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: 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.

Brand new review: Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart

October 9, 2019

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: October 1, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

After surviving a terrible accident, a teenager grapples with going back to high school. Her altered appearance provokes deep anxiety about fitting in and makes her an introvert. With the help of new friends, however, she learns about her true self-worth. Author Erin Stewart offers target readers a predictable storyline with a refreshing take in the solid novel Scars Like Wings.

Ava Lee is like most typical sixteen-year-olds. She just wants to be accepted for who she is. Of course, in Ava’s case, that’s a huge ask. She used to be like most other teenagers. Now she just sees herself as the Burned Girl.

A house fire took away her parents and her cousin, Sara, and it left Ava with major burns on more than half her body including her face. She’s endured a year of multiple surgeries and intense, painful rehabilitation. As if life couldn’t get worse, her doctor says it’s time to go back to school.

Ava’s aunt and uncle love the idea, but Ava knows they’re just fulfilling their roles as her dutiful guardians. They’ve been nothing but loving and supportive during the entire ordeal, but Ava isn’t kidding herself. She knows she’s the consolation prize life handed them after they lost their only daughter.

She finally agrees to go back to school on the condition that she go to a new one. She doesn’t need to spend her days with people who knew Before Ava and have to live with the reality of Burned Ava. Before long, she finds herself in the hallways of a new high school with most people pointing, staring, and laughing at her.

Most people; not Piper. Piper’s a burn survivor too and in some ways has it worse. After a horrific car accident, she’s dealing with burns and is also in a wheelchair. That doesn’t stop her from standing up for Ava, even if that means she has to ram a jock in the shins with her chair to do it.

Between Piper’s audacity and the gentle persistence of another new friend, Asad, Ava rediscovers her love of theater. Asad can’t get enough of the stage, and he makes Ava laugh with his nonstop theater references. At first Ava doesn’t believe that Asad’s intentions are genuine, but he convinces her that he doesn’t see her burns. Through it all, Ava will have to decide whether she wants to stop thinking of herself as the Burned Girl and start thinking of herself as just Ava again.

Author Erin Stewart offers a three-dimensional view of the life of a burn survivor. She doesn’t hold back in describing the physical agony and the emotional pain experienced by people who have lived through this awful experience. By adding the extra layer of the anxiety of life as a teenager, she rounds out the complexity of Ava as a main character and gives her well-developed friends in Piper and Asad as well.

The book’s biggest weakness comes in the form of an omitted detail. Ava mourns for her parents and cousin (who was also her best friend,) but the novel lacks specifics on how the fire spread so fast. While the challenges she faces in the present might eclipse the technical aspects of the life-changing event, it would have heightened the dramatic impact even more—a tough task, given how haunting the book already is.

Also, the conflicts in the last scenes get resolved a little too easily. After all Ava fights for and all she suffers in her new school, the about-face of one of the characters is surprising. Target readers might feel some relief and encouragement in the change of events, though, which reinforces the book’s main theme: with or without physical scars, everyone struggles from time to time.

Anyone wanting to read a compelling book about teens surviving a traumatic book will want to check this one out. I recommend readers Bookmark Scars Like Wings.

Newest review: What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr

By Ekta R. Garg

October 2, 2019

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: September 17, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

An elderly woman discovers she’s being held against her will in an assisted living facility. She decides to find out the truth behind her circumstances, all the while dodging assassins and the pitfalls of technology. Author Nevada Barr balances the realities of aging with a plot that, more or less, does its job in the fairly likeable novel What Rose Forgot.

All the world’s a haze for Rose Dennis; it seems like the days seep into one another in a dense fog. Then one day she has a moment of clarity and realizes she isn’t at home. In fact, she’s surrounded by people she doesn’t recognize who keep talking about her as if she isn’t right there in the bed next to them.

As she fights through the fuzziness induced by drugs, she pieces together the truth. She’s a resident of the Memory Care Unit in Longwood, an assisted living facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Rose doesn’t remember checking herself in to this place, and she definitely doesn’t remember anyone else doing it. How did she get here? Why is she here at all? And how can she go home?

That last question bothers her more than anything else, and with some ingenuity she manages to escape Longwood. Bits of her life return to her, and she goes to her stepson’s home. There she reconnects with Melanie, her teenage granddaughter and biggest fan in the world. Shocked to see her Gigi out of Longwood, Mel joins Rose’s quest to figure out what happened. Because the more Rose remembers, the more she realizes something is definitely wrong about her entire situation. The fact is confirmed by the arrival of a man hired to kill Rose; when he fails, Rose knows her days are numbered if she doesn’t figure out the situation soon.

With the help of Mel, Mel’s best friend, Royal, and Rose’s big sister, Marion (a computer whiz in California who refuses to travel but offers moral, and tech, support in every way,) Rose begins to make sense of her admittance to Longwood. The four discover a disturbing fact, and their mission becomes larger with the aim to expose the guilty parties. Along the way, Rose realizes that her age may slow her down but she still has plenty of fight left.

Author Nevada Barr gives senior citizens a prominent voice through Rose’s character. Rose feels every bit of her age, and she’s slowed down by it time and time again. Her sheer grit to get to the bottom of the matter, though, propels her forward every single time she gets knocked down—and she gets knocked down several times.

Therein lies part of the book’s weakness. In different parts of the novel, Rose is hurt—when she’s running away from Longwood, for example, or when she fights the hitman hired to kill her. The overtly physical interactions described would knock down people in the prime of their lives, yet Rose stops to sleep and bandage herself and stands to fight another day. The fact that Rose can do so after her accumulation of injuries borders on the incredulous.

On the plus side, Barr builds well-developed characters in Rose and Mel. Mel questions her grandmother but never insults her insistence that she doesn’t belong in Longwood, a testament to the bond between grandparents and grandchildren. Royal, as Mel’s sidekick, is funny and kind and shows up when needed. Marion, despite only appearing via phone, email, and text, also is three-dimensional with her sharp wit and her declaration that she’s “not a hacker” even as she helps Rose break into technology at key moments.

The rest of the characters, by sharp contrast, don’t feel as substantial. Readers would not be faulted for mixing up some of the secondary characters, which makes some of the important turns in the plot feel less plausible. The premise Barr puts forth makes sense; the way the secondary characters participate in that premise may not always be as clear-cut.

Some of the dialogue will make readers laugh out loud, though, and one element of the story comes through loud and clear: even in this progressive culture, the elderly still fight against the stereotypes of age and how society expects them to be. Those wanting a deeply personal look at some of the challenges of aging might want to check this one out. I recommend that readers Borrow What Rose Forgot.

Latest review: The Sisters of Summit Avenue by Lynn Cullen

By Ekta R. Garg

Release date: September 10, 2019

Genre: Historical women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A pair of sisters who share a troubled relationship must face what’s at the heart of their conflict. With spouses and their mother complicating matters, they have difficult choices to make. Author Lynn Cullen tries to intrigue readers with an unusual setting but fails to offer a solid plot in the uninspiring novel The Sisters of Summit Avenue.

In Minneapolis in 1934, June Whiteleather seems to have the perfect life. Despite the ongoing Depression, she works as a Betty—one of the women in the Betty Crocker test kitchen who maintains the brand of the company. June grew up poor, but no one in the kitchen would ever suspect it. How could they, when she’s their go-to Betty for advice on how to throw the most elegant brunch and maintain a façade of a high-class life? Her physician husband earns enough for June to live that life in truth, so it only makes sense that she be deemed the expert.

June enjoys the respect and deference of the other Bettys, but she aches to have children. She and Richard have been unable to do so, and it’s begun driving them apart. In truth, June was never fully Richard’s to begin with. Her heart went to John a long time ago, and for a time John reciprocated her love. In the end, however, John went to her little sister, Ruth.

On the Michigan-Indiana state line, Ruth is flat out exhausted. For the last eight years, she’s run the family farm by herself while keeping track of her four children and trying to make ends meet. When she and John first got married, life seemed quaint and doable. Ever since the “sleeping sickness” banished him to his bed, however, Ruth’s been doing the heavy lifting—most of the time literally.

The farmhand, Nick, provides a pleasant distraction from time to time, but Ruth still finds herself unhappy. Everything wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. June’s living the good life three states away, and Ruth burns with jealousy for every fancy thing June owns. It doesn’t matter that June sends her entire paycheck to Ruth to help with expenses, and even the satisfaction of winning John has worn off. Ruth wants a different life, but no offers seem to be forthcoming.

The girls’ mother, Dorothy, lives with Ruth and does her share to help with the kids, but Dorothy is worried about her younger daughter’s discontent and the choices she’s making because of it. In a moment of desperation, she calls June and begs her to come visit. Ruth really wants her there, she says. To Ruth, Dorothy makes it sound like June’s been dying to see the family. When the sisters come face to face, old wounds break open and they’re forced to deal with the betrayal and misunderstandings that have kept them apart all these years.

Author Lynn Cullen takes readers to the heart of the country and the Great Depression, bringing to life the desperation of those years. She offers the perfect juxtaposition of the fabricated life the Bettys present to Betty Crocker’s fans while millions of people across the country are struggling to eat. Ruth’s frustration and weariness with her circumstances ring true as do June’s disenchantment with her charmed life.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from too much of the sisters’ internal conflict. Readers will get pages and pages of details on how Ruth spent most of her life envying her older sister and how that envy is misplaced. Dorothy, too, has her own dark secrets, and while they may bring shock value to the story, they don’t help the sisters or the plot in any significant way. Cullen brings it all to a rushed ending that acts like a consolation and breaks character for almost all involved, a hurried attempt to wrap up the story with a neat bow that includes the title street (not mentioned in any great significance anywhere else in the book.)

Those interested in a look at an interesting facet of the early days of one of America’s most iconic brands might find those portions of the novel interesting. The portions on the sleeping sickness, too (a medical mystery to this day,) provide interesting fodder. Otherwise, readers will want to pass this one up. I recommend they Bypass The Sisters of Summit Avenue.

Brand new review: Dead Voices by Katherine Arden

By Ekta R. Garg

September 18, 2019

Genre: middle grade ghost story

Release date: August 27, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

When three best friends find themselves in a place haunted by ghosts, they’ll have to work together to save themselves and the adults with them. If they don’t, they’ll become ghosts too and their loved ones will forget they ever even existed. Author Katherine Arden brings back her fearless trio in the mostly solid novel Dead Voices.

Ollie, Coco, and Brian know all about adventure. They survived one during their class trip in the fall when they escaped the scarecrows and their creepy leader who tried to force the trio to join his legion of straw people. If they never have another adventure like that again, it’ll be too soon.

That’s why a trip to a new ski resort during winter break sounds like the perfect getaway. Ollie’s dad won the getaway at work, and he, Ollie, Coco, Coco’s mom, and Brian are chugging along through the snow to the resort. Even before they arrive, however, Coco starts to get weird vibes from the place. She could have sworn she saw a person standing in the middle of the road on the drive to the resort, but when Ollie’s dad stops the car no one’s there.

Ollie and Brian try to reassure Coco that everything’s fine, but she’s not so sure. The fact that the power is out at the resort doesn’t make any of them feel better. Then Ollie starts having nightmares about young girls with messages none of them understand. Brian keeps insisting that the preserved animals in the lobby are changing positions—sometimes they’re standing, sometimes they’re on all fours. Sometimes they’re glaring right at the kids.

An unexpected guest, Mr. Voland, comes to the resort talking about hunting ghosts. The power is still out and the generator doesn’t work, and he thinks it’s the work of the ghosts that haunt the resort. He convinces the three friends that the only way to make things right is to find the ghosts and communicate with them.

Coco doesn’t like the sound of any of it; Brian is flat out skeptical. But Ollie becomes obsessed with the idea. What if Mr. Voland can help her talk to her mom? She wavers then agrees to Mr. Voland’s plan—and that’s when the three of them really get into trouble. If they want to escape the resort and go home with their loved ones, they’ll have to think on their feet. They’ve done it once before, but none of them know if they’ll have the capacity to do it again.

Author Katherine Arden brings back her three beloved characters for another ghost story that will make target readers and adults alike shiver. The story starts on a foreboding note and continues to build in intensity. Arden lets the tension increase until readers become just as worried as the main characters about what will happen next.

Arden excels in building the emotions of the middle schoolers. Their concern and compassion for one another shine, but Arden also lets them be real friends. They disagree with one another, make mistakes, and doubt each other’s opinions all while keeping the foundation of their friendship strong.

If the book exhibits any weaknesses, it’s in the fact that Ollie and Coco both get the opportunity to share their stories firsthand while Brian doesn’t. Considering that he is just as important to the trio of best friends as the girls, it’s surprising that readers never hear directly from him. Also, during the climax of the book, Brian fades into the background for a handful of pages. The explanation he offers when he reappears doesn’t ring wholly true to the story at hand. The plot would have felt more three-dimensional had Arden offered readers the chance, even a handful of times, to let Brian lead in the storytelling.

As with her previous book Small Spaces, the friendships take center stage here and cover the weak spots. In the end, readers will find themselves breathing a sigh of relief and then wishing for more books about Ollie, Coco, and Brian, if only to give Brian the chance to share a story about him. Fans of Small Spaces will most certainly enjoy this one. That’s why I say Dead Voices Borders on Bookmarking it!