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.

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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.

Latest review: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

By Ekta R. Garg

November 7, 2018

Genre: Literary fiction

Release date: June 12, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it

A brother comes home for his older sister’s wedding after years of estrangement from his family. As the festivities progress, everyone reflects on the causes of the rift and how they might have saved themselves from heartache. Debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza offers her readers prose with heft and a story of love and family in the mostly satisfying novel A Place for Us.

In sunny California, on the night of her wedding, Hadia worries about her younger brother, Amar. Despite him being the baby of the family and the beloved son, no one else wanted Amar to come. Of course, they never stated it outright, but Hadia knows her family like she knows her own heartbeat. Amar deserted all of them three years earlier. He ran away without an explanation. What right does he have to stroll back into their lives?

As Hadia battles her nerves, her parents, Layla and Rafiq, do what they can to act as gracious hosts. Layla’s constant companion is the fear that Rafiq will dress Amar down in front of everyone, however, and no matter how many people she greets with a smile and a “thank you” her fear doesn’t seem to ebb. Raising Amar proved difficult enough; managing him for one evening might be more than she can bear.

The family wants to maintain their composure, but the evening brings back memories for all of them. Some good; others bad. All heavy with the realization of how the family has changed since Amar’s desertion. Hadia and Amar both reflect on the exacting demands of their father, how Rafiq monitored each action and word against the high standards of Islam. Layla wants to reach out to Amar and beg him to move back home. She doesn’t know where her son lives now or how he supports himself, but she’s willing to forgive anything if he just comes back to them.

Amar waffles between his own identity and his family. They took something precious from him. Never mind that he knows he may not have deserved it. But ever since that time, he’s been adrift and he doesn’t think he can drop anchor any time soon. The temptation to do so gets stronger throughout the night, however, and by the end of it he’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to forgive and forget or forget and move on.

Author Fatima Farheen Mirza draws readers into her story world with prose reminiscent of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri—elegant, careful, measured. She doesn’t dress up her narrative but lets it carry the story. At one point during the wedding, during a conversation between Amar and Layla, Amar pauses to reflect on how his mother has just responded:

“He felt at the edge of discomfort, made worse by how desperately [Layla] was trying to protect him from discomfort. He could lean into the feeling as it advanced toward him or he could deny it and remain present.”

True to its genre, most of the book focuses on the personal reflections of the characters; what they thought, what they felt, and how they interacted with one another dominates the story. Throughout the novel Mirza succeeds in creating a photo album with words where readers encounter snapshots of different situations in the characters’ lives. Despite the fact that these snapshots don’t follow a chronological order, readers will have absolutely no trouble at all following the events that bring Layla and Rafiq’s family to their present state at the wedding.

In the current political climate, when so many are willing to denounce a particular faith, Mirza shares the positives of her characters’ religion and gives them the dignity of being what most people are: a family just trying to do its best. Rafiq is no radical or extremist; he’s a man trying to pass down his heritage and his belief system to his children. In some cases he’s successful, which reassures him that he’s done right by his family and his faith. In other instances, he fails in spectacular fashion and the failure drives him deep into sorrow.

Less successful is the explanation for the actual cause of Amar’s desertion. One main reason is offered, but Amar suffers from enough issues that readers will spend time guessing others. This minor weakness in the plotting may surprise readers, given Mirza’s otherwise astute observations of her characters and their dilemmas.

For the most part, however, readers curious about another culture or faith will find A Place for Us enlightening, which leads me to rate the book as Bordering on Bookmarking it.

Latest review: #FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar

By Ekta R. Garg

October 3, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: September 11, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman obsessed with her coworker must compete with her for a promotion. She’ll stop at nothing to reach that higher level, even if that means resorting to murder. Author Amina Akhtar shocks readers and invites them into her bizarre world that hits all the right story elements in her debut novel #FashionVictim.

Anya St. Clair works at La Vie, one of the hottest fashion magazines in New York City. She gets to see the latest trends before the world does and hang out with clothes and accessories designers. For most women with an abiding interest in fashion, this would be a dream job and for Anya it is. Especially since she works alongside Sarah Taft, her fashion icon.

All Anya wants is to be Sarah’s BFF. Besties. The person Sarah turns to in crisis and the first name on Sarah’s list for nights out. Sarah, however, doesn’t seem to get it, no matter how much Anya ingratiates herself to her. It’s almost as if Sarah doesn’t like her or something.

When both of them get tapped to compete for a promotion at work, then, it’s simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing Anya has done. She would do anything for Sarah, and working for her—getting to spend infinite amounts of time with her—would make Anya’s life complete. But Anya isn’t totally blind; she sees how Sarah belittles her. Maybe, she decides, Sarah needs to learn a lesson.

As Anya works out how to make Sarah realize they should be intrinsic parts of one another lives, a variety of other people just keep getting in the way of their friendship. There’s Cassie, the intern; Lisa, Sarah’s current bestie; Diana, the frequent commenter on La Vie’s website who can’t keep her insults of Anya’s articles to herself; even Zhazha, the exotic Russian blogger who Anya brings on board as a contributor.

All of these people and more keep annoying Anya, and she keeps having to take care of them. Murder is hard work but only second to the diet that editor-in-chief Celia insists on for Anya. All in all, none of it seems to be impressing Sarah much, and Anya starts to wonder what other measures she might need to take in order to make Sarah—and the rest of the fashion world—notice her once and for all.

Debut author Amina Akhtar relies, no doubt, on her own training in writing about fashion to build the story world for her first novel. The result is a strange version of a magazine workplace, but that version actually works. With a little bit of patience, readers who are open to a creepy version of The Devil Wears Prada will encounter a joyride that will leave them grinning at the end of the book.

Anya doesn’t try to hide the fact that she’s a psychopath, and Akhtar has capture Anya’s voice with perfection. The sarcasm, the snark, the astute observations of the fashion world, all these traits and more will make readers want to know just what Anya will do next. After a certain point in the book, it becomes easy to believe that Anya truly is capable of absolutely anything. For a change, it’s fun to get deep inside the point of view of this kind of unhinged character.

Readers looking for some moral resolution or a finger-shaking at Anya will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the story should be approached as a brief interlude in the life of someone who is flat-out nuts. It’s never clear whether Anya knows just how far off the deep end she’s dropped, and at some point readers may not even care. Akhtar shares hints of Anya’s past, and while it might have been nice to have had a little more context for Anya’s background at some point the body count gets so high readers will find themselves just trying to keep track of it and nothing else.

For those readers looking for a rollicking ride that doesn’t require thinking about what came before or what happens after the story, I recommend they Bookmark #FashionVictim.

Newest review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

August 22, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: May 9, 2017

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A single woman discovers her own loneliness after meeting a rising rock star, losing access to her computer, and accidentally helping an elderly person…all within a week. As these life events begin to converge, the woman will realize that not only is she lonely but she also has the means to cure that loneliness. Debut novelist Gail Honeyman delivers a powerful story with both humor and tears guaranteed in the soulful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

Eleanor Oliphant doesn’t stand on ceremony when it comes to how the world views her. She knows people think she’s stand-offish; strange even. The feeling is mutual. If others don’t have the forethought to look past the burn scars on her face, the dowdy way she dresses, and the fact that she doesn’t engage in idle social interactions, she won’t waste her time with them either.

She lives alone and spends her weekends without speaking to another soul. An employee in the accounts receivable department of a graphic design company, Eleanor works hard at her job and rewards herself every Friday with a pizza, a Chianti, and two large bottles of vodka. She prefers to drink alone, but she never loses control. She’s not an alcoholic, after all, just someone who prefers to use strong libations to drown out the thoughts that trouble her.

Until, that is, she meets him: Johnnie Lomond, lead singer for the Pilgrim Pioneers. Eleanor attends a concert with a colleague and her utmost reluctance as her companions. There she sees Johnnie and his band, and she discovers the meaning of “love at first sight”. She begins putting all her energy toward updating and improving herself to prepare for their first encounter, which she knows Fate will organize in good time.

Her preparation includes researching Johnnie online, which she can’t do at the office because her computer has frozen. Eleanor enlists the help of the IT guy, Raymond, who seems friendly enough, even if he is a sloppy dresser and an effusive talker. He gets Eleanor’s computer working again, and that’s all that matters.

After work one day the two happen to see an old man stagger and fall. They get him to the hospital and as Eleanor goes back to visit him, she finds herself in Raymond’s company several times. Bit by bit her routine of her singular livelihood changes, both by Raymond’s increasing presence and her quest to make herself ready for a life of love with Johnnie. In the end nothing—not the horrific events of her childhood, nor her disturbing relationship with her mother—will prevent Eleanor from the lifetime of happiness that even she didn’t know she was missing before.

Debut author Gail Honeyman gives readers a story with heart and teeth. In the tradition of Fredrik Backman’s books, Honeyman’s prose turns on a dime to both entertain readers and make them sympathize with Eleanor. Early in the book, when Raymond and Eleanor see the old man fall and Eleanor initially thinks the man is a drunkard, she says:

“Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they don’t cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me.”

The fact that Eleanor and company live in Glasgow only adds to the charm of the story. Her biting wit and frank observations will keep readers entertained, which offers the perfect setup to the tender, emotional parts of the novel. No doubt, as the story progresses, readers will find themselves more and more involved with Eleanor’s life. She’s managed to keep the entire world at arm’s length all her life, but her life is about to change. Anyone who encounters this novel will get a front-row seat to that change and will be glad they did.

The book hits all the right notes and will delight readers from start to finish. I recommend readers Binge Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

Newest review: The Lido by Libby Page

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

August 17, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: July 10, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

Two women come together for a common cause and form a deep friendship despite the difference in their ages. One enjoys the memories of her past; the other wants to find her future. Both women will find a measure of comfort in the relationship they share in the present even as they fight to save something they love. Author Libby Page charms readers and will leave them smiling with her debut novel The Lido.

People might look at Kate Mathews and think she’s in her prime: a single woman in her twenties who has just moved to a bustling London suburb with a new job. Kate knows, though, that her life is anything but ideal. She’s moved to Brixton, yes, but she desperately misses the security of her own hometown. She’s landed a job as a writer, but she’s not covering meaty topics important to society. Her little blurbs serve as filler for the local paper. As for friends, well, Kate has none. About the same amount as her self-confidence.

Then she gets assigned a real story. The Brixton lido, or open-air swimming pool, is slated to close soon, and Kate’s job is to talk to people and do a quick roundup of thoughts and sentiments. A prominent housing development company looks in perfect position to buy the lido to turn it into flats, and the story itself seems destined to play out in expected fashion.

Except that Kate wasn’t counting on getting caught up in the excitement surrounding the lido—the excitement to save it, that is. Rosemary Peterson is leading the campaign, and Kate’s editor picks Rosemary as the most likely source for the feel-good information behind the lido’s history. What Kate finds, instead, is a charming, compelling woman with strong feelings about why the lido should stay open.

For Rosemary, the lido represents more than a place for invigorating exercise. She’s come to swim there every single day since it opened. She met her late husband, George, at the lido and shared some of her sweetest moments with him there. The lido provided shelter during wartime and solace during other life challenges. The lido, to Rosemary, embodies whole sections of her existence.

Rosemary consents to an interview but only if Kate goes swimming at the lido first. As Kate takes the plunge—literally and figuratively—with Rosemary, she discovers some special people of her own. All of a sudden, the cause for saving the lido becomes just as vibrant and necessary for Kate as it is for Rosemary, and the two become close friends and co-conspirators in how to save a place that has given them both so much.

Debut author Libby Page will charm readers with her two main characters. She’s drawn two endearing protagonists in Kate and Rosemary, and their friendship earns the highest score for the book. Rosemary’s love story resonates with all the best elements of an old-world tale; Kate’s loneliness in a large city rings true for newly-independent people everywhere.

Slightly less successful is the novel overall. Some parts of the story feel a little too pat, and serendipity plays a role in many places. Marketing materials compare Page’s book to Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, but Page’s prose doesn’t stand up to Backman’s lyrical talent nor his ability to pack deep thought into the most casual paragraphs.

Readers will most likely guess important plot advancements and even the ending long before Kate and Rosemary get to them, but the journey through the story is likeable enough. Also, Page drops in little pieces of each of the protagonists’ independent lives to make readers feel like they’re getting to know the characters well: Rosemary reminisces about her time with George; Page talks to her older sister and gets a chance to refresh that relationship.

Overall the book may not offer readers a staggering story, but it’s a pleasant novel appropriate for a vacation or the beach. I found The Lido Bordering on Bookmarking it.