Newest review: The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen

May 24, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: May 22, 2018

Rated: Bypass it

A high-powered executive at a critical career juncture meets a young woman claiming to be her younger self. What follows is a series of events that makes the executive question everything she thought she knew about her identity. Author Elisabeth Cohen offers readers a powerful protagonist in a lackluster story in her debut The Glitch.

Shelley Stone, CEO of the tech company Conch, may not have invented multi-tasking, but she certainly owns the concept. With her entire life planned down to the minute, her efficiency would put Mary Poppins to shame. While her first love is her work, she makes genuine efforts to be a good wife and mother. She’d just rather be in the office, surrounded by her employees, than at her daughter’s preschool handing out cupcakes.

Everything at Conch seems to be shooting for the stars. Shelley is thoroughly invested in the evolution of the wearable technology as well as retaining current customers. The unobtrusive, unnoticeable earpiece has acted as a personal assistant to millions of users, offering everything from weather alerts and introductions to other Conch users as well as reminders about important dates and alerts about personal health. Like other tech dreamers, Shelley won’t stop at anything until everyone owns a Conch. She relies on hers like she would on her right arm.

When she meets a young woman who the Conch says is also named Shelley Stone, the self-assured CEO finds herself in doubt for the first time in a long time. The 19-year-old almost convinces Shelley to believe she’s somehow the younger version of herself come to the future; almost, but not quite. That tiny gap acts as a crack in the solid veneer Shelley began building for herself after suffering from a freak accident. The lightning strike she underwent as a teenager changed Shelley irrevocably, or so she thought. Now, with this woman’s mysterious appearance in her life and Conch starting to suffer problems as well, Shelley begins to wonder whether it truly is possible to win at everything.

Author Elisabeth Cohen spends an inordinate amount of time building Shelley’s character. The result is a well-rounded, three-dimensional character in a two-dimensional, flat book. Shelley’s profile will confirm for those detractors of female executives that a woman can’t have it all, that she can’t possibly be a good wife and mother and run a Fortune 500 all equally well because somewhere, something goes very bad very fast.

Case in point: the book opens with Shelley’s daughter, Nova, disappearing from the beach for a short period of time while the family is on vacation. Another example comes later in the story when Shelley takes Nova to work for the morning and she can’t relate to Nova’s interest in her plastic horses. She’s hoping to influence Nova, to mold her in her own image.

In fact, for someone so brilliant at her job, she comes across as terribly obtuse when she meets the mysterious young woman who claims to be the young Shelley Stone. It’s disappointing to see that the real Shelley can’t use her extensive life experience to help her separate fact from fiction. Instead the meeting propels Shelley into a long period of introspection—as in, pages of it.

What follows, then, is a story where we see Shelley floundering, and the plot flounders with her. The husband who in the opening chapters seemed as career-driven as her does an about-face. Conch, the amazing tech that is supposed to be transforming Silicon Valley, starts to show signs of problems. Shelley herself starts to lose the self-assurance that makes her so attractive as a character in the first place.

Instead of a strong sprint to the finish, readers will spend too much time treading water waiting for the book to end. It’s a shame, too. Given the right kind of story, Shelley would have come out the winner she already is in her professional life.

The end sees Shelley doing an abrupt turn in her life, which comes across as neither believable nor satisfying. I recommend readers Bypass The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen.

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Latest review: Captain Superlative by J.S. Puller

By Ekta R. Garg

May 16, 2018

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Release date: May 8, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it!

A seventh grade girl who wants nothing more than to remain unseen gets pulled into the spotlight by a classmate with a secret identity. As the girl begins to face her anxiety, she learns that bravery doesn’t mean an absence of fears: it means moving ahead despite them. Debut author J.S. Puller gives middle grade readers an endearing story in the funny, touching novel Captain Superlative.

Jane Silverman doesn’t want anyone to pay attention to her. She’s content to live in the shadows. Life at Deerwood Park Middle School isn’t awful, but bully Dagmar Hagen makes sure that people listen to her. Jane’s seen firsthand how mean Dagmar can be, and like all the other kids she keeps her head down and minds her own business.

Then, one day, someone comes to school who makes it impossible for everyone to keep to themselves.

She calls herself Captain Superlative, and she comes to school dressed in a bathing suit—in January, no less—and neon-blue tights. A blue wig and a red mask hide her true identity, but they can’t hold back her enthusiasm as she addresses all the students as “citizens” and reassures them she’s there “to make all trouble disappear!” Dagmar and her groupies have a field day making fun of the mystery girl, but Captain Superlative either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

At first, Jane wants to ignore the odd girl like everyone else does. When Captain Superlative steps in to stop Dagmar from attacking another student, Jane finds the guts to speak up on the student’s behalf too. With her trademark enthusiasm, Captain Superlative decides Jane will be her sidekick and they’ll dedicate their time to helping others: opening doors for teachers when their hands are full, handing out study guides before a big test, even collecting litter from the sidewalks.

Soon, Jane catches the spirit of caring and ignores the shrinking part of herself that demands she remain hidden. With Captain Superlative by her side, she knows she can do anything. Then Jane finds out a secret about the person she’s come to admire so much, and she’ll have to decide whether she can really be a hero—this time for herself.

Author J.S. Puller nails the middle school atmosphere on the head. Jane’s voice is crystal clear, and many readers in the target audience will identify with her deep desire to stay out of the spotlight and, by association, out of trouble. On the surface, the description of Captain Superlative’s outfits and behavior might seem silly. Puller, however, creates a character who can see life for what it is. Captain Superlative may have a sweet nature and seem like an explosion of optimism, but she doesn’t hesitate to let the bully, Dagmar, know that some behaviors won’t be tolerated. It’s refreshing to see a middle grade character with such inner strength as well as deep conviction.

A few of the book’s elements ring a little too serendipitous. Because of the way Puller sets up the story in the opening scenes, readers will already know the ending even before they meet Captain Superlative. It’s a shame, too, because part of Captain Superlative’s charm is in her seemingly endless zest for helping others. When she reveals a secret to Jane, some of the dramatic impact of that secret is lost due to the setup. By the same token, more sensitive readers may appreciate knowing what’s coming.

Even with that minor drawback, Captain Superlative is an excellent read, and I highly recommend readers Bookmark it!

Brand new review: Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

May 7, 2018

Genre: Children’s fiction

Release date: May 1, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

A young girl visits her grandmother and discovers that she left behind a secret friend on her previous visit. The problem? The girl doesn’t remember anything about the friend or the promise she made to him. Authors Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead offer young readers a book with real-world problems and a fanciful ending in the somewhat delightful but ultimately confusing book Bob.

After five years, Livy has come back to visit her Gran Nicholas. She, her mother, and her baby sister, Beth Ann, have traveled a long way from their home in Massachusetts to Australia for the trip. Livy is excited and nervous all at the same time. She loves her grandmother, but it’s been a long time since she’s visited. Also, she can’t escape the nagging feeling that she forgot something important at Gran’s house the last time she was there.

It turns out that Livy’s right. The important thing she forgot was Bob, a fanciful creature who hid in the closet after a five-year-old Livy told him she would come right back. Bob, understandably, is a little miffed that he had to stay in the closet for so long. After enough apologizing from Livy, though, he agrees to talk to her.

Livy doesn’t remember Bob at all, and Bob doesn’t remember where he came from; all he knows is that when Livy came to Australia the last time, she promised to help him find his way home. As the two talk through Livy’s previous trip, they learn to enjoy one another’s company again. Their sweet friendship will help them through this new challenge as well as others that threaten the entire town, and Livy learns that helping Bob means helping Gran Nicholas and everyone else as well.

Authors Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead give their target readers a pair of kind protagonists. Even though she doesn’t remember spending time with him, Livy doesn’t begrudge Bob’s existence in her life. While she does chide him with gentleness once or twice, the two get along well. Bob, too, comes across as relatable. Children will have no trouble liking him or wishing him well in his intense desire to go home to his mother.

More problematic is the story as a whole. While it makes sense that 10-year-old Livy would have forgotten a special friend from when she was five years old, the fact that she keeps forgetting Bob in the current story doesn’t ring as true. Readers will find out that a particular object helps Livy remember him, but it’s not clear why this plot device is necessary. Livy forgetting Bob over and over again doesn’t contribute anything to the larger story at hand other than to raise the question with older readers that maybe he isn’t real at all. Maybe, in fact, Livy dreamed him up.

Mass and Stead don’t take the easy way out with making Bob an imaginary friend. He’s real and needs help. The reason, though, feels rushed and not well developed. The book tries to tackle too many things all at the same time: the way the environment affects people; the anxiety young children feel when staying overnight in a new place; reconnecting with old acquaintances. The authors could have made the story even more engaging by sticking to just one or two issues rather than try to cover the gamut of them.

As a result, younger readers might appreciate Bob’s dilemma, but smarter readers will get impatient and wonder just what the whole point was after all. I recommend readers Borrow Bob.

 

 

Latest review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel

By Ekta R. Garg

April 30, 2018

Genre: Science fiction

Release date: May 1, 2018

Rated: Binge it!

After spending almost a decade on another planet, two scientists and a teenager come back to Earth only to find that the problems they thought they helped solve have gotten worse. Now they must fight time, opposing forces, and even one another to prevent another world war. Author Sylvain Neuvel brings his trilogy, The Themis Files, to an elegant, albeit bittersweet, end in the third book Only Human.

When Dr. Rose Franklin discovered a giant metal hand buried underground nearly 20 years ago, it led her to the discovery and assembly of Themis, a robot sent by an alien race. After some serious miscommunication with the aliens, about 100 million people across the globe died from a biological weapon released into the atmosphere. Soon after Rose found herself inside Themis with linguist Vincent Couture, his daughter, Eva Reyes, and General Eugene Govender, head of the Earth Defense Corps, traveling through space against their will.

The aliens wanted to bring Themis home.

Now, after nine years, Rose has returned to Earth. She and the others spent that entire time on Esat Ekt, a planet in other galaxy and possibly another time, trying to convince the Ekt people to let them leave. Rose is torn at first about this decision. In some ways, the Ekt represent the ideal; what humans should aspire to. As Rose and Vincent learn, however, the Ekt aren’t perfect. They have their own problems with politics and opposing parties.

Rose and the others come back to the planet of their birth, but it’s no longer a place they recognize. The United States government has appropriated one of the robots the Ekt left behind and is using it as a way to force other countries to submit. Internment camps abound across the world where people who don’t quite fit in now have to live. Another world war seems imminent, and Eva just really wants to go back to Ekt. When she arrived there, she was 10 years old. She considers Ekt home.

What’s worse, the Russians hold Vincent in a benign hostage situation. As long as he cooperates with them, they won’t hurt him. Eva unleashes her fury at coming back to Earth by disappearing. Now Rose will have to find a way to resolve the original problem posed by the alien invaders while trying to help Vincent find Eva and make sure father and daughter don’t end up killing each other—literally.

In what has become his trademark style, Sylvain Neuvel rounds out the Themis trilogy with wit and stark truths about our times. The charm of the Themis books certainly hasn’t worn off; Only Human, like its two predecessors, is told through a series of interviews and journal entries. The writing style is at once disarming and informative, and with this book Neuvel really slides into the right groove for the world of Themis and alien robots.

Some authors might feel tempted to rush the ending, but Neuvel takes his time. After the death of a key character in the previous book, Neuvel manages to find another character with just as much pluck and dry wit. He doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but he does provide a satisfactory ending to the book and the series. He also lets Rose and the others present some basic life truths, a message that many readers will appreciate in today’s world.

Scientists have often speculated about alien races and what they might think of Earth and its inhabitants. Neuvel’s works fall squarely in the arena of science fiction, and they do full justice to the genre while staying away from its tropes all at the same time. Yet there’s also a universality about the Themis books that emphasizes what the best writing can be: intensely personal to the author while universal in its applicability to readers.

I recommend readers Binge Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel.

New review: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

By Ekta R. Garg

April 23, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 25, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

Four friends bound by a secret reunite after more than 15 years at the location where they experienced the worst night of their lives. One of them has received threats, and she’s reached out to the others to help her through a situation they thought they’d resolved years earlier. Author Ruth Ware will leave readers underwhelmed and rolling their eyes at her third novel The Lying Game.

Isa Wilde begins her day like any other when she receives a text from her friend, Kate. The text reads, “I need you,” and Isa knows right away that she has to go to Kate. The text is sent to two other friends, Thea and Fatima, and they respond that they’re coming. They’ve only ever made the implied request to one another in the most dire of circumstances, and all of them understand that when it comes it’s for an urgent matter.

She’s no longer a girl at a boarding school for wayward girls, however. Isa is an adult with a partner, Owen, and a baby. When she tells Owen Kate has invited her for a few days, he encourages her to go. Since the birth of their child, Isa has struggled with all the challenges motherhood brings and needs a break. She packs some things and takes the baby with her to the village of Salten on the English coast to reunite with her three friends.

The four shared many things at school, including a reputation for fooling people. The Lying Game, as they called it, involved elaborate tall tales. The girls would invent things on the spot in a variety of situations; often their lies helped them escape trouble or provide amusement, making other students angry and teachers feel foolish. When Kate’s father and art teacher, Ambrose, disappeared under scandalous circumstances, the girls only had one another’s support when they got expelled.

Now Kate has called the group together again, and Isa’s instinct tells her it’s because of Ambrose. When she and the others reunite, Kate confirms their worst fears: Ambrose’s body has been found in the marsh close to her home. The girls must face their part in Ambrose’s disappearance and will need to decide just how much they want to risk for their friendship.

Author Ruth Ware missteps in a huge way with her third book. While the title and promotional materials will lead readers to think that the Lying Game plays a major role in the story, in reality it doesn’t. The girls lied, yes, and did so many times while in school together. Their lies, however, don’t amount to much. They simply serve as a plot device to bring Isa, Kate, Thea, and Fatima together for the big scandal that constitutes Ambrose’s disappearance and then again years later when Ambrose’s body appears.

Ware gives the narrative a heavy-handed dose of drama. Every paragraph and chapter seem loaded with meaning and tension, so much so that when the actual mystery unravels readers will sigh with relief that it’s done. Far from presenting a taut thriller that will leave readers grinning with delight at its cleverness, The Lying Game comes across as several limp strands tied together. The four friends in the book spend most of their time furrowing their brows and wondering how they could have gotten themselves into such a mess. It’s odd that it takes the summons of one of them to make them realize the gravity of the situation; while they’ve all lived with their choices all these years, none of them have taken the time to think through the possible consequences.

Diehard fans of Ware’s work might want to pick this one up out of loyalty, but otherwise I recommend readers Bypass The Lying Game.

Latest review: The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum

By Ekta R. Garg

April 12, 2018

Genre: Speculative fiction

Date released: March 6, 2018

Rated: Binge it!

A man who spends his career orchestrating events for others receives the most challenging task of his life when he’s forced to make an ethical choice. Complicating matters is a colleague who has fallen in love with him when she knows he’s still pining after someone else. Israel author Yoav Blum makes his U.S. debut with the mind-bending novel The Coincidence Makers.

The Coincidence Makers create life-changing moments for people. They’re responsible for those small incidents that turn into big accomplishments, all for someone’s betterment. If an accountant harbors the passion to write poetry but feels too shy to share his work, the Coincidence Makers facilitate a situation where the car of a renowned poet breaks down in front of the accountant’s house. Then they make sure the poet can’t find his cell phone, so he has to knock on the accountant’s door in order to use a landline to call a tow truck. The poet and the accountant talk, the accountant receives much-needed encouragement, and he begins to publish his poetry. He’s never the same again.

Guy, Emily, and Eric, all members of the same class of the Coincidence Makers course, enjoy meeting regularly to compare notes on the assignments they receive. An enigmatic man who calls himself the General sends them their cases, and during their weekly breakfast they share tips that work as well as tactics that didn’t. The three are such close friends that they tiptoe around the truth of Emily’s romantic feelings toward Guy. They also know the other big truth: at one time, Guy was in love with someone named Cassandra. They’re no longer in one another’s lives, but he’s never forgotten her and can’t reciprocate Emily’s love.

Then Guy receives a new case. He’s supposed to arrange the circumstances for the death of someone he once knew almost as well as he knew Cassandra. Never before has a case targeted someone from his own life, and Guy grapples with the moral implications of what he’s asked to do. Meanwhile, Emily makes a decision of her own regarding Guy, and this time the two of them will be the ones forever changed.

Author Yoav Blum challenges his readers with a genre and a format that don’t allow for casual reading. This book demands attention, and those who understand its intentions right away will be more than happy to give it. Blum breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing in the opening pages of the book by employing first, second, and third person points of view. His writing style will take some getting used to, and readers not used to speculative fiction may give up on the book before they get to the end.

In essence Blum has written a story that follows a tried and tested formula: boy and girl meet, become friends, then one of them questions whether they can share love. After a short period of introspection, the answer becomes obvious to both of them. Given these parameters of a regular story, then, Blum forces readers to ask “What if?” not only about his characters but about the essence of who they are as people. About what they represent.

Those who prefer a more traditional format for a story may not enjoy this book as much. Readers willing to experiment in the books they choose would do well to read this novel. Readers ready to go into an author’s world without allowing any preconceived notions to inform them about the characters they encounter will really enjoy this book. I highly recommend adventurous readers Binge The Coincidence Makers.

Brand new review: After Anna by Lisa Scottoline

By Ekta R. Garg

April 5, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: April 10, 2018

Rated: Bypass it

A woman reunites with the infant daughter she gave up years earlier only to go through the pain of losing her in a murder. Worse, her husband is accused of the crime, and she must decide who to believe and who to condemn. Author Lisa Scottoline rushes through the essential points of a thriller and spends too much time on salacious details in her latest book After Anna.

It’s been years, but Maggie Ippolitti still thinks about the postpartum psychosis she experienced after giving birth to her daughter, Anna. Although Maggie never hurt Anna, she relinquished custody to her ex-husband and French national, Florian. The creator of an app that made millions, Florian sold his business in the States and returned to France with the baby. By enrolling their daughter in expensive boarding schools, he made sure Maggie had minimal contact with her.

It seems like a healthy dose of karma, then, when Maggie gets a call one day from Anna herself. Now 17 years old, Anna has come back to attend school in Maine. She wants to reconnect with Maggie, and Maggie couldn’t be more thrilled. She learns that Florian has died in an accident, and she is the only real family Anna has left.

Maggie drives from her home in Philadelphia to meet Anna, and the two seem to click from the start. Anna shares how much she hates her boarding school and asks to move in with Maggie, saying she wants and needs a mother. All of a sudden, Maggie feels like she’s getting a second chance to right the wrongs of all those years ago when her postpartum psychosis dictated her actions.

Her new husband, Dr. Noah Alderman, is instantly supportive, and 24 hours after meeting her for the first time Maggie brings Anna home. All seems to go well, but not long after Anna moves in the mood of the house becomes tense. Maggie and Noah seem to fight about everything now, and Anna is at the heart of the fights.

Anna’s accusations that Noah trying to molest her shock Maggie; she asks Noah to leave home for a while. Then Anna is murdered, and Noah is arrested for the crime and put on trial. Within days of the verdict Maggie gets news that changes everything once again, and she will have to decide who to believe and who might be lying.

Author Lisa Scottoline spends most of the book on Noah’s murder trial, building her story in sections that alternate between Noah and Maggie. The Maggie portions of the novel move forward in time from when she gets the first call from Anna to when she gets the news of Anna’s death. The Noah portions move backward from the day of his sentencing to the start of the trial. The tactic would lead readers to believe that the crux of the story, the “big reveal”, comes in the middle.

Instead, when readers reach that point, the story takes a wild turn in another direction. Because the majority of the novel focuses on the trial and the sensationalism that comes with a stepfather accused of molestation, readers will feel rushed through the “real” section of the book. Resolution comes too fast and too conveniently to satisfy anyone.

Maggie, too, comes across as an underdeveloped character. When she brings Anna home, she’s so enamored with her daughter that she ignores basic warning signs that something is not right. In fact, Maggie comes across as a timid, naïve person who can’t think for herself. Yet when the major plot twist occurs, suddenly she turns into a resourceful woman full of ideas and gumption to deal with unbelievable circumstances. This abrupt personality change is hard to believe and poorly executed.

Marketing materials would lead readers to believe this is Noah’s story, but it really belongs to Maggie. The sections about Noah during the trial are still somewhat believable and interesting, but his life after the trial takes the story in a direction that feels, again, rushed and not authentic at all. In the end readers will feel cheated out of a solid story.

I recommend readers Bypass After Anna.