Latest review: Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding

By Ekta R. Garg

September 19, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 10, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

A woman thinks she’s found the ticket to the social scene at her son’s private school when one of the “cool” moms befriends her. One of the two women is hiding an enormous secret, however, and the other will need to deal with the fallout from the secret when it comes to light. Author Robyn Harding brings back the familiar themes of longing for social inclusion and incredulous antics by young people in her new novel Her Pretty Face.

Frances Metcalfe knows she has a problem with her weight. She knows she’s not the most put-together person. She even knows that other moms at her son’s elite private school shun her for these facts. Frances feels their slight and can’t ignore it. The only defense she has comes in the form of Kate Randolph.

The picture of the perfect woman, Kate has a handsome husband and a spotless house. Frances knows Kate could be friends with anyone, and she also knows the other moms have been scratching their heads trying to figure out what Kate sees in her. The obvious draw, of course, is that their sons are in the same grade. But Kate is calm and collected, a designer pair of shoes, while Frances is dowdy and plump, a nondescript pair of sneakers. On the surface they have nothing in common, but Kate chose her and that’s good enough for Frances.

The friendship motivates Frances to start eating healthy, to exercise, to pick up around the house more. She tries to keep her husband and her son happy, despite the secret that hangs over her head every single day. She’s never told anyone her secret, but as she and Kate get closer Frances thinks maybe Kate would understand. Kate, however, has a secret too, and when Frances finds it out she struggles to maintain objectivity. In same ways, they’ve both committed terrible acts. Maybe their friendship makes sense because they’re more alike than Frances would like to admit.

Author Robyn Harding brings back familiar themes of social inclusion and exclusion in Her Pretty Face. The novel proceeds with various points of view: Frances, Kate’s daughter, Daisy, and a mysterious character named DJ whose identity doesn’t get revealed until the end. Frances is clearly the protagonist of this story, however, and Harding does an excellent job of showing her ambivalence when she discovers Kate’s secret.

The other points of view come across as red herrings to the greater mystery, and readers may find themselves needing to exercise their patience while Harding weaves all the random threads together. Also, in reality, the book doesn’t contain a great deal of forward movement. Frances spends most of the book grateful for Kate’s presence in her life and wringing her hands at her exclusion from the school’s upper social circles. Her secret, too, functions as a red herring designed to throw readers off the track of the identity of a murderer.

Kate’s extreme indifference to Daisy comes across as a little jarring, even with the tidy explanation offered at the end for it. Harding could have spent a little more time sharing the psychological mindset of the characters. Also, curiously, she chooses not to share Kate’s point of view, which is a pity. As the story unfolds, readers will realize that maybe Kate’s point of view would have been the most fascinating of all.

Anyone looking for an easy read that will surprise you in spots will enjoy Her Pretty Face. I recommend readers Borrow the book.

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New review: Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia

By Ekta R. Garg

September 19, 2018

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: September 4, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

A speech therapist becomes the only hope for a teenager after his return from life off the grid. As she tries to find out what happened to his father, the therapist will face questions that have haunted her for years about her own past. Author Mindy Mejia follows last year’s successful release with another commendable thriller in Leave No Trace.

Maya Stark spends her days as an assistant language therapist and her nights renovating the bathroom in her home. She derives a deep satisfaction from both, despite the assertions of her psychiatrist that the only reason Maya can’t finish the renovation project is because she’s using it as an excuse to keep from meeting people. But Maya meets plenty of people at the psychiatric facility where she works. They may not communicate effectively—or at all, in some cases—but she thinks it should count for something.

No one can doubt her dedication to her job or her gift to draw out reluctant communicators, however, which is why she gets tapped to help the boy “returned from the dead.” Ten years earlier, Lucas Blackthorn and his father, Josiah, walked into the woods near their Minnesota home with camping gear. They disappeared without a trace, leaving law enforcement officials and civilians alike speculating they may have died. A decade later Lucas comes back and attempts to rob a camping store. He gets caught, struggles with police, and is sent to the facility where Maya works.

Lucas refuses to talk to anyone, but from the beginning everyone can see he’s drawn to Maya. She gets assigned the task of getting information from him. Lucas does everything he can to break out of the facility to return to him. Despite an initial violent encounter, Maya remains persistent. She makes painstaking efforts to gain Lucas’s trust one conversation at a time, and he finally reveals that Josiah is sick.

All Lucas wants is to go back to his father, a bond Maya can understand because of the deep relationship she shares with her own father. The two were always close but became even more so when Maya’s mother abandoned them both. Lucas, too, has lived through a similar experience, and Maya finds herself drawn to the boy not just as a professional but as a friend. The closer they get, however, the more Maya realizes she and Lucas may have more in common than she first thought.

Author Mindy Mejia comes back in full form with another great thriller. Maya’s well-rounded character will have readers rooting her on early in the book. Mejia also puts just enough distance between the readers and Lucas to make them distrust Lucas early on. Just as Maya labors to earn Lucas’s trust so will Lucas have to earn the trust sympathy of readers. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but Mejia gets it almost perfect.

Mejia sets this book, too, in her native Minnesota, and her deep knowledge of the state shows in the best of ways. She’s able to frame each scene in a three-dimensional way. Readers will get a full picture in their minds of the closed forests and the natural beauty of the state. They’ll also feel the brisk rub of the oncoming winter and smell the air of the forests.

The book relies a touch too much on serendipity to make the plot move forward, and many readers who work in settings similar to Maya’s may object to the development of her relationship with Lucas. She crosses a line, although she fights her conscience for it and Mejia makes that struggle clear. Maya’s indecision makes her seem more real, and her ultimate decision makes sense within the story world Mejia has constructed. It just may ring a little oddly for some readers.

Overall, however, the book is another terrific read from Mejia. Readers will find that Leave No Trace Borders on Bookmarking it!

Newest review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

September 12, 2018

Genre: Dystopian thriller

Release date: August 21, 2018

Rated: Bypass it

After an extremist government legalizes the silencing of half the population in the U.S., one woman decides to fight back. She will do so for the sake of her daughter and future generations, all while dealing with her own feelings about a colleague. Author Christina Delcher offers readers an incredible concept that doesn’t get the support it needs from either the story or its characters in her convoluted debut novel Vox.

Dr. Jean McClellan used to have a flourishing career as a cognitive linguist. She and her colleagues had, in fact, reached the cusp of a breakthrough in treating patients who have lost their ability to speak due to disease or brain injury. As the wife of a physician prominent in politics and mother to four beautiful children, Jean’s life seemed to emulate the typical American dream.

Except lately, America is caught in a nightmare. After the successful presidential election of a radical right-wing administration, all women in the U.S. are forbidden to work. Their education gets reduced to basic arithmetic and extensive home economics courses. And—the most telling difference between men and women—they’re only allowed to speak 100 words a day. Special counters, locked on their wrists, keep track and reset at midnight every night. Go over the 100 words, and the woman, or girl, wearing it receives an electric shock.

In her mind, Jean fights the establishment every day. She also fights with herself; years earlier her college roommate and then-best friend warned her about the changing tide in politics. Jean ignored her friend and now finds herself drowning in near silence.

Until, that is, word comes from the White House about a temporary reprieve. The president’s brother, and most trusted advisor, gets injured in a skiing accident, and the administration wants Jean to continue work on the cure she almost found. Suspicious at first of the president’s offer, Jean negotiates with him and secures removal of her own counter as well as her daughter’s. Now she has just weeks to figure out how to keep them off as well as how to create significant, lasting, change for women everywhere.

Author Christina Dalcher taps into the political climate of the day with her debut novel. Unfortunately, aside from the politics, almost nothing else seems plausible in the story, starting with the timeline. The counters and all of the other sweeping changes have been in effect for a single year. Dalcher requires her readers to suspend disbelief completely and just accept that the widespread changes occurred almost overnight without much protest or pushback from anyone. She glosses over any concrete details of how this happened, which may leave readers wary of what happens next.

Within the first several pages of the book, government officials appear and take off Jean’s counter so she can respond to the president’s proposal. Readers only get to see her internal and external struggle with the limited word count for a short period of time before she gets to run off and play the hero, and there’s plenty of play involved. Despite having a solid home life, Jean tries to justify the extramarital affair she’s having with a colleague by claiming that his outward resistance is more valuable than her husband’s silent disapproval. The fact that that colleague is Italian and gets to come and go to his home country adds to his appeal for her and to the trope for readers.

Jean’s relationship with Sonia, her daughter and youngest child, offers some sweet reprieves throughout the story, but as Jean begins to pursue the cure the president demands even thoughts of Sonia get pushed to the background. It’s never really clear how finding a cure for the president’s brother will enable Jean to put an end to the existing administration’s iron-fisted rule. Dalcher provides a half-baked plot of a coup to overthrow the government led by those close to Jean, but the connection seems tenuous at best.

Civil disobedience has always been a hallmark of the U.S.’s history, but Dalcher sets her story in an alternative America that ignores that history. In it, resistance doesn’t exist and people only of themselves while using “the cause” as an excuse. Fans of dystopian fiction will want to skip this one, especially considering the rushed climax that—ironically—depends on a man to make the dangerous play. I recommend readers Bypass Vox.

Latest review…or not: the DNF pile

By Ekta R. Garg

September 5, 2018

I love stories. That’s no secret to anyone who knows me well. It’s the reason I became an author in the first place. I go to bed thinking of plot points and wake up considering character details. I smile with delight, like a child hiding a candy bar from her parents after Halloween, when I start a new book.

In my teen years, that delight used to turn to dismay when I got into a book that turned into a dud for me. I didn’t give up on the book, however. I’d plod through it until I limped to the end and groaned in relief and annoyance. When I chatted with friends who weren’t bookworms, they would roll their eyes in affection and ask why I didn’t just stop reading before getting to the end.

I couldn’t do that. Starting a book, back then at least, initiated a sacred trust between me and the author. Said author didn’t know I saw it that way, of course. This was in the pre-internet days, so I couldn’t just tweet the author or email him/her. But the trust was sacred, nonetheless.

Then life happened. Marriage. Children. My own writing. Editing. Book reviewing. And I decided to break the trust and allow myself to assign books to a DNF category.

DNF — Did Not Finish — books make many of us bookworms duck our heads in embarrassment. After all, we’re bookworms. We’re supposed to burrow our way through anything and everything between two covers or on our e-readers with a ferocity that doesn’t quit until we reach “The End.”

There’s also a sense of “what if”. It’s a writer’s favorite question. In the case of the DNF list, the question haunts readers. “What if I quit reading just before the book got really good, and I missed out on something special?”

We live in a dynamic age of publishing. Never before have authors had so many outlets they can use to reach potential readers. The sheer numbers of options are exciting and heartening.

Unfortunately, more options also mean more bad books. If I’m spending my limited time reading bad books, I can’t get to the good ones. So a couple of years ago I created benchmarks: if I get through one-fourth of the book (25 percent on my Kindle) and it fails to keep my interest, I drop it. If I hit the 25-percent mark and I’m still on board, I give it to 50 percent. Then I reassess, but I have no qualms about dropping the book if it can’t intrigue me.

I’m not a complete savage, though. Once I hit the 50-percent mark, and if I still like the book, then I stick through it for the long haul. I figure by then I’m already halfway there, so why not finish?

In the last week, I added two more books to the DNF pile. The first was a novel; the second was nonfiction. I went into both hoping — really wanting, actually — to like them. I didn’t. I gave them their 25-percent and 50-percent dues. They both clunked out by then.

I know I made the right choice. As a book reviewer, I have a long TBR — To Be Read — list. The length of that list guarantees I’ll read some books that I’ll absolutely love — those I recommend to Binge — and others I think are pretty great — the ones I tell readers to Bookmark. Some of those books I’ll encourage readers to Borrow from their public libraries, because supporting libraries is crucial and necessary in our day and age. A few of those books I encourage readers to Bypass, because I made it all the way to the end but still didn’t like it.

The DNF books fall below the Bypass list. I think the fact that I’m willing to stick through many books that I eventually don’t like anyway speaks to my dedication to stories. And books. And publishing.

I realize that if I’m ever fortunate enough to have a book published, some readers might come across my book and decide it should be added to their DNF pile. Fair enough. One of the best things about books is that we can talk about them, share them, not share them, share our distaste or delight about a novel or story, and all still be right.

In the end, one thing remains intact: my love for books. I might have to break the trust with authors now and again, but that just means I can form it with other authors that much sooner. I still feel a pinch of dismay in my heart at not completing a book, but now I just wince and open the next book with that optimism that floods a readers heart. Like a kid with Halloween candy.

 

New review: Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi

By Ekta R. Garg

Release date: August 7, 2018

Genre: YA fiction

August 29, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it / 3. 5 stars

 

Death and Night take on human form as they learn to love one another. A woman granted a wish loses her self-confidence as she navigates a world unknown to her. A queen and king, on the night before their wedding, engage in the greatest challenge to their union. Author Roshani Chokshi brings back characters readers will recognize in Star-Touched Stories, a triad of novellas almost too sumptuous for consumption.

In the first story, Death needs a queen but doesn’t want to risk his heart. Due to a curse inflicted on him centuries earlier, he’s destined to lose anyone he loves. He searches for a companion with a proposition in mind. He’ll offer a suitable mate all the comforts she could possibly want but not love. Of course, he didn’t count on meeting Night and falling in love with her. Night, too, becomes enamored with Death, despite his insistence that he doesn’t want a relationship. Together they navigate a territory unknown to both of them until they reach a point where they must decide whether love is worth the cost.

The second story opens with Aasha, a being from the Otherworld who made a wish to live among humans. A close friend to Queen Gauri and King Vikram, Aasha lives in the palace and uses her talents to advise both on matters of state. As the two royals prepare to join their kingdoms through marriage, other advisors complain about Aasha’s proximity to Gauri and Vikram. They offer her the opportunity to train as a Spy Mistress so she can retain an official title as well as a legitimate reason to stay close. With the utmost of reluctance, Aasha begins her training and finds it to be exactly what she needed to center herself. She also finds the opportunity for love in the most unexpected way possible.

Gauri and Vikram become the focus of the third story. Many years into the future, Princess Hira finds herself pouting on the eve of her big sister’s wedding. She runs to her grandmother and former queen, Gauri, who shares her own love story with Hira. On the night before her wedding, Vikram falls victim to a mysterious illness. Gauri learns the only way to cure him is to go to the Otherworld and bring back his last breath. Along the way she runs into challenges to herself and to the strength of her love, which force her to consider carefully whether the journey is worth it.

Author Roshani Chokshi gives readers a chance to spend more time with Aasha, Gauri, and Vikram, beloved characters from her previous novel, A Crown of Wishes. In Star-Touched Stories, as with her previous books, Chokshi bends her prose in ways that will delight readers with its unexpected twists. Many of the metaphors will make readers sit back in appreciation.

Those same metaphors, however, also slightly weaken the book. In many cases, they come too close to one another. The lush descriptions, enchanting at first, at times will overwhelm readers and will force them to step back from the book for a while to breathe.

Chokshi’s talent is unquestionable; her descriptions and world building offer readers a delightful departure from other stories. It wouldn’t hurt, in future books, for her to give her readers a little bit of space in between some of those descriptions. With enough plain narrative to act as the stitching to the rich metaphors, the tapestries of her novels and stories will appear that much more lush.

Fans waiting to find out more about Aasha, Vikram, and Gauri will certainly appreciate returning to their world in this trilogy. Readers new to Chokshi’s work can consider it a crash course in her writing style. I find Star-Touched Stories Bordering on Bookmarking it.

 

Mini reviews: Other Books from This Summer

By Ekta R. Garg

August 24, 2018

There were several other books that I read this summer that I won’t review in detail. I will, however, do a quick recap of what I read and what I thought of it. As always, these are my own thoughts and opinions. If you loved a book and I didn’t (or vice versa,) then please don’t dwell on it. That’s part of the beauty of books: we can all express our opinions, and no one’s wrong. :>

Here, then, in no particular order are some of the other books I read in the last three months.

*****

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

What intrigued me about the concept: It’s two books in one! An editor receives a manuscript by one of her most proficient clients, a murder mystery author. The novel includes the entire book by the author and then a larger story to enjoy, because the author himself gets murdered.

What I thought of the book: It was terrific! Not only does the manuscript by the author keep you engaged, but also the story about how his editor solves his murder will keep readers turning pages. Being an editor myself, I had a lot of sympathy for the protagonist and liked that she got to show some muscle when she needed to.

I recommend readers Bookmark Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.

*****

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

What intrigued me about the concept: Only child Amelia, a student at a ritzy New York private school, dies from an apparent suicide. Her mother, a single parent and a lawyer, refuses to accept that Amelia jumped from the school’s roof like everyone claims. She sets out to get to the bottom of her daughter’s death.

What I thought of the book: Unfortunately I didn’t like it. At all. I wanted to cheer on Kate, the mother, from the beginning, and for a while I did. Interspersed with Kate’s point of view portions are entries from an unidentified blogger who shares all the dirt on the students at the school, and some of those were just downright offensive. When I found out who the blogger was, it upset me. Also, I was kind of disgusted by the shenanigans by the students at the school. Every single kid there had a major life issue; none of them were normal.

I recommend readers Bypass Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight.

*****

Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen

What intrigued me about the concept: A little black dress makes the rounds between nine women in an improbable yet believable manner. Each of the women get a chance to wear the dress, which changes their lives for the better.

What I thought about the book: This was sweet, in a chick flick sort of way. I got a little lost as the dress traveled from woman to woman; keeping track of all of them and how they were connected confused me at times. But each of their anecdotes made me smile, so I think it would be a great beach read. If you’re looking for something fast that doesn’t require a lot of brain power, this is a good one to add to your suitcase.

I recommend readers Borrow Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen.

*****

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

What intrigued me about the concept: Four siblings meet with a mystic in New York City in the 1960s. She tells each of them the date of their death, which shapes how they live the rest of their years.

What I thought about the book: It was unnecessarily gratuitous in many places, offensively so. Also, I don’t think knowing their death dates changed much for the siblings. With their characterizations, they would have ended up doing exactly what they did anyway. It was also inconsistent that readers get to see how three of the siblings die but don’t find out what happens to the fourth at the end of life.

I recommend readers Bypass The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

Newest review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

August 22, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: May 9, 2017

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A single woman discovers her own loneliness after meeting a rising rock star, losing access to her computer, and accidentally helping an elderly person…all within a week. As these life events begin to converge, the woman will realize that not only is she lonely but she also has the means to cure that loneliness. Debut novelist Gail Honeyman delivers a powerful story with both humor and tears guaranteed in the soulful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

Eleanor Oliphant doesn’t stand on ceremony when it comes to how the world views her. She knows people think she’s stand-offish; strange even. The feeling is mutual. If others don’t have the forethought to look past the burn scars on her face, the dowdy way she dresses, and the fact that she doesn’t engage in idle social interactions, she won’t waste her time with them either.

She lives alone and spends her weekends without speaking to another soul. An employee in the accounts receivable department of a graphic design company, Eleanor works hard at her job and rewards herself every Friday with a pizza, a Chianti, and two large bottles of vodka. She prefers to drink alone, but she never loses control. She’s not an alcoholic, after all, just someone who prefers to use strong libations to drown out the thoughts that trouble her.

Until, that is, she meets him: Johnnie Lomond, lead singer for the Pilgrim Pioneers. Eleanor attends a concert with a colleague and her utmost reluctance as her companions. There she sees Johnnie and his band, and she discovers the meaning of “love at first sight”. She begins putting all her energy toward updating and improving herself to prepare for their first encounter, which she knows Fate will organize in good time.

Her preparation includes researching Johnnie online, which she can’t do at the office because her computer has frozen. Eleanor enlists the help of the IT guy, Raymond, who seems friendly enough, even if he is a sloppy dresser and an effusive talker. He gets Eleanor’s computer working again, and that’s all that matters.

After work one day the two happen to see an old man stagger and fall. They get him to the hospital and as Eleanor goes back to visit him, she finds herself in Raymond’s company several times. Bit by bit her routine of her singular livelihood changes, both by Raymond’s increasing presence and her quest to make herself ready for a life of love with Johnnie. In the end nothing—not the horrific events of her childhood, nor her disturbing relationship with her mother—will prevent Eleanor from the lifetime of happiness that even she didn’t know she was missing before.

Debut author Gail Honeyman gives readers a story with heart and teeth. In the tradition of Fredrik Backman’s books, Honeyman’s prose turns on a dime to both entertain readers and make them sympathize with Eleanor. Early in the book, when Raymond and Eleanor see the old man fall and Eleanor initially thinks the man is a drunkard, she says:

“Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they don’t cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me.”

The fact that Eleanor and company live in Glasgow only adds to the charm of the story. Her biting wit and frank observations will keep readers entertained, which offers the perfect setup to the tender, emotional parts of the novel. No doubt, as the story progresses, readers will find themselves more and more involved with Eleanor’s life. She’s managed to keep the entire world at arm’s length all her life, but her life is about to change. Anyone who encounters this novel will get a front-row seat to that change and will be glad they did.

The book hits all the right notes and will delight readers from start to finish. I recommend readers Binge Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.