Brand new review: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

By Ekta R. Garg

December 4, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: August 23, 2016

Rating: Binge it! / 5 stars

When a child goes missing, the new parents enter what they think can only be the worst experience of their lives. As time passes, though, they learn things about one another that terrify them even more than losing their baby. Author Shari Lapena will keep readers glued to the pages of her well-executed novel The Couple Next Door.

In a small town in upstate New York, Anne Conti struggles with motherhood. The thought of the baby, it turns out, was much easier to handle than the baby herself. Anne and her husband, Marco, feel stuck in a seemingly never-ending string of diapers and sleepless nights with Cora.

Their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham, invite the couple over for a small birthday celebration. Cynthia, though, specifies that the dinner is for adults only. At the last minute, Anne and Marco’s sitter cancels and they’re faced with a choice. Do they take the baby next door anyway, or should they not go to the party?

Marco proposes an alternative. The couples live in row houses, so the Contis actually share a wall with their friends. What if they leave the baby home for a few hours? They won’t be going very far; in fact, they’ll be close enough for the baby monitor to work. At six months old, Cora isn’t mobile enough to get into any serious trouble. What could possibly happen?

Anne’s unease is juxtaposed with her growing resentment of Cynthia’s life. Just for once, she thinks, she’d love to go back to those carefree days when she could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She had a life once too; it included a job as a curator at an art gallery and friends. And Marco’s explanation makes sense. Despite her better judgment, they leave the baby home with the agreement that one of them will check on her every half-hour.

Even with the precaution of the baby monitor and checking on Cora, the unthinkable occurs: Cora is kidnapped. In the following days, after interactions with the media and the police, secrets start to come to light. More than once, both Anne and Marco see each other as strangers. How is it possible not to know these things about one another?

Author Shari Lapena starts with a taut situation and only tightens the strings of tension as the book proceeds. With careful plotting and character revelations, she lets loose one thread at a time only to wrap it pages later around the central pin keeping the entire story in place. Anne’s growing disillusionment with Marco stands in stark relief to Marco’s increasing desperation. Both cross lines that often sever relationships; in the end they realize their individual deceptions only tie them more closely to one another.

Lapena has drawn the supporting characters in realistic lines as well. Anne’s parents love Anne and hate Marco. Despite this familiar trope to the thriller genre, Lapena makes the different facets of the tense relationship three-dimensional. Readers may feel like they’re encountering people they actually know. As time progresses, the characters feel worse about one another, which creates the best of scenes in thriller fiction every single time.

Readers who enjoy fast-paced books and thrillers that make them shiver a little even at the end will definitely want to read this novel. I recommend readers Binge it!

Newest review: Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark

By Ekta R. Garg

November 27, 2019

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: November 5, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A reporter follows her hunch when a woman approaches her about misconduct in the workplace. Despite the fact that her first source on the story disappears, the reporter persists in her efforts even as she comes closer to elements that put her life in danger. Veteran mystery author Mary Higgins Clark offers her take on the MeToo movement in the well-meaning but overly quaint novel Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry.

While on vacation with her father, New York City freelancer Gina Kane can’t stop thinking about a mysterious message she received. The email, signed by “CRyan”, talked about the writer’s bad experience at one of the most respected news organizations in the country, REL News, “and I wasn’t the only one,” the writer adds. Gina sent a response right away but didn’t hear back.

Now back in New York, she gets impatient to find out more about what CRyan might have meant. Using the few pieces of concrete information in the email, Gina uses her sources and her own sleuthing to figure out who CRyan might be and what the person wanted. The trail takes her to a place she never expected: CRyan, short for Cathy Ryan, died in mysterious circumstances while on vacation in Aruba.

Sensing a story in the making, Gina takes her pitch to the magazine that most recently featured her work. A new editor-in-chief has just taken the place of the editor who knew Gina well but gives her the green light on the story. As Gina travels to Aruba and back, she picks up more information that indicate the worst: someone at REL News is harassing young women and then paying them off to keep them from talking about it.

As despicable as the entire venture seems, Gina guesses the main reason for it. REL News is preparing for its IPO. A sexual harassment scandal could damage the promising dollar figures pledged to the company so far.

At REL News, HR legal counsel Michael Carter is approached by one of the employees who tells him about a negative encounter she had with someone at the top. After reassuring the tearful woman that he’ll do all he can to help her, Carter figures it doesn’t hurt to benefit from the transactions. He approaches the CEO of the company and lays out a simple plan to keep REL News out of the scandal spotlight, all while lining his own pockets at the same time. Yet as more and more victims come forward, Carter begins to realize that the problem at REL might be bigger than any dollar figure he can throw at it.

Author Mary Higgins Clark comes back with her trademark commitment to clean stories in her latest mystery. Unlike many of her other books, however, where the murder becomes the focal point of the story, here Gina’s investigation forms the main plot. Clark juxtaposes Gina’s pursuit with Carter’s subversion of it, but the omniscient point of view here, at one time popular with Nancy Drew-like books, just doesn’t work.

Also working against Clark is the proliferation of MeToo stories that have come to the fore ever since the movement began. The novel, then, becomes less of a disclosure of a serious problem and more a sanitized version of a familiar narrative. Had the book released last year, it would have felt timely. At this juncture it seems more an exercise in joining an ongoing conversation, like a dinner guest who arrives hours into the party.

Clunky writing also weighs the novel down. Clark holds her readers’ hands through every single paragraph. Instead of challenging them to retain key details on their own she explains everything, often to the detriment of the narrative and dialogue. The result is a book that could offer examples of what not to do when writing a mystery.

Ardent fans of Mary Higgins Clark may want to check this one out, but readers looking for a challenging mystery/thriller will want to pass this one up. I recommend readers Bypass Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry.

Latest review: Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline

By Ekta R. Garg
November 20, 2020

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: April 9, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Twenty years after witnessing a horrific event in secret, a woman goes back to her hometown. This time, however, she’s determined to face the others involved in the secret and make things right. Author Lisa Scottoline stretches the limits of plausibility in her latest thriller, Someone Knows.

After two decades away, Allie Garvey is coming home. She’s received news of the death of a classmate, and she decides to attend the funeral, even though her friendship with the deceased, David Hybrinski, really only lasted part of a summer. The summer she was 15; the summer after her sister, Jill, died from cystic fibrosis.

But going home to Bakerton, Pennsylvania, isn’t about reliving Jill’s last days; it’s about facing the secret that Allie’s kept for the last twenty years. She, David, and three other classmates, Sasha, Julian, and Kyle participated in a prank that went awry. It cost a life, and Allie’s been tortured by the truth ever since. Despite getting married, she’s failed to make a connection with her husband. She believes she doesn’t deserve to have children, so she’s on the pill. And she’s developed ulcerative colitis.

Allie believes the others must be just as devastated by what happened to them that summer, but when she sees them they brush it off. Their callousness shocks her. While she’s worked hard to repress as many memories as possible, Allie can’t let go of the feeling that the facts, as she remembers them, don’t add up. She’s determined to find out the truth and, if possible, absolution.

Author Lisa Scottoline sets up the novel with a prologue that could have belonged to any of the characters, and with Chapter 2 she takes readers twenty years into the past. The next 200 pages are spent parsing the personalities of each of the teens involved in the prank and the events leading up to it. All of the characters have problems that can be found in a dozen other thrillers: absentee parents; incarcerated parents; manipulative parents; homophobic parents; a dead sibling, beloved by parents. By the time readers get through all of the issues, they’ll wish none of the teens had parents since all the complications stem from them.

The second half of the book goes into the lives of Allie and Co. as adults. Predictably, because they were raised by adults who couldn’t manage their own lives, Allie and the others have just as much trouble managing theirs. What follows is a series of events that sound and feel, at times, partially juvenile, partially contrived, and all of it implausible.

Minor characters appear just when Allie needs help, and she incurs a startling amount of clarity about her life in a relatively short period of time. Even while she’s running for her life or making a heartfelt apology, readers may have a hard time feeling like they’ve invested in Allie or anyone else. Scottoline has spent so much time just telling readers about these characters instead of showing their pain and anguish that the climax may be skimmed just to get to what comes next.

While Scottoline does save one big surprise for the closing pages, it, too, doesn’t feel earned. Readers may shrug instead of gasp. Overall the book feels like a cliché cautionary tale more apt for the classic after-school specials that used to air on TV.

Hardcore Scottoline fans might want to check this out; otherwise, I recommend readers Bypass Someone Knows.

Brand new review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

By Ekta R. Garg

November 6, 2019

Genre: Mystery

Release date: November 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A woman, adopted at a young age, finds out the truth about her identity and receives an inheritance all at the same time. As she digs deeper into her past, however, she begins to realize that its secrets are darker than she could have ever imagined. Author Lisa Jewell returns with her latest thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end but leave them hanging in her new novel The Family Upstairs.

On her 25th birthday, a letter arrives on Libby Jones’s doorstep. She’s been waiting for it her entire life, because it contains key pieces of herself. Libby was adopted as a toddler and has no idea who her birth parents were, except for the fact that they died and that she was to come into an inheritance on this birthday.

The letter contains facts that make Libby dizzy: her birth parents have left her a house. An entire house. And it’s not just a ramshackle dump. The house stands in Chelsea, one of London’s hippest neighborhoods. Even without seeing the property, Libby knows she’s just inherited millions.

Then Libby does an internet search on her birth parents, Martina and Henry Lamb, and the result shocks her. Apparently Martina and Henry died in some sort of suicide pact along with a third unidentified adult. When police answered an anonymous call about strange activity at the Chelsea mansion, they found the three adults dead in the kitchen downstairs and Libby, gurgling and cooing away, upstairs in a crib. Other children had been reported living at the house, but the police don’t find any of them.

The information makes Libby uneasy. When she goes to the house, she meets a local journalist who reported on the story and has his own theories about what happened. Between the two of them, they begin teasing out the possibilities of the past. The harder they work on finding more information, however, the more Libby wonders whether she really wants it. Each secret uncovered reveals another one waiting, and none of them are pleasant in the least.

Author Lisa Jewell layers the book with three points of view: Libby’s as she researches and visits the house; Lucy, a single mother in Nice, France, struggling to keep her children safe as she earns money playing her fiddle on the streets of the city; and Henry, son of the Lambs. Lucy and Libby’s stories progress through the present day. Henry provides all the background information on what occurred in the Lamb house while he was growing up and before his parents’ death.

While the approach is interesting, readers may likely find themselves more drawn to Henry. His story contains all the salacious details from the past that lead up to the death of the Lambs and the third person with them in the kitchen. Yet he has nothing to contribute to the present-day story: Libby’s discovery of her identity. By contrast, Libby’s story, on the mechanical level, is the most mundane. She finds out about her inheritance and then researches her past. In reality, not much more than that happens until a small climactic point late in the book. Even that feels like a major letdown, because not much comes of it.

Lucy’s story falls somewhere in the middle. It occurs during the present day and also possesses movement and conflict. Lucy wants to return to her home country of England, yet circumstances prevent her from doing so. While Jewell works hard at masking Lucy’s connection to Libby and Henry, readers will figure out who she is long before the book offers the “big reveal.” Even that comes across as anti-climactic.

The book starts picking up steam right at the end, but then it’s over. Readers may feel confused more than anything else. Why did the closing chapters need such a long, drawn-out buildup? And what happens next? Readers will be left wondering too much.

Fans of Lisa Jewell may enjoy this one, and for those who like books about complicated family situations that personify dysfunction this is a solid read. Otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow The Family Upstairs.

Latest review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

By Ekta R. Garg

October 30, 2019

Genre: Romance

Release date: October 22, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A young woman’s heart is broken after she reveals a secret. Years later, she comes face to face with the same man who betrayed her, and she must decide whether she’ll give him another chance. Author duo team Christina Lauren tackles the complications of first love coming back around in the dragged-out novel Twice in a Blue Moon.

At 18, Tate Jones can’t believe she’s in London. It’s a long ways away from Guerneville, California, the small town where she lives with her mother and Nana. In the U.K., Tate’s getting a taste of what life will be like when she goes to college. Well, if Nana goes with her when she leaves for school. But Tate won’t let her grandmother dispel the magic of visiting a new place. She’ll follow the schedule Nana set up and drink in every minute of the two weeks they’ve planned to spend on their vacation.

The magic becomes electric when Tate meets Sam Brandis and his grandpa, Luther. Sam is 21 and already in college; he’s handsome and funny and kind, and there’s no doubt he feels a connection to Tate too. Within days, the two become inseparable.

Tate finds herself falling hard and fast in love with Sam, and he tells her the same thing. He feels something for her that he hasn’t felt for anyone else. Tate gives Sam her heart, her love, and her deepest secret: her last name isn’t Jones, it’s Butler. She’s the daughter of the famous Hollywood actor, Ian Butler. When she was eight years old, her mother moved Tate from L.A. to Guerneville to get away from the PR machine. She and Tate changed their last names and went underground.

Tate has never shared the truth about her identity with anyone. People in Guerneville think she’s just plain old Tate Jones, and the media have no idea where Tate Butler lives. That information would be golden to anyone, and it becomes especially true for Sam who leaks it.

Years later, Tate, now an up-and-coming actress herself, walks onto the set of a film that everyone says could be the turning point of her career. Tate’s excited about the prospect, as much for the challenge the role provides as for the fact that it’s the first time she’ll be working on a movie with her father. Maybe, she thinks, the surface-level relationship she and Ian have had all these years will sink deeper and become more than just a publicity stunt.

Then she discovers that that the scriptwriter is Sam, and the clock rolls back 14 years. As Tate grapples with her feelings and the movie role, she’ll have to face the reality of how he betrayed her and whether she can forgive it. Either way, Tate knows one thing for sure: she won’t be forgetting Sam any time soon.

Author team Christina Lauren build a believable story of first love during the time Tate and Sam spend in London. Readers who have had their hearts broken by someone will find themselves reminiscing about their own experiences. Tate’s wide-eyed acceptance of Sam and her indecision about whether to trust him ring true to life.

The problem comes after the London portion of the book, which takes up more than a third of the novel. The years that pass between Sam’s betrayal and when he and Tate meet again get tossed to the wind. Tate goes from an innocent 18-year-old to an actress in her mid-thirties adept at handling the paparazzi and the ancillary inconveniences of celebrity life. Readers don’t get the benefit of watching her struggle in her craft as an actor or through the subsequent relationships after Sam.

As a result, Tate’s success doesn’t feel earned; neither does Sam’s return nor his reason for exposing her true identity to the media. Both get mentioned in passing as if readers don’t need to bother with those facts. The events in the present day feel overtly orchestrated. Tate at 18 and Sam at 21 feel more genuine, more relatable, more real than their grownup selves.

Because the book is in the romance genre, readers will already know before they open the cover what the ending will be. The point of romance novels is how the characters get to that “happily ever after.” In this case, Tate and Sam seem to be treading water and not really fighting any great storm back to one another.

I recommend readers Bypass Twice in a Blue Moon.

Newest review: Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani

By Ekta R. Garg

October 30, 2019

Release date: October 1, 2019

Genre: Memoir

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A journalist shares the story of her immigrant family’s journey from their birth country to the United States. She speaks with frankness about the double standards in the justice system and reveals telling details about the immigration process. As she works through the normal and unique challenges of growing up, she forms a stronger bond with her father. Author Aarti Namdev Shahani shines a light on many of the problems immigrants face in the fairly solid but overly long memoir Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares.

As the child of Indian immigrants, Aarti Shahani lives a life of contradictions. Aside from skin color, her home looks nothing like that of the other kids. When she gets admitted to one of the most elite high schools in Manhattan, her life becomes further divided into two factions. The conversations that challenge her on an intellectual level during the day don’t seem to have any place in her family at night.

Her fractious relationship with her father, too, bothers Aarti, despite her efforts to brush off her emotions. He fought for her with his own mother, walking out on Aarti’s grandmother when the “burden” of Aarti’s gender became too much to bear. Yet when he and Aarti’s mother migrate to the United States, it is Aarti’s mother who becomes Aarti’s greatest champion. Her father finds the cracks in Aarti’s veneer; her mother and sister fill them.

The irony is not lost on Aarti, then, when she takes up the battle cry after her father’s incarceration in prison on Rikers Island in New York. In a terrible, made-for-movie turn of events, Aarti’s father and her uncle are found guilty of selling electronic items to a prominent drug cartel. After all he does to achieve his American dream, including sweeping streets, Aarti’s father finds himself inside one of the worst nightmares this country has to offer.

As if going to prison isn’t enough of an ordeal, Aarti and her family members discover another complication: for immigrants, going to prison often means deportation. After her uncle is sent back to India, Aarti becomes determined not to let the same happen to her father. She begins educating herself on immigration policies, becoming an activist in the process, and finding her way back to her father and her roots.

Author Aarti Namdev Shahani tells her story in straightforward prose; she doesn’t mince words in sharing her father’s experiences or her own. Non-South Asian readers may shake their heads in shock or horror at some of the stories Shahani shares. For many South Asian readers, Shahani’s litany of woes will sound familiar.

Shahani brings to light revelatory information on the deportation of legitimate green card holders after their release from jail. Like many children born and raised in this country, she’s ignorant, initially, of this loophole in immigration policies. When her father’s future comes into question, however, she plunges into the reality of those policies and fights back as hard as she can. At one point, she begins writing letters to the judge presiding over her father’s case. Anything to find a way to keep her father in the U.S.

At some point, though, the book becomes less about her father’s struggle as an immigrant and more about Shahani’s own successes and failures. Her outrage at the treatment her father and so many other immigrants receive is palpable, but that outrage begins to fade into the background as Shahani navigates the struggles of her own life. Readers follow her through her activist days, her exploration of various careers, and her romances. While interesting, these mini stories feel a little like they’re padding the main narrative.

The book feels a little too long. It would have worked well at a much shorter length and with some of the less prominent stories summarized or even taken out altogether, particularly when they start with fanfare and then lose some of their principal characters (such as her brother’s wife, who seems to figure largely in the family for a while but then disappears late in the book.) While compelling, Shahani’s story might have packed an even greater dramatic punch at novella length.

Readers unfamiliar with the immigration process or its shortcomings will find this book fascinating. I recommend they Borrow Here We Are.

 

Latest review: I Will Make You Pay by Teresa Driscoll

By Ekta R. Garg

October 16, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: October 10, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A journalist experiences extreme anxiety when a stalker sends her threatening messages. As the messages escalate in scope and type, she battles her fear as well as the looming questions of who would do this to her and why. Author Teresa Driscoll keeps readers guessing all the way to the last pages of her excellent novel, I Will Make You Pay.

On what feels like an ordinary Wednesday, reporter Alice Henderson answers the phone at her desk to a distorted voice. The caller makes a threat and hangs up, leaving her breathless with terror. Her coworkers rally to cheer her up, but Alice is shaken. Then on the following Wednesday, another threat comes from the mystery man. This time Alice’s editor takes it more seriously and calls the Devon police department.

Alice doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s not like she’s a reporter for one of the big-time publications out of London. She works on a small newspaper out of a city suburb, and for the most part she does special features. Why would anyone want to hurt her? What could she have possibly done to anger someone so much?

Her boyfriend, Tom, furious at her stalker, hires a private investigator. Matthew Hill used to work as a policeman but has since changed careers. He promised his wife that life as a PI would bring in better money and offer less dangerous work. After taking on Alice’s case, he’s not so sure the latter is true.

As the weeks go by, the attacks get worse: more menacing and definitely more personal. They happen every Wednesday, a day Alice has come to dread and hate. With a forced leave of absence keeping her away from the office, she splits her time between Tom’s home and her sister’s house. She just can’t sit on her hands, however, so Alice begins to work on other story ideas. She refuses to let the stalker ruin her life, even if he is bent on making her suffer for some unknown crime.

Matt Hill is determined to keep Alice safe, and a lead on a possible suspect gives him hope. The pieces don’t quite fit the puzzle, however, and as each Wednesday comes and goes Matt realizes he’s working against a clock. He uses every resource at his disposal, calling in old favors at the police department, to make sure the stalker can’t hurt Alice—or worse.

Author Teresa Driscoll takes a familiar storyline and infuses it with freshness. She builds a likeable, relatable protagonist in Alice. As the attacks on her get worse and no obvious suspect is brought forward, readers will begin to worry about who’s threatening her and why.

Driscoll takes a major risk in not revealing any connection between Alice and her stalker until the last couple of chapters, a feat considering the book runs more than 60 chapters long. In this case, however, the risk pays off. She accomplishes this by a two-pronged approach: offering readers compelling subplots with their own twists and turns and including a parallel storyline of the stalker’s life without giving any identifying details.

The result gives fans of thrillers an interesting advantage. By the end, they will know much more about the stalker than Alice will. In many cases where readers have more information than the characters, readers can get frustrated waiting for characters to “catch up” to the story. Here, with careful planning, the plot makes sense as is. It allows for a richer, more satisfying experience. The resolution also plays closer to the reality of these types of cases.

Those who appreciate thrillers or books about British characters (or both) will certainly enjoy this novel. I recommend readers Bookmark I Will Make You Pay.