Newest review: Never Coming Home by Kate M. Williams

By Ekta R. Garg

June 22, 2022

Genre: YA thriller

Release date: June 21, 2022

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Ten social media influencers find themselves on a remote desert island, lured by false promises of a dream vacation. When the influencers start dying one at a time, they realize that someone is out for murder. Author Kate M. Williams gives a modern twist to Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None but doesn’t offer compelling characters or much of a plot in the dismal book Never Coming Home.

Everyone in the world has heard about the amazing offer. An anonymous person or maybe an organization has set up Unknown Island, a remote destination in the middle of the ocean, for luxury vacations. To launch the resort and all of its fabulous amenities, ten invitations have gone out to social media influencers. Not all of them are well-known, but they’re all rising stars and all under the age of 21.

They also fit in separate, distinct niches: a beauty blogger; a young prodigy chef; a rising political star; an environmentalist; and more. All of the participants have two things in common: social media made them who they are, and they’re all responsible, in some way, for someone’s death. They don’t discover the last fact until they’ve all arrived on the island, however.

When the last of the ten gets to the resort, they’re dismayed to find out that the slick videos of happy people playing in the sand with a backdrop of the most luxurious amenities is nothing but a huge lie. The accommodations are barely more than shacks, there’s some food but a bizarre mix of it, and there are no employees or staff to take care of anyone. What kind of place is this?

The visitors start to find out as they receive letters detailing the fact that they’re all connected to murder in some way. Then the first one of them dies, and their annoyance at their secrets being revealed turns into fear. When the second influencer dies, that fear turns into downright terror.

As the visitors start dropping one after another, the remaining influencers try to work out who is targeting them. Other than their social media presence and their dark secrets, they have absolutely nothing in common. Who wants them dead and why?

Author Kate M. Williams tries to take the premise behind And Then There Were None and give it a 21st-century upgrade, but the translation doesn’t work. With ten influencers to keep track of and everyone getting time and space on the page to share their thoughts and feelings, readers will soon stop trying to figure out or remember who is who and what they each did wrong. This lack of connection with any one visitor to the island—and absolutely no insight into who the murderer is—might make readers impatient to get to the end just to find out who is killing everyone.

The book opens just before the first influencer reaches the island, so without much buildup or emotional attachment readers may find themselves only mildly interested in why each person is dying. The deaths of the island visitors are gruesome and come fast and furious. By the end of their first day of on the island, nearly half of the group is dead.

Readers may wonder what the point of it all is. A “twist” at the end reveals the killer’s identity, but not much is shared about the motivation. Instead of an “aha” moment, readers might experience more of a “huh?” at the end.

Those wanting something fast and easy to read that doesn’t require much reader involvement might want to check this out. Otherwise, I recommend readers Bypass Never Coming Home.

Newest review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

By Ekta R. Garg

June 15, 2022

Genre: Mystery

Release date: June 7, 2022

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

Four people who meet under strange circumstances form a tight bond due to a mysterious tragedy. Circumstances around the tragedy bring them closer to one another, even as the friends start to suspect that one of them has told the biggest lie of all. Author Sulari Gentill returns with a nuanced, layered mystery by giving the “locked room” concept a fun twist in the fantastic new book The Woman in the Library.

Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid is sitting in the Boston Public Library when she hears a scream. An Australian writer visiting on a scholarship, Freddie thought she’d spend some time in the library working on the manuscript that earned her the money to be a writer in residence. She keeps getting distracted by the three people sitting closest to her, however. Her mind wanders about who they might be, their lives, and why they came to the library.

When the scream happens, it gives Freddie a chance to strike up a conversation at the table with the others. Cain McLeod is a writer like her, although he’s so modest that Freddie doesn’t even learn about his bestselling novel until after she googles him. Marigold Anastas is studying psychology at Harvard, offering intuitive insight and witty observations. Whit Metters comes from a family of lawyers, so it makes sense that he’s studying law too. He doesn’t mind admitting that what he’s really doing is failing in an attempt to delay joining the family firm.

Before they know it, Freddie, Cain, Marigold, and Whit become close friends. The four begin spending time with one another, and they go from strangers to nearly inseparable in a drastically short time. Even though it’s a weird way to meet, they credit the screaming woman with kicking off their friendship.

Soon enough, though, the friends learn from the news that the scream came from a woman who was murdered. What’s worse, Freddie starts to suspect that someone in her new group of friends might be connected to the murder or at least have information about it. She waffles between going to the authorities, confiding in different members of the group, and her growing affection for one of them in particular.

Mixed in the middle of all this is her challenge in parsing out the differences between American and Australian cultures and how to balance everything along with the book she’s supposed to be writing. When she came to Boston, she did so with full intention of finishing her manuscript. Now she worries she might have to save her life, and that of her new friends, as well.

Author Sulari Gentill takes a daring approach to the story of Freddie and Company by framing it with a larger story at hand: that of fictional author Hannah Tigone working on her newest novel about a group of friends in Boston embroiled in a murder mystery. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the frame approach might come across as contrived or drawing out unnecessary drama. Gentill, though, executes it with precision.

Hannah’s story is relayed through a series of letters with a pen pal that appear before each chapter, allowing readers limited information about who she is. As the novel progresses, however, and Hannah continues writing, it’s clear that she’s dealing with a mystery of her own. The book she’s writing about Freddie serves as a means for Hannah to solve that mystery.

Gentill balances both stories and keeps readers deeply engaged; in essence, she’s asking readers to offer their loyalties to two protagonists in two separate books. It’s a tall order, but Gentill’s careful plotting and treatment of all of the characters shines. As Freddie starts to poke into the mystery of the woman who died in the library, Hannah uses Freddie’s story to extract information about her pen pal. Both stories rely on one another to reach a climax that is unexpected, thrilling, and yet inevitable all at the same time.

Gentill manages to surprise readers even while indicating where the story might end up, a complicated accomplishment worthy of the highest praise. Anyone who enjoys a good mystery that challenges them to think on their feet will definitely want to check this one out. I recommend readers Binge The Woman in the Library.

Newest review: Meant to be Mine by Hannah Orenstein

By Ekta R. Garg

June 8, 2022

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: June 7, 2022

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A woman meets her supposed soulmate on a prescribed day but struggles with whether he really is “the one.” As she tries to keep an open mind about love, she comes to realize that lifetime happiness may be more complicated than a simple prediction. Author Hannah Orenstein takes an interesting concept but gives it fairly dull treatment in the lackluster novel Meant to Be Mine.

Most people don’t know if or when they’re going to meet the person meant for them for life, but Edie Myers doesn’t have that problem. Her grandmother, Gloria, has a gift that takes away all of the uncertainty. Since predicting the date when she’d meet her own soulmate, Gloria has intuited every single match in the family. It becomes a ritual and a shared experience, then, for everyone to receive the information from her, and Edie can’t wait for her own date to arrive.

When the day coincides with the surprise proposal her twin sister’s boyfriend is planning, Edie can practically see hearts. She boards the flight from New York to Maine for the celebration, convinced she’s going to meet the man of her dreams on the plane. As she settles into her seat, musician Theo Larsen sits down next to her and Edie knows this is it. Love is officially in the air.

They begin a whirlwind romance, and on the surface all the right things happen. Edie and Theo have chemistry, and she can see them as a “power couple” with her as the independent fashion stylist and him as the up-and-coming musician. But pesky, nagging thoughts make Edie question things too.

She has deep connections with her immediate and extended family. Theo’s barely on speaking terms with his. While Edie doesn’t consider herself super religious, there are aspects of her Jewish faith that are important to her. Theo doesn’t share the same heritage and can’t relate there either.

Also, memories of a previous relationship keep cropping up at the most inconvenient times, and Edie can’t help compare Theo to her old boyfriend. But how can that be? She didn’t meet the old boyfriend on the date Gloria announced for her; she met Theo on that day. Shouldn’t that be enough? True love is the one thing people should be able to count on, so why can’t Edie count on this? As she navigates her relationships with Theo and her family and friends, Edie must decide whether she’s willing to take a chance on something even bigger than love: her heart’s truest desire.

Author Hannah Orenstein offers readers an interesting premise: what would you do if you knew when you were going to meet your soulmate? With various supporting characters and scenarios, Orenstein shows how the prophetical aspect of the story plays out in realistic ways. Not everyone’s love story is straightforward, but everyone Gloria “blesses” with their date is comfortable and happy. Readers may find themselves drawn to the more philosophical aspects of the plot.

Unfortunately, the execution of the idea in many places falls flat. Edie compares Theo with her old boyfriend, Jonah, constantly. While initial comparisons are reasonable and expected, after the fourth or fifth time readers may begin to wonder why Edie broke up with Jonah in the first place. From everything Edie shares, Jonah was perfect for her. Even with her grandmother’s prediction as a guiding force, and even though Jonah doesn’t have the opportunity to present his side to readers, it’s painfully obvious who is better suited to Edie.

Her insistence on continuing to date Theo, despite glaring differences that both agree are deal-breakers, becomes tiresome. Throughout almost the entire narrative, readers are subjected to Edie’s constant doubt and the comparisons. She shares her thoughts with best friend Shireen and twin sister Rae, but the collective shrug they share does nothing to accelerate the situation to any kind of satisfying conclusion.

The “climactic” moment that leads to Edie’s epiphany comes too late in the book to feel earned; both feel rushed and forced, as if the plot had meandered long enough and just needed to end already. Another potential love interest sticks out in a glaringly obvious way. With all of Edie’s romantic, old-world beliefs in true love, her abrupt change of heart at the end tarnishes everything she seemingly stood for.

Those wanting a romance that is a quick read may want to check this out; others less tolerant of characters who spend most of their time wondering how to fix their problems without doing anything to actually fix them may want to skip it. I recommend readers Borrow Meant to Be Mine.