Brand new review: The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister

By Ekta R. Garg

December 2, 2020

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: December 1, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A female explorer eager to put terrible events behind her jumps at the chance for a new trek. What starts as an adventure fueled by ambition turns into a harrowing series of events. Author Greer Macallister keeps readers guessing until the end in her latest book The Arctic Fury.

It’s 1853, and Virginia Reeve needs a fresh start. Up until now, she’d made her career leading parties to the California territory over well-worn trails. A tragedy forces her to turn away from that life, but the desire for exploration and grand adventures hasn’t quite left her yet. When she receives a request to meet with a wealthy woman and wife to a famous explorer, Virginia feels compelled to accept.

Virginia goes to Boston to meet British noblewoman Lady Jane Franklin who lays out the terms. Lady Franklin’s husband, John, disappeared during an expedition into the Arctic, and all efforts to find him have yielded nothing. Fed up with the lack of results, Lady Franklin has decided on a wild course of action: hire a team of explorers made up solely of women. She’s sick of men waiting for men to solve the problem, she says. It’s time for the women to step in and make things right.

The offer, and the money to go with it, are both tempting, but even Virginia understands the uphill battle it will be to lead a women-centric group in a man’s world. Still, the allure of leaving the known world behind is overwhelming. She accepts Lady Franklin’s terms, including dictating who some of the women trekkers will be, and puts together her team. Within weeks they’re off.

Less than a year later, Virginia has returned home. Some of the women have come back with her; others have not. An experienced guide, Virginia knows how to motivate a group of people to keep moving, yet even she couldn’t anticipate the outcome of the expedition. When she returns, she’s put on trial for the murder of one of the women traveling with her. In addition to fearing for her own life, Virginia is afraid that the truth about her past will finally come to light. If it does, she knows there won’t be any returning from it.

Author Greer Macallister builds a compelling narrative to stay with the book to find out both about the outcome of the trial and the motivation behind it. Alternating chapters between the expedition and Virginia’s trial, Macallister teases out the tension. Her research into real-life explorer John Franklin blends with fiction in a masterful manner.

One of the drawbacks of the book comes in the number of women on the expedition. Including Virginia, 13 women make the trek to the Arctic. Macallister makes clear from the outset who the most important players will be to the plot, which is a shame because the others seemed just as interesting. No doubt, readers will understand by the end why so many women were needed in the group. As the plot unfurls, Macallister does her level best to help readers keep the characters straight and she lets Virginia lead in every way possible. I recommend readers Bookmark The Arctic Fury.

Latest review: The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling

By Ekta R. Garg

November 18, 2020

Genre: Children’s fantasy

Release date: November 10, 2020

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it! / 3.5 stars

When a bumbling king lets his evil advisors take control of his kingdom, the advisors use rumors to scare people into submission. Two best friends, however, refuse to let the pressure force them into doing the wrong thing and devise a plan to reveal the truth instead. Author J.K. Rowling returns with a story that will remind everyone why her writing has had such a huge impact with her newest work The Ickabog.

In the kingdom of Cornucopia, King Fred the Fearless is loved by everyone. Well, as far as he knows. The kingdom runs so well on its own that he really doesn’t have to do much other than make appearances to his adoring constituents and go hunting with his two best friends, Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon.

Spittleworth and Flapoon live in the palace with the king where they all spend most of their time agreeing on how wonderful Fred is. When news comes of a visit by a king from a neighboring kingdom, Fred orders a new outfit be made as soon as possible for the occasion. Despite being ill, the head seamstress stitches the stately uniform and drops dead the morning she finishes it.

Fred feels a niggle of guilt for demanding the seamstress’s speed, but Spittleworth and Flapoon reassure him he did nothing wrong. His guilt grows when he hears that Daisy, the seamstress’s daughter, called him selfish, vain, and cruel. To prove that he’s not any of those things, Fred goes on a quest to save Cornucopia from the Ickabog.

Legend has it the Ickabog stays near the Marshlands on the northern side of Cornucopia. Unlike other parts of the kingdom, the Marshlands are a hard place to live. Fred knows this is probably exaggerated, given how often his friends commend him on the condition of the kingdom, and sets out to defeat the Ickabog once and for all.

Complications come up when the party hunting the Ickabog loses one of its members. To cover up the terrible accident, Lord Spittleworth starts spinning a web of lies to convince first Fred and then the people of the kingdom that the Ickabog is a terror to be feared. Fred starts to cede control to Spittleworth and Flapoon bit by bit, allowing them to tax Cornucopians and announcing stringent new laws. Soon the happy kingdom becomes a worn, tired, bleak place to live.

Daisy, the seamstress’s daughter, refuses to accept the circumstances, however. Even though her father is imprisoned and she’s thrown into an orphanage, Daisy fights against the system. Her best friend, Bert, starts digging through all the murky facts to find out the truth. Although their friendship is tested and even ceases at some points, the two manage to find their way back to one another again in time to make a shocking discovery that may just save all of Cornucopia after all.

Author J.K. Rowling returns to children’s literature for the first time in more than a decade. Between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Ickabog, Rowling has written several novels for adults under a pen name. This latest release shows how much the world of children’s literature could benefit from her return to it.

The book is reminiscent of old fairy tales, offering tried-and-true life lessons: too much pride almost guarantees a great downfall; compromising with a bully doesn’t yield true friendship; be willing to look past differences to find what’s common underneath. An omniscient narrator tells the story, offering readers confidence that all will (most likely) be well by the end. Like the original fairy tales, however, the dangers to get to that end are real and, for some characters, irreversible.

In a foreword, Rowling shares that she wrote this novel in between drafts of the Harry Potter books. All of her concentration at the time was on the boy wizard, and she didn’t think much of this story until the pandemic hit this year. She took out The Ickabog, polished it, and began posting it in installments online for children to read while stuck at home.

The richness of Rowling’s world and the sharp wit of her narration will make older readers and adults smile. Younger readers may not fully absorb the parallels between the story and current world events, but the lessons are good ones all the same. While some might seem a little on-the-nose, readers might find it refreshing to see these lessons set down in black and white.

There are almost too many characters to keep track of. Lord Flapoon, in particular, disappears at points while Lord Spittleworth schemes to keep his pockets full. As a book, it’s not the most polished effort but it’s perfect for reading aloud and sharing with the family.

For the past year, Rowling has been mired in controversy about comments she’s made regarding the trans community. This book will remind readers of who Rowling was before all of that. It certainly may make many readers hope that Rowling gets back into her writing space and spends more time there and less time on social media. I rate this book as Bordering on Bookmarking it.

Brand new review: The Push by Claire McGowan

By Ekta R. Garg

November 11, 2020

Genre: Mystery

Release date: November 12, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

When an afternoon lunch ends in a tragic death, the police officer on the case will have to confront six couples about what they did or didn’t see. As the officer tries to press people for information, her instinct raises the alarm on the fact that the death was more than just an accident. Author Claire McGowan brings together an interesting cast of characters in a plot that doesn’t quite gel in her newest book The Push.

At the age of 38, Jax is expecting her first child with her boyfriend, Aaron, who is 24. Jax has received a lot of flak from her mother and whispers in public about the apparent age difference, and she pretends not to care. But of course, deep down, she does.

She’s going to handle this like an adult, though, so she signs up for a prenatal class with Aaron where they meet five other couples who are expecting. Well, four couples and a woman, Kelly, who offers the explanation that her boyfriend really wanted to come but couldn’t make it. Jax can’t help but feel a turn of sympathy for Kelly who looks young and scared.

The attitude of Nina, the woman leading the classes, doesn’t help ease Kelly’s anxiety. In fact, Nina seems to be doing a fantastic job of elevating everyone’s fears, real or imagined, about what childbirth and rearing are all about. If Jax was apprehensive before, she’s downright worried now. Aaron tries to comfort her, but because he grew up in the foster system he has no frame of reference for what a stable family is.

It doesn’t help that recent events make her feel like she’s being targeted for some unknown transgression. Someone messes up her files at work. Another time the milk bottles she and Aaron have delivered are broken and the glass strewn over their front doorstep. Then mysterious emails show up at work that lead her supervisor to recommend taking maternity leave early.

When her pregnancy puts her health at risk, the doctor tells her she has no option but complete bedrest. The prenatal group is Jax’s only contact with other adults, yet she hates going there too. Monica and Ed, the upper class, upper crust, couple of the group set Jax’s teeth on edge. When Monica invites everyone to a post-delivery barbecue at her house, the only reason Jax accepts the invitation is because she doesn’t have the energy to say no. All of the members of the group show up at Monica’s house, and within hours one of them is dead.

The police come to investigate, and DS Alison Hegarty knows in her gut that the victim didn’t fall off the second-story balcony. Someone pushed the person off. As Alison starts her investigation, all the while navigating her feelings about her own infertility, she realizes all of the group members had something to hide. The pushback she receives from her commanding officer pressures her to use her wits and old-fashioned detective work to get to the heart of what really happened and why.

Author Claire McGowan gives readers insight into a variety of character types yet struggles to make them seem like well-rounded, three-dimensional people. Competing mysteries might make readers forget which one should take precedence: the attacks on Jax or the death at Monica’s house. The narration gives the sense that both are important and connected while also trying to remain coy about it.

The biggest mistake in the plotting comes in giving readers information the characters don’t have. Once readers find out key pieces of the mystery, the rest of the story becomes an exercise in patience to wait for the characters to catch up. Also, the handling of certain scenes will inadvertently reveal the truth behind some red herrings, making the book much less fun to read.

Despite all this, the construction of the plot will compel some readers to stick with it to the end. For those who want a fast mystery to read that doesn’t require a lot of personal investment, this might be good to pick up. For everyone else, I recommend readers Borrow The Push.