Brand new review: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

By Ekta R. Garg

December 4, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: August 23, 2016

Rating: Binge it! / 5 stars

When a child goes missing, the new parents enter what they think can only be the worst experience of their lives. As time passes, though, they learn things about one another that terrify them even more than losing their baby. Author Shari Lapena will keep readers glued to the pages of her well-executed novel The Couple Next Door.

In a small town in upstate New York, Anne Conti struggles with motherhood. The thought of the baby, it turns out, was much easier to handle than the baby herself. Anne and her husband, Marco, feel stuck in a seemingly never-ending string of diapers and sleepless nights with Cora.

Their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham, invite the couple over for a small birthday celebration. Cynthia, though, specifies that the dinner is for adults only. At the last minute, Anne and Marco’s sitter cancels and they’re faced with a choice. Do they take the baby next door anyway, or should they not go to the party?

Marco proposes an alternative. The couples live in row houses, so the Contis actually share a wall with their friends. What if they leave the baby home for a few hours? They won’t be going very far; in fact, they’ll be close enough for the baby monitor to work. At six months old, Cora isn’t mobile enough to get into any serious trouble. What could possibly happen?

Anne’s unease is juxtaposed with her growing resentment of Cynthia’s life. Just for once, she thinks, she’d love to go back to those carefree days when she could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She had a life once too; it included a job as a curator at an art gallery and friends. And Marco’s explanation makes sense. Despite her better judgment, they leave the baby home with the agreement that one of them will check on her every half-hour.

Even with the precaution of the baby monitor and checking on Cora, the unthinkable occurs: Cora is kidnapped. In the following days, after interactions with the media and the police, secrets start to come to light. More than once, both Anne and Marco see each other as strangers. How is it possible not to know these things about one another?

Author Shari Lapena starts with a taut situation and only tightens the strings of tension as the book proceeds. With careful plotting and character revelations, she lets loose one thread at a time only to wrap it pages later around the central pin keeping the entire story in place. Anne’s growing disillusionment with Marco stands in stark relief to Marco’s increasing desperation. Both cross lines that often sever relationships; in the end they realize their individual deceptions only tie them more closely to one another.

Lapena has drawn the supporting characters in realistic lines as well. Anne’s parents love Anne and hate Marco. Despite this familiar trope to the thriller genre, Lapena makes the different facets of the tense relationship three-dimensional. Readers may feel like they’re encountering people they actually know. As time progresses, the characters feel worse about one another, which creates the best of scenes in thriller fiction every single time.

Readers who enjoy fast-paced books and thrillers that make them shiver a little even at the end will definitely want to read this novel. I recommend readers Binge it!

Newest review: Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark

By Ekta R. Garg

November 27, 2019

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: November 5, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A reporter follows her hunch when a woman approaches her about misconduct in the workplace. Despite the fact that her first source on the story disappears, the reporter persists in her efforts even as she comes closer to elements that put her life in danger. Veteran mystery author Mary Higgins Clark offers her take on the MeToo movement in the well-meaning but overly quaint novel Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry.

While on vacation with her father, New York City freelancer Gina Kane can’t stop thinking about a mysterious message she received. The email, signed by “CRyan”, talked about the writer’s bad experience at one of the most respected news organizations in the country, REL News, “and I wasn’t the only one,” the writer adds. Gina sent a response right away but didn’t hear back.

Now back in New York, she gets impatient to find out more about what CRyan might have meant. Using the few pieces of concrete information in the email, Gina uses her sources and her own sleuthing to figure out who CRyan might be and what the person wanted. The trail takes her to a place she never expected: CRyan, short for Cathy Ryan, died in mysterious circumstances while on vacation in Aruba.

Sensing a story in the making, Gina takes her pitch to the magazine that most recently featured her work. A new editor-in-chief has just taken the place of the editor who knew Gina well but gives her the green light on the story. As Gina travels to Aruba and back, she picks up more information that indicate the worst: someone at REL News is harassing young women and then paying them off to keep them from talking about it.

As despicable as the entire venture seems, Gina guesses the main reason for it. REL News is preparing for its IPO. A sexual harassment scandal could damage the promising dollar figures pledged to the company so far.

At REL News, HR legal counsel Michael Carter is approached by one of the employees who tells him about a negative encounter she had with someone at the top. After reassuring the tearful woman that he’ll do all he can to help her, Carter figures it doesn’t hurt to benefit from the transactions. He approaches the CEO of the company and lays out a simple plan to keep REL News out of the scandal spotlight, all while lining his own pockets at the same time. Yet as more and more victims come forward, Carter begins to realize that the problem at REL might be bigger than any dollar figure he can throw at it.

Author Mary Higgins Clark comes back with her trademark commitment to clean stories in her latest mystery. Unlike many of her other books, however, where the murder becomes the focal point of the story, here Gina’s investigation forms the main plot. Clark juxtaposes Gina’s pursuit with Carter’s subversion of it, but the omniscient point of view here, at one time popular with Nancy Drew-like books, just doesn’t work.

Also working against Clark is the proliferation of MeToo stories that have come to the fore ever since the movement began. The novel, then, becomes less of a disclosure of a serious problem and more a sanitized version of a familiar narrative. Had the book released last year, it would have felt timely. At this juncture it seems more an exercise in joining an ongoing conversation, like a dinner guest who arrives hours into the party.

Clunky writing also weighs the novel down. Clark holds her readers’ hands through every single paragraph. Instead of challenging them to retain key details on their own she explains everything, often to the detriment of the narrative and dialogue. The result is a book that could offer examples of what not to do when writing a mystery.

Ardent fans of Mary Higgins Clark may want to check this one out, but readers looking for a challenging mystery/thriller will want to pass this one up. I recommend readers Bypass Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry.

Latest review: Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline

By Ekta R. Garg
November 20, 2020

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: April 9, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Twenty years after witnessing a horrific event in secret, a woman goes back to her hometown. This time, however, she’s determined to face the others involved in the secret and make things right. Author Lisa Scottoline stretches the limits of plausibility in her latest thriller, Someone Knows.

After two decades away, Allie Garvey is coming home. She’s received news of the death of a classmate, and she decides to attend the funeral, even though her friendship with the deceased, David Hybrinski, really only lasted part of a summer. The summer she was 15; the summer after her sister, Jill, died from cystic fibrosis.

But going home to Bakerton, Pennsylvania, isn’t about reliving Jill’s last days; it’s about facing the secret that Allie’s kept for the last twenty years. She, David, and three other classmates, Sasha, Julian, and Kyle participated in a prank that went awry. It cost a life, and Allie’s been tortured by the truth ever since. Despite getting married, she’s failed to make a connection with her husband. She believes she doesn’t deserve to have children, so she’s on the pill. And she’s developed ulcerative colitis.

Allie believes the others must be just as devastated by what happened to them that summer, but when she sees them they brush it off. Their callousness shocks her. While she’s worked hard to repress as many memories as possible, Allie can’t let go of the feeling that the facts, as she remembers them, don’t add up. She’s determined to find out the truth and, if possible, absolution.

Author Lisa Scottoline sets up the novel with a prologue that could have belonged to any of the characters, and with Chapter 2 she takes readers twenty years into the past. The next 200 pages are spent parsing the personalities of each of the teens involved in the prank and the events leading up to it. All of the characters have problems that can be found in a dozen other thrillers: absentee parents; incarcerated parents; manipulative parents; homophobic parents; a dead sibling, beloved by parents. By the time readers get through all of the issues, they’ll wish none of the teens had parents since all the complications stem from them.

The second half of the book goes into the lives of Allie and Co. as adults. Predictably, because they were raised by adults who couldn’t manage their own lives, Allie and the others have just as much trouble managing theirs. What follows is a series of events that sound and feel, at times, partially juvenile, partially contrived, and all of it implausible.

Minor characters appear just when Allie needs help, and she incurs a startling amount of clarity about her life in a relatively short period of time. Even while she’s running for her life or making a heartfelt apology, readers may have a hard time feeling like they’ve invested in Allie or anyone else. Scottoline has spent so much time just telling readers about these characters instead of showing their pain and anguish that the climax may be skimmed just to get to what comes next.

While Scottoline does save one big surprise for the closing pages, it, too, doesn’t feel earned. Readers may shrug instead of gasp. Overall the book feels like a cliché cautionary tale more apt for the classic after-school specials that used to air on TV.

Hardcore Scottoline fans might want to check this out; otherwise, I recommend readers Bypass Someone Knows.

Brand new review: Horrible Writing: 10 Horror Stories You Probably Shouldn’t Read by Daniel Charles Wild

By Ekta R. Garg

November 13, 2019

Genre: Horror

Release date: October 16, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A product that helps people come back to life after death. Two iconic American monuments battling one another. Choosing between love and uncertainty or stability and loneliness in parallel universes. Author Daniel Charles Wild mines these innovative concepts and more in ten excellent standalone pieces in his new collection Horrible Writing: 10 Horror Stories You Probably Shouldn’t Read.

While placed in the horror genre, the stories also include science fiction elements. “Say Uncle”, the collection’s opening piece, traces the bizarre consequences of watching old movies. The protagonist receives a box of VHS tapes left to him by his late uncle. As he works through the films one by one, he comes to the realization that the tapes may contain more than big-name stars in the early days of their careers.

Each story contains a unique element that makes it sparkle. “Unconditional Love” opens with the details of a new drug developed to help patients with a specific disorder. Instead, that drug gets into the hands of radicals, and its effects are felt—literally and figuratively—worldwide. “Jerry’s Story” follows a man living in a halfway house who claims to have been abducted by aliens. The protagonist discovers why Jerry keeps insisting this is true. “Good Boy”, arguably the darkest piece of the lot, takes the point of view of an adopted dog and how he earns the titular compliment.

Wild’s writing, too, shines. In the story “Can’t Sleep,” about a sleep disorder, the protagonist mentions “the sudden worldwide rash of accidents, cars, trucks, and planes, all attributed to operator error. The operators, as well as the news announcers, aren’t quite operating at peak efficiency as of late, and it’s very late. It’s all because of the sleep research, and the claims it irrefutably confirms, which everyone’s really tired of hearing about. Everyone’s really tired in general.”

Readers who appreciate intelligent, quirky stories without the blood and gore but all of the best thrills from horror will definitely enjoy this collection. I think readers should Bookmark Horrible Writing: 10 Horror Stories You Probably Shouldn’t Read.

Brand new review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

By Ekta R. Garg

November 6, 2019

Genre: Mystery

Release date: November 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A woman, adopted at a young age, finds out the truth about her identity and receives an inheritance all at the same time. As she digs deeper into her past, however, she begins to realize that its secrets are darker than she could have ever imagined. Author Lisa Jewell returns with her latest thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end but leave them hanging in her new novel The Family Upstairs.

On her 25th birthday, a letter arrives on Libby Jones’s doorstep. She’s been waiting for it her entire life, because it contains key pieces of herself. Libby was adopted as a toddler and has no idea who her birth parents were, except for the fact that they died and that she was to come into an inheritance on this birthday.

The letter contains facts that make Libby dizzy: her birth parents have left her a house. An entire house. And it’s not just a ramshackle dump. The house stands in Chelsea, one of London’s hippest neighborhoods. Even without seeing the property, Libby knows she’s just inherited millions.

Then Libby does an internet search on her birth parents, Martina and Henry Lamb, and the result shocks her. Apparently Martina and Henry died in some sort of suicide pact along with a third unidentified adult. When police answered an anonymous call about strange activity at the Chelsea mansion, they found the three adults dead in the kitchen downstairs and Libby, gurgling and cooing away, upstairs in a crib. Other children had been reported living at the house, but the police don’t find any of them.

The information makes Libby uneasy. When she goes to the house, she meets a local journalist who reported on the story and has his own theories about what happened. Between the two of them, they begin teasing out the possibilities of the past. The harder they work on finding more information, however, the more Libby wonders whether she really wants it. Each secret uncovered reveals another one waiting, and none of them are pleasant in the least.

Author Lisa Jewell layers the book with three points of view: Libby’s as she researches and visits the house; Lucy, a single mother in Nice, France, struggling to keep her children safe as she earns money playing her fiddle on the streets of the city; and Henry, son of the Lambs. Lucy and Libby’s stories progress through the present day. Henry provides all the background information on what occurred in the Lamb house while he was growing up and before his parents’ death.

While the approach is interesting, readers may likely find themselves more drawn to Henry. His story contains all the salacious details from the past that lead up to the death of the Lambs and the third person with them in the kitchen. Yet he has nothing to contribute to the present-day story: Libby’s discovery of her identity. By contrast, Libby’s story, on the mechanical level, is the most mundane. She finds out about her inheritance and then researches her past. In reality, not much more than that happens until a small climactic point late in the book. Even that feels like a major letdown, because not much comes of it.

Lucy’s story falls somewhere in the middle. It occurs during the present day and also possesses movement and conflict. Lucy wants to return to her home country of England, yet circumstances prevent her from doing so. While Jewell works hard at masking Lucy’s connection to Libby and Henry, readers will figure out who she is long before the book offers the “big reveal.” Even that comes across as anti-climactic.

The book starts picking up steam right at the end, but then it’s over. Readers may feel confused more than anything else. Why did the closing chapters need such a long, drawn-out buildup? And what happens next? Readers will be left wondering too much.

Fans of Lisa Jewell may enjoy this one, and for those who like books about complicated family situations that personify dysfunction this is a solid read. Otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow The Family Upstairs.

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.

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!