Newest review: Millard Salter’s Last Day by Jacob M. Appel

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

November 8, 2017

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: November 7, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

A man plans to commit suicide but decides to spend the day having last conversations with those closest to him. He interacts with family and colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and reflects on whether his final decision really is the best one. Author Jacob M. Appel presents a book that seems less like a story and more like a string of incidents in the dismal novel Millard Salter’s Last Day.

Millard Salter grew up in a New York City no one seems to remember anymore. Celebrities, neighborhood haunts, even the lingo people use has changed. Of course, things can change a lot in 75 years, including a person’s health. That’s why Millard has decided to take his health into his own hands. Before he gets diagnosed with a terminal illness or suffers a fall or any other ailment senior citizens usually face, he’s going to kill himself. And his 75th birthday seems like a good day for it.

Of course, Millard can’t just commit suicide without checking in with the other people in his life first. He arrives at work at St. Dymphna’s Hospital where runs the psychiatry department only to find out a lynx is on the loose and the woman he can’t stand has heard a rumor about him retiring and wants his job. At lunch with Lysander, his 43-year-old unemployed, he fails to impart any meaningful life principles. He even musters up the courage to call on his ex-wife after more than decades and gets an earful and a surprise.

Through it all, including an unexpected interaction with his youngest child, Maia, Millard remains steadfast in his purpose. He can’t help dropping little hints about his plans throughout the day to his nearest and dearest, although no one reads between the lines. But it doesn’t matter to Millard anymore. What matters is that he’s always lived his life on his own terms, and now he’s going to end it that way too.

Author Jacob M. Appel’s latest book garnered early attention as comparable to Fredrik Backman’s smash hit, A Man Called Ove. Devoted fans of the latter should definitely not read Millard Salter’s Last Day. Other than starring a protagonist intent on suicide, the two books couldn’t be more different from one another.

Appel’s novel reads less like a conventional story and more like a book-length list of incidents. The fact that the entire tome takes place over the course of a single day makes the pace drag almost unbearably. Millard wants to meet every single person who means something to him and runs into a few along the way who don’t mean that much. Going through every account will eventually exhaust readers.

While Millard’s determination may impress some readers, more of them may wonder where the story will end up. Appel tries to dress up most of the slow spots with Millard’s reminiscences of old-time New York City, but with most of the names unfamiliar to younger generations at some point readers will lose their patience.

That lack of patience will spill over to Millard as well; he comes across as wholly unlikeable and insufferable. At some point his pomposity comes across almost unjustified. His decision to kill himself, then, feels as much an expression of his ego as his complaints that the current generation knows nothing of the greats of the past.

The book winds to its inevitable, and thereby disappointing, conclusion. In the end, the incidents preceding the end of the book feel less than satisfying. I recommend readers Bypass Millard Salter’s Last Day.

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Newest review: The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

By Ekta R. Garg

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

 

Rated: Borrow it

November 1, 2017

Genre: Children’s fiction

Release date: August 22, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

After her parents disappear, a young girl gets kidnapped too. As she tries to figure out who would want to kidnap her family and why, she will also have to try to make sense of other events that have greater implications for the world at large. Author Sinead O’Hart tackles climate change and mythical creatures all with a plucky protagonist in her mostly likable debut novel The Eye of the North.

Emmeline Widget can take care of herself. Her parents, scientists, spend most of their time on expeditions away from home, so much so that Emmeline carries around a satchel at all times full of survival essentials. She’s also read countless books on techniques and tools to help her out of almost any problem.

Her informal training may truly benefit her, Emmeline discovers, when she receives a mysterious letter from her mother. The letter states that if Emmeline is reading the words on the page, in all likelihood her parents have been kidnapped. For her own safety, the letter continues, Emmeline should leave her home immediately and travel to Paris. There she should go to the address included in the letter, ask for a Madame Blancheflour, and live with the woman until the age of 18.

Satchel in hand, Emmeline boards a ship bound for France. There she meets a stowaway who calls himself Thing because, he explains, that’s how everyone has always addressed him. Within hours of getting on the ship, Emmeline finds out that someone—or several someones—want to kidnap her as well. She and Thing do their best to evade capture, but the inevitable happens: Emmeline gets snatched from the deck by a Dr. Siegfried Bauer.

With the world’s topography changing dramatically, Dr. Bauer wants immortality. After decades of research, he has discovered he can call forth the Kraken in Greenland. Anyone who summons the Kraken and offers a living sacrifice can command the beast and utilize its powers, including those that make it live forever. Dr. Bauer set Emmeline’s parents with the actual task of drawing the Kraken out of its glacial home; Emmeline will serve as the sacrifice.

All is not lost, however. Thing begins working on a plan to save Emmeline. He meets a bevy of friends along the way who help him in his quest, and he lives through some adventures himself. As both Emmeline and Thing travel to Greenland, they will have to contend with what awakening the Kraken means not only for them personally but also for the rest of the world.

Author Sinead O’Hart’s debut novel zips along at a fast clip once Emmeline gets kidnapped by Dr. Bauer. Much of the action before her kidnapping feels like filler, however. The book begins just as Emmeline receives her mother’s letter. As soon as she’s done reading, the butler informs Emmeline she has five minutes to grab anything extra (he’s already packed her bags, of course,) before they must drive to the dock. The jarring start to the book requires a great deal of suspension of belief, and the lack of plausibility might discourage more advanced readers.

The introduction of Thing, too, doesn’t exactly make one warm up to him right away. Eventually, however, readers will grow to like him as much as Emmeline does, and O’Hart does an admirable job of keeping his back story just out of reach until it’s absolutely needed. Until that moment late in the book, though, readers will have to content themselves with accepting the fact that Thing is a resourceful orphan who is just nosy enough to follow Emmeline and then rescue her.

On a larger scale, O’Hart’s book feels like it’s reaching for too many things all at once. Roundabout mentions in passing of massive climate change may provoke curiosity and questions, but they don’t receive much attention. O’Hart ropes in fabled creatures, a la the Kraken (and others that get a rushed mention at the end,) but their inclusion feels more like a bid to appeal to the younger end of the target audience. A witch pops up briefly, almost as if items on a checklist needed ticking. In many other places, the mechanics of the action are entirely unclear and some of the characters come across as placeholders.

For readers who don’t mind putting aside a little bit of logic and who can enjoy an adventure for adventure’s sake, The Eye of the North might be worth a read. I recommend readers Borrow The Eye of the North.

Newest book review: The Windfall by Diksha Basu

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

October 25, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: June 28, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

A man comes into a large sum of money and decides to move his family from their middle-class neighborhood to fancier digs. As he and his wife try to navigate the nuances of upper crust society, he will have to decide how much of his old self he wants to retain and how much he wants to blend into his new circle of acquaintances. Author Diksha Basu juggles several characters but doesn’t give readers enough of any of them in her debut novel The Windfall.

For years, Anil Jha thought he knew what life would bring him when his son got older. Rupak would go to the U.S. to study business, and Anil and his wife, Bindu, would live out their retirement in their middle-class community of Mayur Palli. Their building in East Delhi doesn’t exactly scream high society—the kitchen in their flat is tiny and worn out, and their neighbors always seem to know what they’re up to.

Until now. Anil surprised himself more than anyone else when he got the opportunity to sell his online startup for $20 million. Now he has enough cash to fulfill every dream he and Bindu have ever had, and he’s decided to start with their home. He buys a house in the upscale area of Gurgaon, and he’s giddy with the idea of becoming a member of high society.

Bindu has her own reservations about Gurgaon. She’s not quite as ready as Anil to trade up for a new residence. After all, she raised Rupak in their Mayur Palli flat. All their friends live in the building. They don’t know anyone in Gurgaon and even though Anil keeps talking about how excited he is, Bindu senses an element of hesitation in him too. Change, after all these years, will be hard.

In the state of New York, Rupak is treading water at Ithaca College. With the upcoming move, his parents have had enough distractions. He doesn’t want them to worry about him too, so he’s made it all the way to India for a visit and back without telling them that he’s starting a second year on academic probation. His mother and father think he’s working toward a master’s in business administration; he’s spending more time with Elizabeth, his American girlfriend, than in class. Now his parents are moving to a new house, and everything feels like it’s getting tossed in the air.

Anil can’t decide whether he needs an electric shoe polisher. Bindu is trying to curb her husband’s sudden need to buy sofas encrusted with Swarovski crystals and jewelry from Tiffany’s. Rupak keeps wondering whether he should call it quits at Ithaca and just go home, even if he’s not sure what “home” means anymore. The entire Jha family will have to discern how best to find their way through their new surroundings, as individuals as well as a unit.

Author Diksha Basu offers a peek into life in middle-class Delhi as well as its upper social echelons, but readers won’t get a chance to bond with any of the characters. Basu’s choice of omniscient point of view—sharing the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in small pieces—will keep readers at arm’s length. Also, the Jhas’ actual move to Gurgaon, which is the inciting incident promised by marketing materials, doesn’t happen until well over the halfway mark into the novel. Basu has chosen a relevant and timely topic, but some of her narrative selections make the book come across as more of an exercise in fluff.

Anil Jha’s wish to reach for more than what he’s ever had in life rings true, but his reactions seem almost farcical. Of the husband-wife pair, Bindu is the more grounded partner. Her concerns get swept aside, however, in the larger tale. Rupak is the least developed of the three; he turns into a boring stereotype of the very experience Basu wishes to project. As a result, his thoughts and ambivalence toward everything will induce eye-rolling more than anything else.

The most interesting part of the novel comes in its subplot of the widowed Mrs. Ray, a neighbor to the Jhas in their old building. She’s lost her husband at a young age but still has the verve for life, and Basu’s treatment of her will come across as respectful and thoughtful. When Mrs. Ray meets someone new, her desires conflict with her knowledge of how society will react. This through-line, more than any other, will resonate with South Asian readers everywhere.

Overall, the book is somewhat amusing for the lengths Anil Jha will go to for his new life, and some readers may find it entertaining for that purpose if no other. I recommend readers Borrow The Windfall.

Latest review: For Your Own Protection by Paul Pilkington

By Ekta R. Garg

October 11, 2017

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: September 28, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

A man suspects his girlfriend of stalking him, but he has no idea why. A woman comes home to her apartment to find it ransacked. The two live in different parts of the city but as the man starts to investigate circumstances that become more bizarre by the day, a connection emerges between the two. Author Paul Pilkington returns with command and confidence in a novel that hits all the right spots in the brand new thriller For Your Own Protection.

Matt Roberts is fighting hard to bring some normalcy back to his life. After a personal crisis, he’s in the midst of a leave of absence from his day job as a fund manager at a prominent London bank. It doesn’t help that the high point—or low point, depending on how a person looks at it—of the crisis started with Matt himself. He cheated on his longtime girlfriend, Beth, and even though they share a child Beth kicked Matt out.

Beth is kind enough to let Matt see Charlie, their son, but she’s definitely moved on to another relationship. After all this time, Matt has too but something about his new girlfriend, Catherine, makes him wonder. He thinks he’s seen her in odd times and places when they didn’t have a date, almost as if she’s following him. But why would Catherine want to follow him? Their relationship seems fine, albeit a little shallow.

Rachel Martin doesn’t know how she’s going to move forward in life. Her fiancé died in a horrific bicycle accident when someone hit him with a car, and one day when she comes home she finds out someone has turned her apartment upside down. Nothing seems to be missing, but clearly someone was looking for something. Paranoia sets in, and with good reason. Not long after the home invasion, Rachel suffers a terrible accident herself.

Matt comes to hear about Rachel’s accident through a series of situations that he can’t believe he’s following. They start when Charlie goes missing. Then Matt pins down Catherine on the issue of her following him. Both events start a chain reaction that will take Matt to parts of London he’s never seen before, and he’ll find himself challenged in a way that will make his indiscretion with Beth seem like a minor issue.

Author Paul Pilkington’s readers have come to expect stories that fulfill every promise made by his genre of choice, and For Your Own Protection doesn’t disappoint. As with his other books, Pilkington creates characters who readers will feel like they know well. He offers a tour of London in the form of written sightseeing as Matt and the others struggle to make sense of a senseless situation.

Pilkington has a knack for tying a series of conflict knots that seem beyond solutions and then pulling one thread to make each knot unravel in a way that will keep readers flipping pages. His signature stroke in previous books—cliffhanger endings for every chapter that leave readers practically breathless—has been restrained somewhat in this story, and the result is a more even, more thoughtful pace. While some readers might miss the frenzy, the story becomes more enhanced as a result of the measured approach. Pilkington still includes plenty of exciting moments, and he’s still able to surprise readers by the end.

A few minor points may stick out. Matt’s sister, who doesn’t play much of a role in the larger story, shows up early in the book and then disappears, and a seemingly dangerous situation gets resolved a little too neatly. Yet readers won’t care when they step into Matt and Rachel’s world. With Pilkington’s signature mystery-telling techniques at work, readers will forgive small slights against the plot. With its more strategic pacing, as compared to previous books, For Your Own Protection is Paul Pilkington at his best yet.

I recommend readers Binge For Your Own Protection by Paul Pilkington.

Newest review: All Things New by Lauren Miller

October 11, 2017

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: August 1, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

A teen suffering from generalized anxiety disorder must deal with the condition head on after moving to a new town. She fights for normalcy as she deals with a new school and friends along with her estranged father, and she re-learns the definitions of beauty and acceptance as she also re-learns how to view herself. Author Lauren Miller gives YA readers a touching novel that deals with the realities of today in a refreshing manner in her latest book All Things New.

On the surface 17-year-old Jessa Gray looks like other kids. She’s dating a star athlete, and she keeps up with the latest fashions so that she presents herself as the perfect girlfriend. But Jessa’s hiding a secret: she suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, which manifests itself in panic attacks. She’s tried to explain to her boyfriend what she experiences, but he’s losing his patience. When Jessa sees him with someone else, she knows she doesn’t need to waste her own patience on him anymore.

She doesn’t even have time to absorb the full impact of his infidelity when she gets into a car accident that leaves her with major injuries, including a brain condition called aphantasia that prevents her mind from creating images. Her divorced parents can’t agree on how to handle her recovery, and in an act of desperation Jessa accepts her father’s proposal: to leave sunny L.A. behind and move to Denver with him. It’s what she’s wanted all along, ever since the divorce, but Jessa’s also still pretty angry at her dad. When she needed him most he left the family; now he wants to make amends? The alternative is to stay in Los Angeles with her mother, stepfather, and half twin brothers, though, and they’re too busy being a family on their own to worry about her. So Denver it is.

Her anxiety threatens to crush her in her new school, but then Jessa meets Hannah. Just like that, she has a new friend. It’s been a long time since Jessa’s been able to call anyone a friend, and before long Hannah introduces Jessa to her twin brother, Marshall. The three hit it off as if they’ve known each other for years.

It doesn’t hurt that Marshall is funny and cute and calls Jessa’s bluff on a regular basis about hiding behind her condition without making her feel like some kind of freak. He challenges her to see herself as he and Hannah and her other new friends see her. When another emergency springs up and Jessa’s the only one available to help, she will have to fight through her old definition of normal in order to come out on the other side.

Author Lauren Miller creates characters that her target audience will recognize, because they’ve most likely seen the same types of kids walking the halls at their own schools. With a teenage protagonist, Miller makes mental health issues more accessible and more real. Jessa’s struggles become magnified by her anxiety and the mask she must maintain to hide that anxiety. As the book progresses, however, Jessa becomes bolder, and readers may find themselves emboldened to allow their own masks to slip more often thanks to Jessa’s increasing confidence.

Even in a first-person narrative that can turn biting or sarcastic, Miller manages to create sympathy for Jessa. The supporting characters help maintain that sympathy while managing to generate some for themselves. Hannah, an accomplished pianist, deals with high levels of stress about her career as a musician. Marshall must face the realities of life with a heart defect. The brother and sister provide Jessa with the perfect foils because of their own imperfections, and Jessa learns that even people who don’t have generalized anxiety disorder struggle. That’s a lesson any teen can take to heart: everyone has to fight a battle of some type every single day.

Ultimately Jessa’s story allows for the acceptance of grace for one’s self as well as for others. I recommend readers Binge All Things New by Lauren Miller.

Newest review: Something Like Happy by Eva Woods

By Ekta R. Garg

September 27, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: September 5, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

When a woman runs—almost literally—into a patient with only three months left, she’s sure it’s confirmation of everything bad in life. The patient surprises her, however, by teaching her something about living. Author Eva Woods takes a formulaic plot and brings it alive with a sweet story and endearing characters in her new novel Something Like Happy.

Annie Hebden has every right to be mad at life. She lost her only child. Her husband ran away with her best friend. Her mother received the devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s and most recently fell down and hurt her leg. She lives in a run-down apartment with a roommate who is practically a child—in his maturity level, at least—and she despises her job.

So Annie Hebden knows she’s fully justified in hating her life. She made all the right decisions, and every one of them had the wrong outcome. Now she’s just trying to be there for her mother; it seems like it’s the only outlet left for her to do any good.

On the day that Annie runs into Polly Leonard, though, something changes. Polly, the patient with the brain tumor. Polly, the woman who tells Annie with unbelievable cheerfulness that her condition is terminal. Polly challenges Annie to a duel of sorts: for the next three months, or one hundred days—give or take—do one thing every single day to make herself happy. It’ll be fun, Polly asserts, a challenge they can undertake as friends.

A new friendship is above and beyond anything that Annie wants right now. After all, she made every effort to break ties with her old friends after her marriage fell apart. But Polly’s aggressive jollity first irritates and then intrigues Annie so much that it becomes infectious; it’s the best kind of contagion to share under the circumstances. As they look for ways to make themselves happy, an extraordinary thing happens. The very sorrows that bound them in the first place end up giving them strength to see their biggest challenge yet all the way through.

Author Eva Woods uses a tried and true story as the basis for her novel but manages to take an every-day plot and make it her own. While the idea may sound like so many romantic comedies that show up in the theaters every summer, Woods keeps her book grounded by keeping her characters grounded. Annie’s transformation may be well charted from the opening chapter, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Her struggles will tug at readers’ hearts, which makes her reluctance to change that much more impactful. Annie needs someone like Polly in her life, but Woods also gives Polly depth. Polly grapples with her mortality in a way that readers will relate to. She laughs, she cries, she accepts it and then is in disbelief of it—her emotions go from high to low, strong to weak, and she will certainly have readers nodding along.

A few of the minor plot devices may come across as a touch contrived, but a story like this thrives on those contrivances. Also, they never get out of hand or seem out of place. Readers will be most concerned with Annie and Polly’s friendship and will have no trouble forgiving some of the less realistic elements in the story itself in order to cheer on this unlikely duo. Some of the secondary characters may come across as stock characters or placeholders for the things Annie needs in order to change, but Woods handles them with love and respect.

For anyone wanting a quick read that balances encouragement with a down-to-earth story, I recommend they Bookmark Something Like Happy.

Latest review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

September 27, 2017

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: August 1, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

When a teen is found murdered, members from a small community must deal with the list of possible suspects that include an obsessed classmate and a jealous ex-friend. As the community reels from the event, the officer on the case will need to move past his own issues if he wants to find out who killed the girl. Author Danya Kukafka tries to examine small-town happenings in a novel with an excruciatingly slow pace in the debut book Girl in Snow.

On a February morning in a small Colorado town, someone discovers the body of Lucinda Hayes. A killer has left her on the playground carousel by an elementary school. As word of her murder spreads, the people in the community react with expected horror and grief.

For Cameron Whitley, though, Lucinda’s death feels like a personal affront. He’s never really fit in at school; people have called him names that run the gamut, all because he’s not quite sure what to say and when to say it. But Lucinda showed him kindness a few times, and he loved her. He still loves her, and losing her becomes akin to losing part of himself.

Jade Dixon-Burns allows herself a sense of relief. Serves Lucinda right, she thinks. Jade needed the babysitting job that she and Lucinda shared and that eventually went exclusively to Lucinda. The dead girl had everything, including a perfect family. People who, instead of getting drunk and hitting their kids, actually cared about her.

What’s worse, Lucinda also stole Jade’s best friend. Jade never told Zap how she felt about him, but she always thought she’d have the chance…until the day she spied on Lucinda and Zap together. Jade and Zap had a moment once that could have potentially turned into something else, until Lucinda came along.

Officer Russ Fletcher had the distinct honor of being Lee Whitley’s partner, long before Lee got into trouble himself. Russ and Lee formed a friendship that went beyond the squad car. When Lee commits a crime and ends up leaving town, he makes sure to stop long enough to ask Russ to take care of Cameron.

Now that Cameron is a prime suspect in Lucinda’s murder, Russ is at odds with himself. Everything in the case points to Cameron, but Russ is a good friend. He’ll have to find a way to resolve what the facts indicate with what his gut tells him. If not for Cameron then definitely for Lee, even if Lee is long gone.

Author Danya Kukafka drags almost the entire book out over a mere three days. The choice to focus so much on the day Lucinda is discovered and the two days following means readers will spend time inside of Cameron, Russ, and Jade’s heads for almost a minute-by-minute examination. In a bid, most likely, to attract readers who prefer literary fiction, every emotion and relevant memory of these three characters gets scrutinized. The resulting heaviness weighs the book down so much it drags to a lull before the killer’s identity is revealed, which will disappoint readers not only for who did it but also how it happened.

Kukafka has a way with words, yes, but readers can only take so much pretty prose before getting impatient with the sluggish plot. With the book’s billing as a thriller, readers will be waiting on tenterhooks for the story to get started. By the time it does, the book ends and so will the patience of readers expecting something else.

I recommend readers Bypass Girl in Snow.