The mystery she builds, too, about the Edevanes will keep readers moving through the pages at a brisk pace, and Sadie’s successes and failures as she chases lead after lead in the Edevane case will make readers cheer and groan by turns.

Morton nests mysteries inside of one another with a deft touch. The mystery of Theo’s disappearance caps a summer where Alice’s mother has dealt with the mystery her husband has become after returning from the war. The mystery of the case that acts as the catalyst for Sadie’s leave of absence segues into the mystery of the Edevanes as well as the murky details of Sadie’s past and just why both cases mean so much to her.

The only weak spot in an otherwise tight novel comes in the ending, which feels a touch rushed and a little too fairy tale-ish. Given the depth of suffering the characters endure, however, readers will probably have no trouble forgiving Morton the serendipity of the climactic events.

I recommend readers Bookmark The Lake House.

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

Brand new review: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

By Ekta R. Garg

October 14, 2015

Genre: Short stories

Rated: Borrow it

A retired judge muses about his life one morning, not knowing that day will be his last. A single mother agonizes over her only child when he goes missing. A writer struggles with a story about a Marine in Afghanistan. A nun considers the opportunity to confront the kidnapper who raped her. National Book Award winning author Colum McCann offers readers four novellas that dig deep in his brand new book Thirteen Ways of Looking.

In the title story, retired Judge J. Mendelssohn wakes up on a day that threatens a snowstorm. He doesn’t care,. He’s going to gather what dignity he has left, what dignity a man who has to depend on a live-in nurse to take him to the bathroom can gather, and go to lunch to his favorite restaurant with his son. Never mind that his son is glued to his phone during the meal. Never mind the weather. Judge Mendelssohn is going to lunch. When someone attacks Mendelssohn and kills him, the police must piece together the former judge’s last steps and movements on that morning to figure out who might have targeted him and why.

The second story, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?”, follows an unnamed writer’s struggles with a story. He tries to follow one plot and then another, settling finally on a story about a Marine in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve. As the year progresses and his deadline approaches, the characters in his story move toward the inevitable stroke of midnight on December 31. Questions come to the writer, and in the end he spends just as much time pondering his character’s situation as the character herself.

“Sh’khol”, the third story, introduces readers to Rebecca and her son, Tomas. When Rebecca adopted Tomas she was married and happy; now, when he’s reached the age of 13, she’s divorced and determined to enjoy their first Christmas as mother and son in a cottage on the ocean. When she presents him with a wetsuit for Christmas, Tomas is thrilled. But when he goes missing one morning, Rebecca fears the worst. With his communication disabilities heavy on her mind, Rebecca sinks into a depth of doubt about herself as a mother.

The final story, “Treaty”, details the history of Beverly, a nun, who sees her rapist on television. The attack happened decades ago, and Beverly has spent her entire life since then trying to come back to a normal state of living. She finally thinks she’s reached it when her attacker appears as part of a coalition of peace. From the time she sees him, Beverly returns in her mind to her abduction. She finally decides that enough is enough. She needs to create an opportunity to confront her rapist so she can put the entire terrible incident behind her once and for all.

Fans of literary fiction will revel in author Colum McCann’s character development and the sheer enjoyment he clearly reaps from handling language well. McCann doesn’t let touchy issues hold him back, whether it’s the details from a rape scene or the considerations of a man in what it means to get old. He pushes forward, letting his stories and the language share equal time in the forefront.

The first and last stories in this collection bookend the set with strength, while the second and third stories aren’t quite up to the same mark. Regardless, McCann pushes his readers’ emotions and asks them to work a little harder than what much mainstream fiction requires of readers. I recommend readers Borrow Thirteen Ways of Looking.

New review: Sweet Madness by Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie

By Ekta R. Garg

October 7, 2015

Rated: Borrow it

A young Irish maid accepts employment in a new home for higher pay and to be closer to her sweetheart. Her new employers, however, bear a reputation of legendary proportions. When tragedy strikes the family, the maid must decide whether she will stay in town or take the opportunity in the ensuing chaos to slip away. Co-authors Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie give YA readers a new way to think about the infamous Lizzie Borden story in their new book Sweet Madness.

In the late 1800s Bridget Sullivan comes to Fall River, Massachusetts, to pursue her small piece of the American dream. Bridget wants to earn enough money to bring her sister to the U.S. When she meets Liam, Bridget builds on her dream. She and Liam want to earn enough to get married and start their own family.

Bridget hears about the opportunity to join the Borden household as a maid for higher pay than her current position, and she knows in theory the move would be good for her. The Bordens live in town, which is much closer to Liam. She can earn more money and spend more time with the man she loves.

In practice, however, Bridget doesn’t know whether this is the right position for her. The Bordens have a reputation of instability. Everyone knows Andrew Borden, head of the family, pinches pennies so tight they’re burning between his fingers. His second wife, Abigail, floats through the house like a ghost, unable to make a connection with her stepdaughters. Elder daughter Emma has all but renounced her relationship with the family; she spends more time visiting friends than she does at home. Younger daughter Lizzie lives in the house, and Bridget soon finds herself in the position of being Lizzie’s only friend.

Friendship with Lizzie, however, is not without its complications. Some days Lizzie acts perfectly normal, even volunteering to help Bridget with chores and chatting about mundane topics. On other days, Lizzie lashes out at everyone and her mind doesn’t seem sound. Given Mr. Borden’s harshness, Bridget isn’t surprised that Lizzie’s behavior bounces from mood to mood like a ping pong ball.

Lizzie isn’t the only one whose behavior doesn’t make sense, though, and Bridget realizes the Borden family keeps all sorts of secrets—from the town and one another. When Bridget finds Abigail Borden dead one morning, brutally murdered by an axe, she and Lizzie barely have a chance to get over their horror before they tell Mr. Borden. Secrets come crawling out of the woodwork like termites, and the tragedy grows bigger. In the days that follow Bridget agonizes over staying with Lizzie to offer her support. No matter what decision she makes, though, she knows she’ll never be the same after experiencing life with the Bordens.

The tragedy of Lizzie Borden and her family has permeated American culture since the time the murders occurred in 1892. The fact that the crime remains officially unsolved only adds to its intrigue. Conventional opinions place the blame on Lizzie, although through the years historians and curiosity seekers alike have debated whether someone else might have played a part in the crime.

Authors Leaver and Currie take a route more sympathetic toward Lizzie and, using Bridget as the point of view character throughout the entire story, offer their opinion on who might have been responsible for the Borden family tragedy. The story works, to a point. For those familiar with the circumstances, a sense of impending doom hangs over every single page. This coupled with a slightly repetitive storytelling style may make readers impatient with the pacing of the book. They may want it to just get on with the grisly details.

Unfortunately Lizzie Borden’s story after the crime remains shrouded in uncertainty. Despite the unfavorable attitude of the town residents, Lizzie continued to live in Fall River until her death. She remained single, and for a while she became estranged from her older sister. Mishandling of the crime scene and conflicting testimony of key witnesses made it impossible to determine the truth of it all. More than a hundred years later, the mystery remains.

For those completely unfamiliar with the Lizzie Borden story, this book may offer readers a fair introduction to the entire affair. I recommend readers Borrow Sweet Madness.