Latest review: Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen

By Ekta R. Garg

April 1, 2020

Genre: Mystery

Release date: March 3, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

Two young women make an awful discovery and must decide whether they should speak up or stay quiet. Their personal challenges and the ill fate of the city where they live make their choice that much harder. If they speak up, they might expose the unsavory parts of their lives to the world. If they do nothing, people may die. Author Caitlin Mullen presents readers with the melancholic backdrop of a failing Atlantic City in her overlong novel Please See Us.

Lily Louten comes home to Atlantic City so she can escape her life in New York. Nothing, she thinks, could be worse than the scandal she’s left behind. Her boyfriend, Matthew, an up-and-coming artist, betrayed her and humiliated her. Worse, he did it in the name of “art” and actually expected her to understand. Now Lily just wants to figure out what she’s going to do next.

Her mother calls in a favor and gets her a job interview at a spa in one of the casinos in town. Working the front desk of a place that promises to wax and exfoliate a woman into the best version of herself is a far cry from the glamorous art world where Lily scouted new talent and attended parties soaked in champagne and crudités. Still, it’s better than sitting at home, and when she gets the job Lily feels like life might become bearable once again.

In another part of the city, Ava, who goes by Clara, and her aunt, Des, wake up every morning trying to figure out how to pay the bills. Clara has a gift: she has psychic abilities. She receives visions about people and places. At only 16, she’s dropped out of school and spends her days trying to convince tourists—or, anyone, really—to pay her to read their tarot cards. Des dances in one of the clubs, and neither of them make enough money to satisfy their landlord or the utility companies.

When the uncle of a missing girl comes to Clara for a reading, the result disturbs Clara. She tries to soften the blow of the vision she sees, but she can’t hide it from herself. Something bad has either happened to this girl or is going to happen soon. After the uncle leaves, Clara continues to receive more visions. It’s a jumble of images and impressions that frighten her, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Des is only focused on the money that needs to come in, and Clara’s mother deserted her years earlier. Clara knows her mother had the same gift she does, and she wishes she could ask her mother for help interpreting the visions. She meets Lily, and the two form an uneasy friendship. Having no one else to turn to, Clara confides in Lily what she sees. As more women go missing, Lily and Clara realize the visions are connected to them. If they don’t say something soon, the danger could careen into their own lives.

Author Caitlin Mullen’s prose establishes the maturity and heft with which she tells the story. Early in the book, from the point of view of one of the missing women, Mullen writes, “If she could do it again, she wouldn’t pick up a needle after she was canned, wouldn’t feel so relieved that heroin came cheap. When she got clean, she like did in ’96, ’98, ’03, ’07, she would stay that way.” From Lily’s point of view, Mullen writes, “[I]t was unsettling to be in Atlantic City again—coming home had filled me with an inarticulate dread. … The entire town was like a dreamscape titled toward nightmare.”

Mullen chooses to tell the story from first person in the sections on Lily and Clara and from third person in the sections on the missing women. A few other characters also receive some attention, and therein lies part of the problem. The book tries to allow for too many people’s perspectives. While Mullen’s narrative follows a measured pace, giving voice to so many characters makes the novel drag. Readers might wonder whether this is more literary fiction and less a mystery or thriller.

The revelation of the person responsible for the missing women might surprise readers. In some ways, it’s unsatisfactory and will leave readers wondering why they needed to read as far as they did to make the discovery. Also, characters who seem to be given relative importance disappear only to pop up later without warning or explanation.

The haunting mood Mullen sets for the book is pitch perfect, but the story tries to tackle too many areas at once. Its overly ambitious approach will make readers want to Borrow Please See Us.

Newest review: And They Called It Camelot by Stephanie Marie Thornton

By Ekta R. Garg

March 25, 2020

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: March 10, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A young woman becomes a household name as the wife of an up-and-coming politician who gets elected president. She deals with her husband’s ongoing infidelity and helps him through the stresses of his political career, only to have it all snatched away from her in an instant. Author Stephanie Marie Thornton uses her meticulous research methods to give the world an inside look at the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the well-intentioned but long novel And They Called It Camelot.

In the early 1950s, despite her sensible engagement to a long-time beau, Jacqueline Bouvier wants more from life. She’s not content to play the meek housewife or be relegated to the background, and her fiancé doesn’t understand that. While her work as a reporter offers her a chance to travel and assert herself, when she meets John “Jack” Kennedy at a party she’s awestruck. She falls headlong into a whirlwind romance and the glamorous life of the Kennedy political machine.

At first she thinks she and Jack have a love story for the ages, but Jackie isn’t completely blind. She sees how other women act around Jack and is horrified to discover that he reciprocates, even after she marries him. Many times.

Every instinct within her tells her to leave, but her father-in-law, Joe, convinces her to stay. Joe knows that his son’s star is on the rise, and Jackie’s addition to the family offers the American public the complete picture. Without Jackie, his son’s chances to capture the White House decrease dramatically.

Jackie and Jack come to an uneasy truce, but she still feels the sting of infidelity even all the way through her husband’s successful presidential bid. As First Lady, though, she has more matters to occupy her time. She breaks the major trends for fashion for First Ladies, decides to oversee the extensive renovations of the White House, and does her best to mend her fraught relationship with her sister. Vacations to her favorite spots in Europe help too, and so does being a mother.

Motherhood fulfills Jackie in a way that nothing else can, especially considering how hard she fought for it. Miscarriages and the death of two of her babies in infancy leave her heartbroken in a way that even Jack’s affairs can’t, and she adores and cherishes the children she does have. Unlike other politicians’ wives, she’s determined to be a constant in the lives of her son and daughter.

Jack only enjoys a scant thousand days as president, however, when he’s brutally assassinated. After his murder, Jackie finds herself floundering. Even after all his infidelities, Jack was the love of her life. She and Jack’s younger brother, Bobby, form a close bond, but nothing can take away the ache of losing her husband.

Despite overt public criticism, Jackie marries Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. At first, the retreat to Greece is the respite she needs from all the horrifying events of the day Jack was killed. Her relationship with Onassis is nothing like the marriage she shared with Jack, though, and she finds herself yearning for life in the States once again. After Aristotle’s death, Jackie returns to her beloved New York City where she becomes an outspoken advocate for the arts and a book editor. Through it all, her relationship with her children remains her anchor.

Author Stephanie Marie Thornton reveals in her author’s note the depth of research she did to present the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with as much authenticity as possible. The result is a novel that adds dimension to a figure in history who many may have assumed was just a pretty face. While modern-day readers might associate Jackie Kennedy with the pink suit and pillbox hat she wore on the day of her husband’s assassination, Thornton’s novel reveals her to be much more.

Jackie comes across as a modern woman stuck in the trappings of society. She doesn’t hesitate to fight back and she also gives herself grace when stuck in an impossible situation: with an unfaithful husband. The former First Lady’s anguish and inner turmoil ring true. Never mind that she’s married to the president of the United States. The concessions she makes for his career and family underscore the fact that at her heart, she’s a wife and mother who just wants her husband to stay home every single night.

The book might feel long in some parts; given that John Kenney was president for such a short period of time, Thornton takes time to delve into the Kennedy marriage before he won the White House and after his death. Many readers might appreciate Thornton’s unwillingness to leave them hanging; although Jackie Kennedy retreated from the public eye after her husband’s death, she did continue to have a life. The reminder makes the picture of this incredible woman that much more complete.

Those who enjoy books about the life and times of well-known celebrities with less coverage will definitely enjoy this novel. I recommend readers Bookmark And They Called It Camelot.

Latest review: One Little Lie by Colleen Coble

By Ekta R. Garg

March 18, 2020

Genre: Christian mystery

Release date: March 3, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A woman gets her father’s old job and is challenged by the biggest atrocities her town has seen in years. She’ll need to do everything she can to forget her traumatic past and focus on her work, all while she reconsiders the idea of faith, if she wants to succeed. Christian author Colleen Coble places a woman in a traditionally man’s role in the fairly likable novel One Little Lie.

Jane Hardy receives the honor of becoming the police chief of the small force in her town of Pelican Harbor, Alabama, along the Gulf Coast. She’s pleased and a little intimidated by her new position; after all, she’s stepping right into the shoes of her father, the former chief. He has an excellent reputation, and she doesn’t want to let him or the town down in any way.

She doesn’t have time to think about any of that, however. Two bodies have been found, murdered in disturbing ways. These latest murders follow other mysterious killings in the area, which the officers have started calling the vigilante killings due to the vindictive nature of the murders. The murderer has left messages with the victims, because he—or she—clearly thinks the victims are perpetrators themselves. No one knows what they did, though, or why they deserved punishment.

Jane runs, literally, into Reid Dixon. A celebrated documentary filmmaker, Reid’s newest piece will focus on how small police forces help their towns. Despite her unease, Jane agrees to let Reid follow her around town as she investigates the latest murders.

Clues start coming out but don’t make any sense, and Jane struggles to put them together into a cohesive narrative. When she turns to her dad for advice, he’s reluctant to offer any. At first Jane thinks this is his normal reticence. Since he rescued her from the cult where they lived for more than a decade, her dad’s always been quiet.

Then the FBI comes to Jane with a stunning announcement: they’re holding her father as a person of interest in the murders. She fights them on the charge, but they have just enough evidence to make her father look suspicious. Reid lends moral support and works to help her solve the mystery, and the closer they get to one another the more Jane thinks of her childhood years in the cult. Why, she wonders, are these memories coming back now? And what will she do if her dad really is guilty?

Author Colleen Coble offers readers a chance to watch a protagonist in an unusual role. As an authority figure, Jane deals with insubordinate officers as well as ingratiating ones. Despite the stereotypical description of a petite frame, Jane’s honesty and integrity shine. So does her loyalty to her father. When other officers make cogent arguments as to why she shouldn’t be so quick in defending him, Jane struggles with the morality versus the legality of the information on hand. That struggle comes across as real and relatable.

The book suffers from too much of a pedantic approach. Characters have conversations, and then the narrative jumps in to explain what they just talked about. In the tussle between “show, don’t tell,” Coble errs too much on the side of telling readers what’s going on instead of letting the story unfold on its own. At some point, readers might get a little antsy with this method.

The connection to the cult, too, seems unnecessary. While Coble makes the different portions of Jane’s life fit well enough, it’s unclear why she needed to suffer through being in a cult. Even with a big revelation toward the end that most readers will see coming long before Jane does, the cult itself doesn’t serve a larger purpose in the novel.

Coble handles Jane’s questioning of faith in a realistic way as well, though, making one thing clear: when people face the worst of humanity, as law enforcement officers do, it can make them second-guess everything they know to be true. Readers who enjoy this type of story will enjoy this book. For everyone else, I suggest they Borrow One Little Lie.

Latest review: Follow Me by Kathleen Barber

By Ekta R. Garg

March 11, 2020

Genre: Thriller

Release date: February 25, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young woman moves to a new city for her dream job and brings her substantial social media following with her. What she doesn’t realize is that one of her followers wants more than just her latest posts on Instagram. He wants her all to himself and will stop at nothing to get her. Author Kathleen Barber offers readers a standard thriller about the dangers of sharing too much of one’s life online in the new novel Follow Me.

Audrey Miller finally has a chance to be a grownup. Despite boasting a million followers on Instagram and dozens of endorsement opportunities, Audrey still doesn’t feel like she’s found her footing with a real job. Even the thrill of living in New York City is wearing off, although she doesn’t let any of her Instagram followers know that. According to the pictures she shares with them, she’s still got the most amazing life ever.

When she gets an offer to become the social media manager for the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Audrey can’t stop smiling. Not only is the job suited to her talents, but it also gives her a chance to participate in curating museum exhibits (one of her real loves.) She packs her bags and moves to D.C. It helps, too, that her former college roommate, Cat, lives there already. Cat and Audrey always got along well, and Audrey knows they’ll hit it off again once she settles in.

The quick move leaves her with few options for housing, though, so she takes the dingy apartment basement with a mostly absent landlady and her creepy grandson. Even with the broken lock on the gate outside the apartment, Audrey is determined to make the best of things. With Cat and her hot ex-boyfriend Nick around, what’s the worst that could happen?

She finds out soon enough. Someone begins invading her privacy: breaking into her apartment, leaving her flowers, and letting her know that she’s been chosen. What Audrey doesn’t know is that one of her followers has installed a RAT (remote administration tool) onto her computer. Now he can watch her whenever he wants, and he definitely wants to watch.

To him, Audrey is everything. The fact that she’s moved to his hometown is a sure sign they’re meant to be together. Now he just has to find a way to convince her once and for all that they’re soulmates.

Author Kathleen Barber showcases the dangers of sharing too much of one’s self online. Had Follow Me been aimed at the YA audience, its content would have seemed more urgent or relevant. Because Barber writes for adults, however, the book has to work harder to make readers suspend their disbelief.

Too many plot elements feel more like serendipity. While Cat, Audrey’s former roommate, comes across as socially awkward at times, by the end readers will feel like she was added to the story just because another suspect was needed. Also, for someone who spends so much time curating her own life for her online audience, Audrey comes across as shockingly naïve. Had this book released five or 10 years ago, her innocence about the possibilities of online stalkers could be forgiven. In 2020, with enough news cycles and real-life stories about these kinds of incidents available, Audrey’s lack of awareness of the dangers of over-sharing seems like a convenient choice just to make the story move forward.

Barber tries to give all the main characters their due. Chapters alternate between the points of view of Audrey, Cat, and Audrey’s stalker. On their own, the characters sound interesting and their independent story tracks keep the story chugging along. As a collective work, though, the chapters are less successful. They almost seem forced together to bring the story to its inevitable end.

The revelation of the stalker may not come as a total surprise to more astute readers, and the climax seems overdrawn. In one moment, Audrey confronts her stalker. The next moment, everything seems fine. Readers might feel let down by the resolution, but those who like a standard thriller might enjoy this one. I recommend readers Borrow Follow Me.

Latest review: You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

By Ekta R. Garg

March 4, 2020

Genre: Thriller

Release date: March 3, 2020

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

In the aftermath of a horrible incident, a woman tries to pull herself together. She stumbles upon a new circle of friends who she believes were tailor-made for her. The more time she spends with them, however, the more she realizes that she might be headed for danger herself. Co-authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen follow up their smash hits The Wife Between Us and An Anonymous Girl with the superlative novel You Are Not Alone.

Shay Miller lives in New York City but certainly doesn’t live the glamorous NYC lifestyle. She’s a data analyst, and recently she was let go from her permanent position in a company restructure. Now she’s temping, looking for another job and a way out of her life.

She lives with Sean, her former boyfriend-turned-roommate. The two get along really well, although Sean’s new girlfriend isn’t thrilled with the living situation. Shay knows it’s only a matter of time before the two will want place all to themselves.

The worst happens one day while Shay’s waiting for the subway. Just before the train arrives, Shay notices a young woman standing too close to the tracks. Before Shay can think, the woman jumps in front of the oncoming train. Reeling from the event, Shay spends the following days inventing new ways to get around the city so she can avoid the subway and trying to force the image from her brain.

She can’t let go of it, though, and finds a way to insert herself into the former life of the suicide victim. Shay meets the Moore sisters, Cassandra and Jane, and is drawn to them instantly. They’re everything she’s not: well-dressed, meeting high-profile clients through their PR firm, going to the best restaurants and bars in town. Their relationship with one another makes her envious. She has a strained relationship with her mother and stepfather, and her best friend just gave birth to a beautiful baby and is MIA from Shay’s life.

Shay feels like she has no one to talk to, no one who understands her. Despite advice against it, she finds reasons to stay in touch with Cassandra and Jane. The women seem to reciprocate Shay’s friendship, and she thinks that meeting them has been the best stroke of serendipity to happen to her. Her love life starts looking up, her job prospects improve, and she’s even dressing better.

What Shay doesn’t know is that Cassandra and Jane have an agenda. They may have met Shay due to an accident, but they’re going to find a way to turn that accident into a fortuitous event. If it means Shay will have to give up everything, well, they’re ready to make the sacrifice.

Authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen prove once again that their writing team can produce thriller gold. Although Shay is obsessed with interesting bits of information, her work as a data analyst doesn’t make her out to be the stereotypical nerd. Hendricks and Pekkanen build Shay with enough complexity to make it seem like she could be anyone. Readers will identify with Shay’s faults and insecurities.

While at times she may come off as naïve, within the story world it makes sense for her to miss warning signals about Cassandra and Jane. By making Shay witness the subway jumper early in the book, Hendricks and Pekkanen guarantee that Shay’s so wrapped up in her grief and confusion about the event and life in general that she doesn’t see what might be obvious to anyone else in the cold light of day. Shay’s life is slowly falling apart; watching someone jump to their death brings her closer to the edge.

Readers will get bits of information about the woman who jumped off the tracks as well as Cassandra, Jane, and the other women who form their tight-knit circle of friends. Even as some pieces fall right into place throughout the novel, as always Hendricks and Pekkanen save some of the best revelations for the end of the book. Over and over, the authors reinforce and challenge the title with ease through their incredible prose. With masterful plotting, Hendricks and Pekkanen have another winner on their hands.

Anyone who enjoys a good, fun thriller will definitely want to check it out. I recommend readers Binge You Are Not Alone.