Newest review: The Winners by Fredrik Backman

By Ekta R. Garg

September 28, 2022

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: September 27, 2022

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

Two years after the event that tore apart a small Swedish town, residents must contend with prejudices once again. A storm reveals inequities between the town and its fiercest rival, but it also brings home some of the young adults who help it heal again. Author Fredrik Backman takes readers back to Beartown and Hed in the wrenching finale to the Beartown trilogy with a worthy ending in The Winners.

It’s been two years since Kevin Erdahl raped Maya Andersson. Two years since the towns of Beartown and Hed found themselves nearly at one another’s throats. The fallout from the rape left Maya without any legal justice but with a stronger sense of self. It’s made her brave enough to leave her small town in the forest and go to the big city to pursue her love for music at college.

Back in Beartown, Maya’s parents, Peter and Kira, are trying to find some semblance of normal again. Peter is no longer the general manager for Beartown hockey, once the team he played for and led to victory time and again. These days Peter works with Kira in her law office. At least, that’s what both of them are saying.

Neither wants to admit how miserable Peter is or how he should find his way back to the rink again. Instead, Peter goes to work with Kira and spends the rest of his time baking bread. Lots and lots of bread. When Maya comes home after a major storm strikes, it gives Peter an excuse to spend time with her instead of knead dough all day.

In another part of the world, Benji Ovich has left Beartown behind. Once one of the team’s rising stars, Benji fled after Kevin left town following his trial. The worst part was that in the aftermath of Kevin’s selfishness, everyone found out that Benji is gay and bullied him. It was bad enough people knew he and Kevin were best friends; this pushes him away from the town completely.

Since then, Benji has traveled the world seeking love and fulfillment. All he’s found is dingy bars and dark spaces where he wakes up next to strangers. When word comes of the storm, it gives Benji a legitimate excuse to go home instead of having to make up one.

The storm doesn’t last long, yet it whips up a different kind of frenzy. At one time, Beartown hockey was on the brink of financial disaster. Now the team has a brand new rink, and neighboring Hed is on the verge of losing everything. Residents of Beartown hate the residents of Hed, yet the financial scheming of some greedy inhabitants means that the fates of both towns will be tied together.

Bringing back his trademark whimsical writing style, author Fredrik Backman writes his most emotional novel yet about the residents of Beartown and Hed. Mirroring the reality of rape victims, Backman traces the delicate story of what happens to Maya and her loved ones after the fact. As the omniscient narrator tells us, for Maya the rape is a part of her existence. Many days, she feels like she’s still there.

This third book brings Backman closer to the series than ever before. Several times his omniscient narrator makes reference to the fact that “he” is also a member of that community. There’s no doubt that Backman has lived with these characters for a long time and is giving readers one last look at their lives before moving on.

Old characters from the previous two books return, and new characters become just as important to the narrative. Readers will be hard pressed to pick a favorite by the end. No one will walk away from the book unaffected.

Although Backman offers some semblance of hope for most of the characters by the end—their lives are irrevocably changed, yet they’re still forging ahead—some readers might experience a sense of melancholy. That testament to Backman’s talent in creating this world and these people will leave many of those readers wanting to read the entire trilogy, start to finish, as soon as they close this last book. I recommend readers Binge The Winners.

Brand new review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

By Ekta R. Garg

September 21, 2022

Genre: Mystery

Release date: September 6, 2022

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

Four retired women from an elite force discover they’re being targeted. As they work to find out why, they relive memories of their glory days and what getting older means. Author Deanna Raybourn gives readers unusual protagonists in senior citizen women but allows the plot to progress too easily in her newest book Killers of a Certain Age.

After forty years of dedicated service, Billie Webster is getting ready for retirement and she’s miserable. Despite being in her 60s, Billie doesn’t think her age keeps her from doing her best work as an elite assassin. Just because she’s dealing with hot flashes doesn’t mean she can’t disarm a terrorist if the situation calls for it.

But it doesn’t matter, because the covert organization she works for, known only as the Museum, has decided that Billie and the other members of her squad—Mary Alice, Natalie, and Helen—need to turn in their guns. Literally. The Museum has paid for all of the expenses on a fancy Caribbean cruise to show its appreciation to the women with the expectation that after this they need to go back to their lives.

What lives, though? Billie put everything toward this job, giving up all of the conventional things people have. She has no strong romantic attachments; she doesn’t even own her own home, renting instead. And the retirement feels like it came out of nowhere. One day she and the others were the recruits of the Museum’s first-ever all-female assassin squad. The next they’re supposed to play Bingo and knit the rest of their days away.

When Billie, Mary Alice, Natalie, and Helen meet on the cruise, something seems off. Despite the never-ending cocktails and Michelin-starred food, the women feel uncomfortable. Like they’re in the middle of a mission, except this time they didn’t get the assignment—they are the assignment.

After a murder attempt on one of them, the four friends realize someone at the Museum wants them dead. But why? The squad has always stuck to what they were taught: no contract killings on the side. Pursue the target they were assigned—the warlords, human and drug traffickers, and the heads of cartels—and no one else. Think of the bigger justice the assassinations provide the rest of the world, even if the world doesn’t know it.

The women have been model assassins from the beginning. Now that someone wants them dead, and that someone comes from the same organization that trained them, they’ve decided to turn everything they’ve learned on the organization itself. The four friends will have to use all of their intuition, their skills, and all the favors they can call in to figure out who wants to target them in their golden years.

Author Deanna Raybourn gives readers an innovative concept in senior citizen female assassins. She balances with ease the challenges of that particular age group with the finesse each of these women have in their profession. While Billie is certainly the main character, owing to her first-person chapters in present day, readers also get third-person chapters from the early days the foursome spent in being recruited and trained.

The innovative concept doesn’t quite mask the fact that once the women start finding out who is targeting them, finding those people and taking them down is only a matter of time. Readers who might be expecting a major plot twist, like one of the women themselves being the traitor, will be disappointed. The friendship between the four is true from start to finish, but other than the occasional bickering normal for friend groups the plot doesn’t hold any surprises about them.

Readers also expecting a cool heist-type of book might also be a little let down. While some of the methods Billie and the others use to target their betrayers are intriguing, it’s so easy for them to reach each person that part of the charm—the challenge and false starts of spy stories—is lost. Also, the Museum sounds unique in concept, but many of the details about how it operates are left vague.

This might be a good book to take on a vacation. Readers who enjoy light reads with somewhat predictable endings will want to pick this up. Otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn.

Latest review: Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier

By Ekta R. Garg

July 20, 2022

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 19, 2022

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

The wife of a rebounding star finds herself accused of his murder. As she navigates the justice system and deals with her husband’s death, she must also deal with secrets from her past that might undo her entire future. Author Jennifer Hillier gives the thriller genre a thoughtful read in the compelling, entertaining book Things We Do in the Dark.

Paris Peralta wakes up one morning in her Seattle home to the police bearing down on her, and it seems as though they have good reason. Even though she doesn’t remember a thing, Paris is holding a straight razor and her celebrity husband, Jimmy Peralta, is in the bathtub dead. Paris is covered in Jimmy’s blood, and his assistant, Zoe, is standing over her screaming that Paris murdered Jimmy. That definitely isn’t true, but the police take her in anyway and charge her.

For Paris, the entire thing seems like déjà vu. Years earlier, she escaped another bad situation that made her look equally guilty. Back then she managed to get away and reinvent herself. She took a new name and yoga classes and met Jimmy, the world-famous comic. Despite the decades-long age difference, they fell in love and she became the fifth Mrs. Peralta. It seemed like Paris had managed to outrun her past. But as she sits in a jail cell going over everything, she realizes she should have known that she can’t outrun what’s always been with her.

In Toronto, journalist-turned-true crime podcaster Drew Malcolm is livid. Ruby Reyes, the woman who killed her lover and is responsible for the death of Drew’s childhood friend, Joelle “Joey” Reyes, is set to make parole. Drew wishes he could do something to keep Ruby in prison. At the very least, he plans to focus his next episode on Ruby and make sure people know that she’s a criminal. It doesn’t matter that she’s done her time. Joey is never coming back, and Drew will never forgive Ruby for it.

As he digs into Ruby’s story, though, he starts to discover some inconsistencies with what has always been accepted truth. Drew considers the fact that maybe there’s more to Joey’s story than he realized. Maybe, even though she’s dead, he can actually get justice for her after all.

Time is running out for Paris, both with the authorities and in a more personal way. Ruby somehow learned the truth about who Paris really is, and she’s been blackmailing her. As Paris and Drew both deal with their individual crises, they’ll eventually find their paths crossing. Each will face the hard truths of their circumstances and what led them to the choices they made.

Author Jennifer Hillier’s novel will keep readers swiping or flipping pages. Despite the mystery at the heart of the story about Paris’s identity and how she might be connected to Drew, Hillier takes the time to dig into the characters, their lives, and why they are the way they are. While some of the choices might feel predictable, they’re no less enjoyable for how the characters get to the major conflicts of the book.

By setting the novel in both Seattle and Toronto, Hillier challenges the status quo of making celebrities live and move around Los Angeles and the choice works. It’s also a reminder that in their hearts, celebrities are people just like anyone else. Hillier makes this clear by the conversations Paris and Jimmy have. Although Jimmy has his fair share of faults, Hillier allows him to redeem himself in flashbacks through his relationship with Paris.

It would have been helpful in framing the story to know of the characters’ ethnicities earlier; Paris is Filipino, and Drew is Black. Hillier’s choice not to offer the information sooner might jar some readers out of the story a bit, making them reframe the information they’ve already absorbed with what lies ahead. Hillier should be applauded for wanting to make her characters’ ethnicities one element of who they are and not the sole method for identifying them, but readers in those communities might have appreciated the opportunity to feel an affinity for the characters sooner.

Those who enjoy a thriller that takes a more measured approach to an inevitable ending will enjoy this book. I recommend readers Bookmark Things We Do in the Dark.