Latest review: The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

September 23, 2020

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: September 22, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A woman gets a second chance to explore the career she left behind after a near-fatal accident. As she returns to the man and the field she loved, she begins to question everything she knows about life and death. Author Jodi Picoult returns with her trademark depth of story and character in her newest novel, The Book of Two Ways.

On a flight home to Boston, Dawn Edelstein lives through every person’s worst fear: the cabin crew instructs passengers to brace for impact. The plane is going down, and no one can stop it. Dawn, like all the others, gets into position and thinks of those nearest and dearest to her: her husband and daughter; her brother.

She also can’t stop thinking about Wyatt Armstrong. Fifteen years earlier, Dawn arrived in Egypt as a fresh-faced graduate student from Yale ready to pursue her life’s passion: researching the Book of Two Ways, an ancient text often found drawn and written in coffins. Egyptians believed the Book of Two Ways would give the dead clues to navigate obstacles in the afterlife to reach the ultimate goal of feasting with the god Osiris.

Because of conflicting information unearthed after archaeological digs and the difficulty in interpreting the text, most students don’t study the Book in such detail. Dawn can’t help herself, however. She’s drawn to Egypt and this mesmerizing piece of the country’s history and culture. Despite her best efforts against it, she’s also drawn to Wyatt.

A cocky Brit who is also royalty, Wyatt is witty, handsome, charming, and utterly infuriating. From the time Dawn joins the team first on campus and then in the Egyptian desert, Wyatt seems bent on showing her up. The two go head to head in every matter—until they can no longer resist one another and go heart to heart. Dawn’s depth of feeling for Wyatt is only bested by her love for the Book of Two Ways. That he understands on a fundamental level why she wants to master it and also shares that goal makes her believe they’re tailor-made for one another.

Then Dawn gets a call from home. Her mother is dying. Without a second thought, Dawn walks away from Egypt, the Book of Two Ways, and Wyatt. One week turns into two, then ten, then another life altogether. Dawn gets married, has a child, and becomes a death doula. She takes care of people in their last days, talking to them, comforting them, and helping their loved ones process what all of it means.

After surviving the plane crash, the airline offers Dawn a ticket to anywhere in the world. Her first impulse should be to return to Boston. Instead, she knows that if she listened to her heart, she would go back to Egypt and to Wyatt. Back to finish what she started. Back to see if the Book of Two Ways will lead her to the life she was meant to lead.

Author Jodi Picoult treats her characters with such care that readers will feel like they’re standing right next to Dawn as she agonizes over her decisions. Picoult’s intimate narrative style will draw readers right in and not let them go. Her research, as always, is second-to-none. Picoult clearly immerses herself into the subject material that forms the backbone of her books; the results beckon readers to wade right in and join her.

While research is one of Picoult’s strongest points, in this book it can get a little overwhelming at times. Dawn is working on a dig in the Egyptian desert and studying a topic not many people tackle; the topic possesses its own vocabulary and attention to detail. Dawn and Wyatt’s excitement is clear when they unearth critical artifacts, but their conversation goes deep into technical territory. Readers might resign themselves to sitting back and waiting for the scene to end so they can keep moving with Dawn on her personal journey. The professional one, at times, is a little hard to follow.

The overabundance of material is the only drawback to the book; Picoult will astound readers with the story structure and the questions she raises. Once again, she has a winner on her hands. I recommend readers Bookmark The Book of Two Ways.

Newest review: Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine

By Ekta R. Garg

Sept. 16, 2020

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Release date: September 1, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

After winter sets in prematurely, a young woman embarks on a journey to find her mother. Along the way she meets others who feel just as lost as she does. As they fight the elements and humanity, they face choices that test their mettle. Literary author Alison Stine uses her incredible talent for prose in a book that doesn’t move far, plot wise, in her latest novel Road Out of Winter.

Wylodine—Wil to those who know her—has spent months waiting and growing. Waiting for any word from her mother who set out for California and growing the marijuana on the farm where Will and her mother lived with her mother’s boyfriend, Lobo. Her mother promised to stay in touch, although she stopped short of saying she would send for Wil. Lobo tolerated Wil even as he taught her everything about the weed trade: how to grow it, how to sell it, and how to hide it from the authorities.

Lobo heard from a friend that California had better prospects, so he and Wil’s mother left. Wil has continued growing and selling, word of the quality of her product drawing those who need it. Except it starts snowing in June, and the weather doesn’t get warmer.

By the time “fall” arrives, Wil decides to go to California, find her mother, and convince her to leave Lobo. She knows that task is a lot harder than it seems; Lobo has always had access to the drugs her mother craves, and Wil is a liability to that lifestyle. But she misses her mother with a ferocity that makes her determined to leave southeastern Ohio behind.

Before leaving town, though, she runs into Grayson and Dance, two young men from her childhood. Grayson used to attend The Church; his drunk father disappeared and left Grayson to fend for himself. Wil would have too, except Grayson broke his foot and Wil can’t leave him alone and injured. Dance is left for dead after a mob runs over him. He promises to pull his weight and chop wood, haul provisions, any sort of labor if it means he can leave town.

The trio set out and meet a cadre of people on their travels, including a girl named Jamey and Jamey’s baby, Starla. Together, the five of them fight the elements and the others’ loss of trust in humanity. As all technology shuts down and even basic facilities become scarce, Wil digs deep to keep herself and the group going.

Author Alison Stine’s prose invites readers to settle in, and the use of first person allows readers to experience the bleakness as if seeing it for themselves. Early in the book, Wil describes a part of town this way:

“The pavement was frosted over, the reflections of streetlights buzzing in the icy puddles on the ground. Strangers joined us, their shoulders down, a tautness to their jaws like an arrow’s string. It made me think of Lobo, Lobo mad.”

Stine sets the scene of a world where climate change has caused a seemingly endless winter. People become fierce in protecting their own interests. In moments where Wil’s own instincts warn her, she doesn’t hesitate to reassure herself that she’ll protect herself too.

“He pointed his finger at me when he spoke. It seemed like any word, any protest, any answer at all, might enflame him. I concentrated on that finger, red and chapped. I imagined it burning, the skin falling off, the bone breaking. I pictured breaking it myself.”

If the book can be faulted anywhere, it would be in the slow-moving plot. After the initial rush of meeting Grayson and Dance and preparing for their escape from town, the group drifts from place to place without a real destination in mind. Wil wants to “rescue” her mother, yet she doesn’t head due west. As she and the others continue to travel, the direction of their journey is baffling; the question of why they chose to go the way they did might distract readers enough to keep them from fully absorbing the story.

Also, Wil doesn’t change much as a character. Her observations seem more for the reader’s benefit than her own. A rushed ending that leaves too much open also seems out of step with the rest of the novel, which might lead some to speculate that another book continuing Wil’s story is forthcoming.

Readers who enjoy dystopian novels that serve as a warning for the future might enjoy this one. I recommend readers Borrow Road Out of Winter.

Brand new review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

September 9, 2020

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: Sept. 8, 2020

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A bank robbery goes wrong, making the thief desperate enough to take an apartment full of people hostage. As the day progresses, the hostages, the thief, and the police officers on the case will all find themselves grappling with their lives’ greatest hurts. Veteran author Fredrik Backman returns with another touching, funny, relatable novel with his latest book Anxious People.

In a medium-sized town in Sweden, policeman Jack is left bewildered late in the afternoon on the day before New Year’s Eve. He’s just successfully negotiated the release of eight hostages, but the hostage taker is nowhere to be found. Moreover, after interviewing the hostages, Jack can’t shake the suspicion that at least one of them is lying about what happened in the apartment where they were held.

It doesn’t help that Jack’s father, Jim, is also a cop on the case and keeps hovering. Jack should be happy the hostages are okay, but he’s worried. When the hostages were set free, the police heard a gunshot in the apartment. After storming it, they stumbled across a large pool of blood. Jack wants to bring the hostage taker to justice, but he also doesn’t want the person to die. He can’t lose anyone else.

He keeps reviewing the facts on hand. He knows the hostage taker started the day as a bank robber, but when the robbery went horribly wrong the robber ran into the nearest building. There, on the top floor, a real estate agent was holding an open house for an apartment. The robber took one look at everyone in the apartment, threatened them with a gun, and announced everyone there was now a hostage.

At least, that’s what Jack thinks happened. The hostages just won’t give him straight answers. In their town, this is the most dramatic crime to have taken place pretty much ever, and Jack’s boss and other superiors have called for the “experienced” officers from the capital of Stockholm to step in. He’s determined to solve the crime before the Stockholmers arrive, and he just might be able to do it…if at least one of the hostages is willing to cooperate.

What Jack doesn’t know is that before leaving the apartment, all eight of the hostages make a decision. It comes after a day spent first under the threat of the bank robber and then under the threat of their most precious secrets coming to light. When the inevitable happens, the hostages decide their experience with the bank robber will bind them to one another in ways only they can understand.

Author Fredrik Backman brings to readers yet another poignant book that will induce laughter, tears, and a pause for reflection all on the same page. His lyricism and gentle prose might deceive some into thinking that his method of storytelling is easy. It is neither easy to accomplish nor easy to imitate, and Backman breaks many standard writing rules. Yet he does it with such grace, wit, and experience that readers won’t even realize he’s done it.

Backman manages to give readers enough information on the hostages, the bank robber, Jack, Jim, and a clinical psychologist to make all of them feel like real people. His use of an omniscient point of view allows him to interject opinions and questions, often addressing the reader directly, all in a conversational style. With a practiced hand, every paragraph of that conversation leads back to the heart of the conflict: on a given day, when the circumstances align, people’s greatest anxieties come to the fore.

The short chapters, some of them less than a page, will make it easy for readers to speed through the book, and carefully placed revelations about the characters will create the compulsion to go right back to the first page and start again as soon as it’s finished. Anyone looking for a relatable novel containing universal life truths and a story that is still wholly established in its culture will definitely enjoy this one. I recommend readers Binge Anxious People.