Newest review: Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

By Ekta R. Garg

January 15, 2020

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: January 14, 2020

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

Two women separated by decades but connected by their love for art deal with a dark secret. When one sets out to discover what happened to the other, both of their lives will change. Author Diane Chamberlain will keep readers riveted until the end with her main characters in her incredible novel Big Lies in a Small Town.

It’s 1939, and New Jersey native Anna Dale has just lost her mother. Anna watched her mother struggle with wildly changing moods; sometimes she’d burst through the days with enough energy for ten women. Then she’d sink so low that she’d have trouble getting out of bed. Anna lived for those animated periods in her mother’s life. Her mother’s passion for photography encouraged her own artwork. Now, though, Anna is all alone in the world.

When she gets word of winning a national art contest, Anna is both pleased and puzzled. She’d entered the contest hoping to win the opportunity to paint a mural for her hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey. The judges inform her that while another artist will paint the Plainfield mural, Anna has been chosen to paint the mural for the post office of Edenton, North Carolina.

Anna knows nothing about North Carolina; she’s never even traveled that far south. She can’t turn down the opportunity of the prize money, though, so she packs her bags for Edenton where she steps right into the duality of southern hospitality. As she researches the town and gets to know its residents, Anna realizes the task of painting a mural to represent Edenton may be bigger than she could manage on her own. The danger comes in knowing who to ask for help.

In early June of 2018, former art student Morgan Christopher is serving a three-year sentence in the North Carolina Women’s Correctional Facility for a crime she didn’t commit—except no one believes her because she confessed to it. After her first year in prison, Morgan dreads waking up in her cell every day. She’d do anything, she knows, to get out of jail for good.

Her wish is fulfilled when the daughter of a famous artist comes to see her. Morgan has admired the works of Jesse Williams for years and is beside herself when Williams’ daughter, Lisa, tells her there’s a way for her to get out on parole. Shortly before his death, Williams updated his will to stipulate the opening of a new art gallery in Edenton. The gallery needs to open on August 5 and will house Williams’ own work as well as the work of other prominent artists and promising students.

Williams stated in his will that Morgan was to be hired to restore the mural painted by Anna Dale. The mural, Lisa tells Morgan, has been rolled up and lying in a corner of her house for decades. No matter what state it’s in, it must be fully restored and installed in time for the gallery’s opening in August. In exchange for the restoration, Morgan will get out on parole and receive $50,000. If the restoration isn’t completed in time, Lisa will lose her house.

Despite her complete ignorance in art restoration, Morgan jumps at the chance. She starts with the mural and soon gets involved in a mystery: although it was completed, it was never hung in Edenton’s post office. As Morgan uncovers one square foot of the canvas at a time, she discovers the secrets Anna and the town of Edenton fought to keep.

Author Diane Chamberlain weaves an easy tale to follow. By switching chapters between Anna and Morgan, she doesn’t keep readers waiting too long on the stories of either women. Anna’s character arc follows familiar territory of race relations in small southern towns in the 1940s while also offering surprises. Morgan’s chapters, in first person, bring to readers her confusion that she restore the mural as well as her determination to do anything to stay out of prison.

Both women fight for themselves in their circumstances but also learn to fight for others. The connections between them might seem obvious, but Chamberlain’s meticulous plotting helps the story unfold in such a natural, organic way that readers will find themselves worrying about Anna and Morgan as they try to guess what will happen next.

Fans of fiction set in small towns will thoroughly enjoy this one. I recommend readers Binge Big Lies in a Small Town.

Latest review: Nameless Queen by Rebecca McLaughlin

By Ekta R. Garg

January 8, 2020

Genre: YA fantasy

Release date: January 7, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A peasant is named the heir of a kingdom that doesn’t even recognize her. Despite her uneasiness with her new status, she must navigate court politics as well as the mystery of how she became the heir in the first place. Old friends and new allies come forward to help her in her cause as she struggles to make a name for herself. Debut author Rebecca McLaughlin gives YA readers a new heroine to cheer for in her terrific novel Nameless Queen.

All her life, Coin has known one fact for sure: she can only count on herself. As part of the class of citizens known as the Nameless, she’s missing a key part of her identity: her actual name. In the city of Seriden, the Nameless are the lowest class. The Legals represent the working middle class. The Royals rule the city and the kingdom.

Coin grew up without her name and also without a family, but she’s done all right for herself. She’s a skilled thief and con artist and has made her way through life by using both traits to her full advantage. Recently, though, another Nameless girl who goes by Hat has taken to following Coin everywhere. Coin doesn’t want the responsibility for anyone else. It’s hard enough to take care of herself. Then the unbelievable happens.

According to the magic that rules Seriden, when the ruling Royal is on his or her death bed that person names the heir to the throne. The announcement of the heir is made known by a crown tattoo that appears on the heir’s arm. In the middle of what seems like an ordinary day, Coin experiences the strangest sensation and discovers the crown tattoo on her skin.

She’s horrified and fascinated all at the same time. How in all the world can she be named the heir? She has no connection to the Royals. She’s a Nameless, after all. Yet no one can deny the appearance of the tattoo, and in the midst of a scuffle in the market Hat gets arrested and whisked away. Coin has no interest in the throne of Seriden for herself, but she won’t let Hat rot in a Royal prison. Add to that the fact that other Nameless have been going missing for months now and no one knows why, Coin makes a decision. Against her better judgment, she reports to the castle.

Coin discovers there are people on the court she can rely on as confidantes, and she needs them. Other factions within the castle are actively bidding for the crown that has been named hers. She figures out soon enough that she’ll need to rely on her new friends if she’s going to get out alive.

Author Rebecca McLaughlin will delight readers with the world she’s presenting: a world based on a caste system that abides by rules of magic. Coin is plucky and resourceful, everything readers expect in a heroine today. Her friend, Hat, will also endear herself to the target audience. Hat is sweet and funny and the perfect model for a younger sister, and Coin’s irritation and affection for her balance Hat’s admiration as only an older sister could.

The book could have used better world building, and Coin seems to settle into her new role in court with a little too much ease. Had her struggle endured further into the novel, she would have become a fully three-dimensional character. Also, at a key moment in the book other Nameless come to Coin and make a request of her. The request seems odd and out of step with the events in the scene in question.

That being said, McLaughlin must be applauded for the variety of ways she’s used the concept and even the word “nameless.” She’s set up the end of the book for a sequel and indicated in her author’s note that one is forthcoming. Given the last few lines of the story, readers will certainly be waiting to find out what happens next with Coin and her bid for the throne.

Those willing to give a new fantasy author and novel a chance will most likely enjoy this novel; I recommend readers Borrow Nameless Queen.

Newest review: Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

By Ekta R. Garg

December 11, 2019

Genre: Middle grade magical realism

Release date: August 16, 2016

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A boy and a grandfather share a wonderful secret: when the grandfather was young, he visited a special circus meant only for children to attend. The boy makes it his mission to go back that same circus and call in a favor when his grandfather becomes ill. Author Cassie Beasley introduces several wonderful, endearing characters in her excellent novel Circus Mirandus.

Micah Tuttle knows two things for sure: he’s really good at tying knots, and his best friend in the whole entire world is his Grandpa Ephraim. The two go together for Micah; after his parents died in an accident, Micah moved in with Grandpa Ephraim, and it was his grandfather who taught him about tying the right knot for the right situation. Grandpa Ephraim also told him about Circus Mirandus, a place with fantastic acts and all sorts of magic.

He wishes he could have a dose of that magic now. Lately Grandpa Ephraim’s been sick. So sick, in fact, that his sister, Micah’s great-aunt Gertrudis, has come all the way from Arizona to take care of him. When Micah first heard about Aunt Gertrudis coming, he couldn’t wait to meet her. Anyone close to Grandpa would be just as fun to be around and just as loving. But Aunt Gertrudis is the opposite of Grandpa Ephraim. She’s super strict, she doesn’t let Micah sit with Grandpa long enough, and she definitely doesn’t believe in magic.

Micah wishes there was something he could do to help. Then Grandpa Ephraim tells him a really big secret. The Lightbender, one of the performers in Circus Mirandus, promised him a miracle when he was young. Grandpa Ephraim’s saved it all these years for when he needed it most, and he thinks that time is coming. If there’s any way Micah can contact the Lightbender, then things will definitely get better.

The trouble, of course, is that Aunt Gertrudis seems to be around every corner, and Micah doesn’t even know how to contact the Lightbender in the first place. He becomes friends with the smartest kid in his class, Jenny, but she’s so smart she doesn’t believe in magic either. All Micah knows is that if he doesn’t do something soon, he’ll lose the one person he loves more than anyone else.

Author Cassie Beasley offers middle grade readers relatable, likable characters. Micah’s worry about his grandfather and frustration with his great-aunt jump off the page. Jenny, too, is a true best friend. Even when she questions Micah about the fundamental principles in his argument, she stands by him.

Readers may find themselves frowning at Aunt Gertrudis’s disdain for Circus Mirandus, but she represents the complicated reality many adults live in: deep disillusionment. Beasley doesn’t spend much time on Aunt Gertrudis’s back story and with good reason, but even the feather touch is enough to give readers the idea that some angry adults are grieving young children inside. Even when she has the opportunity to set things right from the past, Aunt Gertrudis doesn’t. It’s both frustrating and understandable.

Beasley builds a circus that sparkles in its imaginativeness, but most of the book focuses on Micah and his fight to save his grandfather. If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in not offering more information on the circus itself. The few acts described induce a sense of gleeful expectation, but before readers can explore all magic on display the scene shifts. With another book in the offing, hopefully readers will get to spend more time in Circus Mirandus.

Those who enjoy books about strong family relationships and the importance of believing in something even when you can’t see it will appreciate this novel. I recommend readers Bookmark Circus Mirandus.

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.