Brand new review: A Murder on Jane Street by Cathy Cash Spellman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 17, 2019

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: July 16, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it / 2.5 stars

When an elderly woman is murdered, her ex-cop neighbor investigates the strange circumstances. The deeper he digs into her life, the more he realizes his neighbor was anything but an ordinary person. As his family and friends pitch in to help solve the case, they’ll find themselves on high alert in the middle of a larger plot. Veteran author Cathy Cash Spellman debuts in the mystery/thriller genre with the well-intentioned but wieldy, bulky novel A Murder on Jane Street.

After decades as one of New York City’s finest, retired police chief FitzHugh Donovan is enjoying ownership of an independent bookstore. He lives in a charming brownstone with his daughters and his granddaughter, and for the most part he’s content. While he’s friendly with their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Wallenberg, they haven’t formed a close friendship.

Fitz is shocked, then, when Mrs. Wallenberg calls him one day sounding frightened. She insists that someone is targeting her, and she wants to leave important materials with him in the event that she dies. She asks if he can stop by on his way home from the store, but Fitz doesn’t know what to think. Why would someone go out of their way to kill a little old lady well into her nineties?

By the time he checks on her, it’s too late. Mrs. Wallenberg is murdered in a gruesome fashion. From her house, Fitz retrieves a packet addressed to him of mysterious documents, and he realizes that one of them is written in invisible ink. It turns out to be a journal and reveals that Mrs. Wallenberg led quite the life before migrating to the United States from Poland decades earlier.

Her journal warns of a global conspiracy dating all the way back to World War II, Hitler’s plans to take over Europe and beyond, and the complicity of Allied countries in hoaxes and cover-ups. For 75 years she’s kept secret evidence of it all, but she knows those on the wrong side of justice have long memories.

Fitz is quickly joined by his daughters, granddaughter, and several friends in finding Mrs. Wallenberg’s killers. The longer they pursue the truth, the more they realize that the global scale of the operations means the wrongdoers will stop at nothing to keep their secrets. Fitz and Co. will need to be careful with who they approach for help and who they trust if they want to stay alive.

Author Cathy Cash Spellman’s efforts succeed within a limited range. The story introduces endearing characters, but Spellman brings on so many to solve the murder that at one point readers may forget names or who does what. The book tries to tackle science, history, the supernatural, present-day politics, and police procedure; the various elements, like the various characters, may overwhelm the target audience.

Worse, at some point readers may feel the need to skim ahead, and Spellman’s didactic writing approach means reading every single page might be unnecessary. The characters gather at regular intervals to meet and “update” one another on their progress as they work to uncover the secret plots. What happens is, essentially, an update for the readers.

Most of the big action happens “off stage,” so readers only find out about big discoveries via these updates or character conversations. The result is that the book feels less like a heart-stopping murder mystery and more like an interesting newspaper feature article—in multiple parts—after the fact. It doesn’t help that the characters spend the bulk of the book doing research into Mrs. Wallenberg’s journal and her claims. Readers never get a clear-cut answer on what the brave cast was going to do once they uncovered the complicated, webbed truth.

In a book that makes the characters call out the Allied powers in World War II for secretly supporting the Germans, the tone is upbeat and optimistic in a Nancy Drew kind of way. While Fitz and family all know they might run into dangerous factions, the book’s tone never lets the reader doubt that in the end the Donovan family will come out all right. The lack of major conflict throughout the book confirms this; the characters run into dangerous elements a total number of two times. For a book that tops out at more than 120 (short) chapters, the danger needed to be sky high.

A couple of small factual errors might make some readers wonder what other facts don’t line up with reality. Those plus the long length and the sense that the characters are having all the fun without letting the readers partake in most of it might make some readers shun the novel. I rate the book as Bordering on Bypassing it.

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Newest review: Immoral Code by Lillian Clark

By Ekta R. Garg

February 20, 2019

Genre: YA

Release date: February 19, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

A group of teenagers take revenge on a parent when his indifference prevents one of them from going to college. As the friends navigate their elaborate plan, their relationships will reach new junctures. They’ll also have to decide whether their anger is worth risking all of their futures. Debut author Lillian Clark brings to her story five relatable protagonists in the mostly enjoyable novel Immoral Code.

It’s their senior year of high school, and Bellamy, Santiago, Nari, Keagan, and Reese all have big plans for life after graduation. Reese spends her days mapping her route around the world while using her art to express herself. Long-time couple Nari and Keagan know they’ll stay together no matter where they end up, although Nari has a clearer vision of that than Keagan does. Nari’s wicked smart when it comes to coding and hacking, and she’s just a few keystrokes away from joining one of the giants like Google or Apple. Keagan doesn’t care where he goes as long as he can hold Nari’s hand on the journey. Santiago got recruited by Stanford on a diving scholarship long before this last year of high school and plans to compete for Olympic gold.

Bellamy, physics genius and daughter of a single mother, knows MIT is for her. She filled out the paperwork with diligence, even if that meant thinking of the father who left her behind. Bellamy’s mother and Robert Foster dated in high school and got pregnant. Robert fled town, but at least he sends money to Bellamy and her mother. Considering he’s a billionaire now, it’s the least he can do.

Until that money comes in the way of Bellamy’s dreams. Her student loan application at MIT is denied. There was no way she was going to MIT on her father’s dime, hence the loan application. Even after sending the necessary paperwork in a timely fashion, through lawyers, to her father to make sure her application stood independently of his income, he still manages to mess this up. Just like he’s messed up pretty much her entire life by denying that she exists.

The friends rally around Bellamy and begin brainstorming ways to help her out, which prompts a dangerous discussion: what if they figure out a way to steal the money from Robert Foster? Given the number of zeroes he must have in his bank balance, would Foster even notice that the money was missing? The friends explore the idea and decide to make it a reality, but even they can’t imagine how their actions will push them into unexplored territory in their individual relationships with one another as well as a group.

Author Lillian Clark captures the voices of her teen protagonists with ease. Each of the friends has his or her own fears and hopes, their own desires and their own uncertainties; despite the challenge of flipping between five points of view, Clark manages to make each of them distinct. Readers in the target audience will find at least one “friend” among this set and will most likely warm up to the group as a whole.

Clark also doesn’t shy away from testing the relationships, especially Nari and Keagan’s, considered at the outset the most solid of the group. Righteous indignation can only take a person so far, as the couple discovers. One of them approves wholeheartedly of their revenge mission; the other experiences ambivalence, which also brings up a challenge to that character’s inner strength and a new facet to the romance. Clark lets her characters hurt one another with words and unintended actions; just because they’re teenagers doesn’t mean everything comes up rainbows and roses all the time.

If the book falters, it’s in the over exposure to the friendships and the lack of time spent on the heist. Readers might find themselves getting a little impatient for the action to get rolling. Clark does an excellent job of establishing her characters early and with solidity. Instead of letting that solidity stand on its own, however, she insists on building more onto that platform before finally moving on to the main action. As a result, the heist really doesn’t get its full due, and parts of it feel a little unreal.

Readers looking for a fun, quick book will certainly enjoy this one, however, and it offers enough unique perspectives to make most members of the target audience happy. I believe Immoral Code Borders on Bookmarking it.

Latest review: The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

February 6, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: February 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A ballerina allows herself to be admitted to a facility for the treatment of eating disorders after collapsing. As she meets and gets to know the other girls in the facility, she gains strength from their stories and learns to reevaluate her own body image. Author Yara Zgheib’s debut novel takes readers inside the mind in heartbreaking detail of a person suffering from anorexia but misses the mark on the story level in her first book The Girls at 17 Swann Street.

Anna Proux lives what most people might think is a charmed life. A native of Paris, she meets and marries Matthias, the man she considers her soulmate. They’re happy; they adore one another. Matthias is well respected at work, and Anna is a ballerina with a dance company.

The real battle in their lives rages inside of Anna, however. She fights her crippling insecurity every day, pouring herself into her dancing so she can forget the effects of childhood tragedies and the criticisms from her first love. With those criticisms and her self-doubt dictating her every move, Anna begins to forego eating most meals. Maybe, she thinks, if she can control her food intake, she can reach an ideal weight and everything will make sense again.

Then Anna gets injured, largely due to diminished strength because she hasn’t been eating enough. The role she’d dreamed of getting and the hours of rehearsal she put toward it slip from her grasp. Her refusal to eat gets worse and transforms into anorexia, all without anyone realizing it. When Matthias get an offer to work in the States, Anna believes this could be a new start. She can leave behind all the bad and forge a new life in Missouri with her husband.

Except that the insecurity and memories follow her across the ocean. Despite repeated promises to start eating again, Anna doesn’t. In fact, her daily vigilance of her food intake increases. One night she collapses in the bathroom, and Matthias puts his foot down. Anna needs help, and he refuses to go another day until she gets it.

With the utmost of reluctance, she allows him to check her into 17 Swann Street. The facility looks like any other ordinary house, except that it’s home to several girls who all suffer from some sort of eating disorder. Anna blanches at the rules. She and the girls are expected to eat six meals a day. Privileges like walks outside and visits to town are earned, not a right. And everyone must attend counseling, both group and private. No exceptions.

During her first 24 hours, Anna becomes convinced she won’t survive at 17 Swann Street. The longer she spends time there, however, and gets to know the girls, the more she realizes that the others understand just how much she’s suffering—even if none of them share in explicit terms what drives their own disorders. She also begins to understand the depth of her disease and bit by bit gains the courage to tackle the challenges in her heart so she can regain control of her life.

Author Yara Zgheib delves deep into the character of Anna and shares in relatable prose the mindset of suffering from anorexia. While many books might spotlight a teen character, at 26 years old Anna is far past the age of a flighty young woman. This gives her anorexia more time to secure its grip on her and challenges readers to reevaluate any preconceived notions they might have. Eating disorders don’t discriminate against anyone.

Less successful is the story on the mechanical level. While Zgheib showcases with ease Anna’s emotional plight, the story itself doesn’t hold too many surprises. The book feels more like a series of diary entries rather than a novel with a trackable story arc. Zgheib’s tone almost gives away the answer to the question of whether Anna will begin a significant recovery from her anorexia. A few moments seem to teeter on the “will she/won’t she” edge, but those moments don’t come often enough.

Anna’s struggles and the revelation of the source of her eating disorder will endear her to readers, no doubt. She’s the strongest element in the book, however; readers really don’t get to know much about the other girls in the house, which is a shame because their stories seem as much if not more compelling than Anna’s own.

Readers who want to understand the daily struggles of an anorexic person will want to get this book, but otherwise I recommend they Borrow The Girls at 17 Swann Street from their public libraries.

Newest review: One Fatal Mistake by Tom Hunt

January 30, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: February 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A teenager makes a split-second decision, drawing his entire family into a nightmarish situation. While his mother is determined to take the lead and keep her son is safe, other forces may prevent her from doing so. Author Tom Hunt is back with his second novel and thriller, the somewhat uneven book One Fatal Mistake.

Single mom Karen has devoted her life to her son, Joshua. He’s months away from graduating from high school and, fingers crossed, accepting a golf scholarship to his dream university across the country. Karen’s done okay for herself as an ICU nurse, and she even gets along with her ex. While she’ll miss Josh, she also knows how important it is for him to get out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and experience the world.

That world suddenly becomes much smaller when Josh confesses a horrifying fact to Karen: he attacked a man and left him for dead.

It doesn’t matter that the man initiated the heated exchange nor that the altercation happened on the spur of the moment. Even Josh’s valid claim that he came at the man in self-defense scares Karen. Years earlier, the son of a prominent politician found himself in a similar situation and the jury didn’t hesitate to put the boy behind bars. Karen fears her son, an ordinary person, will suffer a similar fate or worse.

She returns to the scene of the crime with Josh to decide what to do about the man’s body. Before mother and son can come up with a rational plan, however, they run into two people on the run from the law. Karen and Josh are taken hostage and find the most unbelievable demands being placed on them. Now not only does she have to fight for Josh’s life; Karen also has to fight for her own.

Author Tom Hunt follows up his debut novel Killer Choice with another book about deep moral dilemmas. At every turn, Josh and Karen find themselves challenged in unforeseen ways. Readers will appreciate Hunt’s snappy descriptions and his ability to get right to the heart of the action in his scenes.

The book’s climax, however, starts in the middle of that action and then drags for pages. What begins as a situation taut with tension gradually dissolves into a dreary play-by-play scene where the characters’ choices become more fantastical and the problems presented don’t match reality. Hunt may lose more astute readers in these moments.

For example, at one point a character is shot and undergoes surgery. Within hours, according to the narrative, infection sets in and the character’s wound becomes a mess. Another character attacks the wounded person, and despite repeated blows and hours of no attention somehow the wounded character survives. Hunt may be trying to pull readers in with shock value, but the narrative doesn’t prop up the shock with anything substantial. The result is a series of scenes that might induce snickering instead of gasps.

Short punchy sentences may be good for thrillers, but Hunt uses too many of them. It almost gives his story a sense of breathlessness, like the characters have a hard time communicating even when they’re just thinking about the situation at hand. Readers may grow weary of the choppy paragraphs.

Fans of thrillers might like this one for a quick weekend read. For the most part, I recommend readers Borrow One Fatal Mistake from their local libraries.

Latest review: An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

By Ekta R. Garg

Date: January 9, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 8, 2019

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A woman joins a psychology study as a way to make some quick cash, only to discover that she’s been drawn into a situation that runs past academics. The longer she stays in the study, the more questions she begins to ask even as she realizes that every question might bring her closer to the destruction of her own life. Co-authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen return after a successful debut with another fun thriller in their latest book An Anonymous Girl.

At 28, Jessica Farris seems to have the life any young single person would want. She lives in New York City and works as a makeup artist. At one time she even joined the teams behind off-Broadway shows. Although she’s technically a freelancer now, Jessie has landed a steady position with BeautyBuzz. They send clients her way who want makeup done for a variety of special occasions.

Despite the good relationship she’s built with BeautyBuzz, Jessie still struggles with her finances. Her parents bear all the responsibility for taking care of her younger sister, Becky, and all the medical bills that come with her condition. Countless times Jessie has put money toward Becky’s bills without telling her parents. While she’s happy to help her family, the strain—both financial and emotional—of doing so weighs Jessie down all the time.

When she finds out about an opportunity to earn extra money by participating in a psychology study on morality and ethics, she jumps at the chance. After all, she reasons, how hard can it be to answer some questions? The professor, Dr. Shields, gets his data, Jessie gets the $500, and she doesn’t have to worry about her rent for this month.

The questions catch Jessie completely off guard, however. They challenge her to dig deeper inside herself that anyone has done in a long time…or maybe ever. Dr. Shields, too, surprises Jessie, first because the professor is a woman and secondly because she seems to have a way to pull out Jessie’s deepest hurts and soothe them.

In exchange for what begins to feel more like therapy and less like a study, Jessie agrees to participate in real-life experiments for Dr. Shields. She meets people, asks questions, initiates encounters. Throughout the process, however, Jessie’s gut begins sending her warning signals and she figures out that Dr. Shields has an ulterior motive for the experiments and the entire study. What she’ll need to find out is how she can extract herself from the entire situation before she gets too entangled.

Co-authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen offer readers a taut thriller. Protagonist Jessie comes across as likeable and relatable. Even though Hendricks and Pekkanen gloss over some of the minor details—Jessie’s relationships with her friends and even her parents—Jessie herself will convince readers to stick with the book all the way to the end. Equally fascinating is Dr. Lydia Shields. She’s the perfect antagonist, smart, rich, well-spoken, and always put together. The motive for her study may not feel new, but her execution of her reasons for it will keep readers flipping pages.

The last few pages, too, feel like the best conclusion for all characters involved, even if they come across as a little rushed. Readers will appreciate a win for women, although the last few paragraphs of the book come across as underwhelming. A big victory requires a closing just as smart and intriguing as the rest of the story. Greer and Pekkanen don’t quite deliver on that aspect, but the rest of the book stands out and readers will forgive them the lack of a punchy closing sentence.

Fans of good thrillers will definitely love this one. I recommend readers Binge An Anonymous Girl.

Latest review: Warning Light by David Ricciardi

By Ekta R. Garg

December 26, 2018

Genre: Spy thriller

Release date: April 17, 2018

Rated: Bypass it

A CIA analyst finds himself in a conflict in the Middle East during a mission. As he does his best to dodge those with malicious intentions, he will have to draw on his instincts and his skills if he wants to get home safe and sound. Debut author David Ricciardi takes readers on a wild and implausible ride in the crazy spy thriller Warning Light.

Zac Miller works out of the CIA’s London office as an analyst. On a trip to Paris to visit a friend, he gets a call from his boss about an important mission that might get scrapped. The agent involved is possibly compromised, and the CIA wants to shut everything down before anyone gets hurt. Zac has spent enough time and energy on the mission to know how important it is, and he knows how crucial it could be to national security. He volunteers to join the mission in progress, and with a great deal of reluctance his boss agrees.

Boarding the plane for the mission is the last thing that goes right for Zac, however. The flight makes an emergency landing in Iran. There Zac gets accosted by security personnel and is separated from the other passengers. Soldiers take him to a secluded spot and demand to know what he knows about their country. Zac insists he’s just passing through, but no one listens.

He manages to escape but knows it won’t take long for the Iranians to catch up. As he eludes capture time and again, he formulates a plan. If he can just make it back to a Western country, he’ll be able to contact the London office and get help. He doesn’t like placing his bets on that big “if,” but it’s the only chance he has to stay alive and somehow complete the mission.

Author David Ricciardi presents Zac Miller in the opening pages of the book as a mild-mannered analyst just trying to survive. As the story progresses, however, Zac morphs into a combination of James Bond and Jason Bourne: resourceful and suave, regardless of the circumstances. While every spy thriller demands a certain suspension of disbelief, Ricciardi asks too much of his readers in this regard. The book takes Zac from the desert terrain of Iran to the open sea. He gets beaten, tortured, shot, drugged, becomes dehydrated, and goes for extended periods of time without food, but he keeps going.

The expectation for readers to forgive even the wildest implausibility is only half the problem. The other half is pacing. In a book that comes in at 323 pages in hardback, less than 70 pages focus on other characters. In other words, readers spend more than 250 pages following Zac’s daring escapes, his clever antics, and his bravado as he navigates his way to London from Iran.

In the meantime, the other parts of the story are so underdeveloped that readers will forget “crucial” elements and experience a “huh?” moment at the big reveal toward the end. The nudge-nudge/wink-wink device of thrillers, when used appropriately, can leave readers grinning with delight. Here all it does is induce an eye roll, because readers don’t get to spend nearly enough time with other characters to enjoy the payoff.

Readers willing to commit to a thriller with the most incredulous situations and outcomes might enjoy this one. Otherwise I recommend readers Bypass Warning Light.

Newest review: Lies You Never Told Me by Jennifer Donaldson

By Ekta R. Garg

November 28, 2018

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: May 29, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Two teens in different cities battle the perils of first love: unmet expectations, surprise demands, and the reality that relationships are hard once they get past first blush. Neither of them can predict the challenges headed their way; both of them will have to navigate situations much beyond their years. Author Jennifer Donaldson performs a neat literary trick but misses a major plot point in her debut novel Lies You Never Told Me.

In Austin, Texas, high school junior Gabe Jimenez has begun to realize that his girlfriend, Sasha, may not be right for him. A member of the drill team, Sasha monopolizes Gabe’s attention and it’s starting to get old. Even when a mystery driver knocks Gabe down in a hit-and-run, Sasha manages to make every situation about herself.

When Gabe runs into new student Catherine, he realizes she’s the one who called the ambulance for him the night of the accident. Despite her initial reluctance, Gabe pursues a friendship with Catherine and the two get close. He realizes that Catherine is truly the girl for him, but he also knows that she’s hiding something from him. The more time they spend together, the more Gabe begins to understand that Catherine’s secrets come from a dark place.

Across the country in Portland, Oregon, Elyse McCormick can’t believe the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, has cast her as the lead in her high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Brynn, her best friend, has always been the star; she’s the born actress. The only reason Elyse even joined the drama club in the first place was because of Brynn’s gentle encouragement.

Despite a challenging home life with a single mother struggling with drug addiction, Elyse stays up to date with her schoolwork and the demands of the play. Mr. Hunter begins taking time out of his schedule to help her run lines and prepare for her role. In time, Elyse and Mr. Hunter—Aiden, he urges her to call him—get closer. Both of them know the relationship is inappropriate, but neither of them has the willpower to fight it. Then Elyse makes a choice that changes her entire life and the lives of those close to her.

Author Jennifer Donaldson writes with her target audience in mind but in many places misses the mark. Gabe complains about Sasha’s stalker-like tendencies but exhibits similar behavior in his pursuit of Catherine. He says he does it out of genuine concern; Sasha says many times that the stunts she pulls are all because she loves Gabe. Some readers may interpret this as Donaldson’s justification of behavior that encroaches on personal boundaries as long as it’s done “for the right reasons.”

Because Donaldson chooses to tell both Gabe and Elye’s stories in first person, in alternating chapters, readers don’t get to interact with other characters much. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Gabe and Elyse will have to connect somewhere. The question is how and when.

Although she chooses a clever literary device to make that connection happen, Donaldson requires her readers to suspend their disbelief after that to the extreme. Characters get away with criminal offenses, but the police don’t investigate. Also, when it comes to the choice Elyse and Aiden make, one question that keeps cropping up is “why”. Why does Aiden continue on the path he’s chosen when it’s clearly jeopardizing his entire life? And if secrecy is their only weapon, why does he relinquish it with such abandon later in the story?

Unfortunately Donaldson sacrifices logic for an “aha” moment, the charm of which only lasts a couple of pages. Once it does, more astute readers will scratch their heads at the way the story unfolds in the last few chapters. It seems as if the story tries to mask sloppy plotting with grand gestures of drama and romance. In the end, when it comes to Lies You Never Told Me, readers are better off Bypassing it.