Newest review: The Suspect by Fiona Barton

By Ekta R. Garg

January 16, 2019

Release date: January 22, 2018

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Bookmark it! / Four stars

A reporter discovers she has close ties to a story she’s covering and finds herself in the spotlight. As each piece of news comes to the forefront, she must decide whether she can remain an impartial bystander or become an involved mother. Author Fiona Barton brings back her smart journalist character in her latest novel The Suspect.

When a pair of teenage girls go missing during a trip to Thailand, British journalist Kate Waters jumps at the chance to cover the story. She’s built a reputation for herself at her paper and has enough contacts to guarantee she’ll get the exclusive interviews with the girls’ families as well as vetted information from the police. Despite the obvious jealousy from colleagues at rival papers, Kate uses the trust she’s built with her sources in the most honorable way.

Although she may not admit it to anyone else, the story has some personal resonance for Kate. Two years earlier, her older son, Jake, dropped out of his course at the university and decided to travel. Since then Kate and her husband have only had intermittent communication with Jake. Kate understands how the mothers of the two missing girls must feel. It’s almost as if Jake himself is missing.

She receives the shock of a lifetime when she discovers that not only is Jake not missing, he’s right in the center of the story of the girls in Thailand. Kate does the honorable thing and steps away from the story as a reporter, but that doesn’t stop her involvement as a mother. When word comes that the girls’ situation may have become much more complicated than anyone could imagine, Kate gets bombarded by the media and learns firsthand how the people in her own articles must feel. It makes her even more determined to get to the bottom of it all and bring Jake home.

Author Fiona Barton has returned with another thriller that will keep readers up late at night even as they agonize over the choices the characters make. Kate Waters is smart and confident, but Barton doesn’t let that get in the way of possible vulnerability. Readers who are mothers will feel Kate’s heartache and root her on. While her husband and younger son don’t figure in the story as much, Barton doesn’t abandon them completely. The overall affect reinforces the idea that sometimes a mother treads the path of parenthood in emotional isolation.

If the book is to be faulted anywhere, it’s in predictability. Readers will guess in many instances long before Kate does where the story will go. Some of the plot points won’t surprise anyone except the characters. Barton saves them by making them three-dimensional, well-rounded people and also with her artful prose, but it’s a shame that some of the thriller isn’t so much.

In the end, however, Barton does provide readers with a plot that also has heart. She manages to keep a few surprises in store, and in some cases she doesn’t hesitate to follow tragedy to its end. Not every story can end with roses and rainbows, and Barton makes that clear in this book while twisting readers’ emotions into the most delightful knots all at the same time.

Thriller lovers and those who enjoy Barton’s books will like The Suspect, which is why I recommend readers Bookmark it.

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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: House of Gold by Natasha Solomons

By Ekta R. Garg

December 5, 2018

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: October 23, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A powerful European family finds itself bowing under the weight of war. Family members will find themselves on opposite sides of the lines in ideology as well as geography, and they will face hardships unlike any they’ve ever experienced. Author Natasha Solomons offers readers a studied look at how war affects the rich and famous in her unnecessarily drawn-out novel House of Gold.

In Austria, Greta Goldbaum ponders marriage—her own, that is. As a member of the influential Goldbaum family, Greta knows her lot in life is set. She’s expected to marry within the family to keep the name, and their Jewish heritage, intact. Marrying inside of the family also allows for all the money to stay in one place, and no one can deny that when it comes to money the world tips its hat to the Goldbaums.

Greta isn’t so sure about what’s expected of her, however. She’s agreed to marry her distant cousin, Albert, from England, and she’ll have to leave her beloved Vienna for the damp English weather. She just hasn’t made up her mind yet about how much she likes Albert.

Life in England brings a drastic change and, in some ways, a welcome one. Greta escapes her overbearing mother, for one thing. Also, despite missing home, she starts to feel freedom in her new country; the kind of freedom she didn’t feel in Austria. When Greta and Albert’s relationship gets off to a rocky start, her mother-in-law offers a distraction: a garden for Greta to call her own. Greta puts her attention and energy into it, and like a young seedling given the right space her marriage with Albert also begins to blossom.

Even their budding romance can’t shade itself from the threat of World War I, which brings a whole host of complications. The greatest one comes in the monetary cost: war officials count on the resources the Goldbaum family can provide, even while discriminating against “common” Jews all in the same breath. The double standard makes Albert and some of his other cousins think twice about just where the money is going, but no one can doubt the power of currency. If it’s gone, the only thing that matters is that it’s been spent. The Goldbaums must do all they can to preserve their fortune or risk becoming destitute themselves.

Author Natasha Solomons gives readers some pleasant tidbits about life as a member of the most elite level of society. The Goldbaums consume lavish meals. They travel in private transportation of every form. They own hothouses where teams of gardeners force flowers and fruits and vegetables to grow at the family’s pleasure, regardless of the season.

However, the story itself meanders from topic to topic. Readers will go from scenes of Greta and Albert and the awkwardness of the first months of their semi-arranged marriage to scenes between senior Goldbaum men as they discuss politics and finance. Thrown into the mix are moments with Henri, a member of the French branch of the family as well as Otto, Greta’s brother, in Austria and then in England when he comes to visit. Albert’s brother, Clement, also features somewhat prominently for a while but then inexplicably gets relegated to the background until he almost disappears.

Solomons interjects with a subplot about Karl, a beggar boy who eventually connects with one of the Goldbaums to show that war doesn’t care about bank balances; it devastates anyone. While Karl’s story offers a mild distraction from the other plot points, it doesn’t enhance the overall book. In fact, had Karl not been in the novel, the book wouldn’t have suffered in any way.

The biggest challenge for readers will be the scope of the novel. They may wonder exactly what it is Solomons wants her target audience to glean from the book. An insipid end that brings the Goldbaums to two years before the end of World War I doesn’t offer any answers. The Goldbaums find themselves limping along in their every-day lives to survive the financial and emotional toll of the war, and readers who stick with the story to the end will find themselves frustrated with the lackluster conclusion.

Those interested in historical fiction might find House of Gold interesting. Otherwise, I recommend readers Bypass it.

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.

Newest review: The Reckoning by John Grisham

By Ekta R. Garg

November 14, 2018

Genre: Mystery

Release date: October 23, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 1 star

A man commits murder in broad daylight. Despite repeated requests from his family and law enforcement officers, he refuses to say why and the fallout from the murder changes the family forever. John Grisham comes back with his latest novel, a plodding, meandering story in the lackluster book The Reckoning.

After surviving horrific conditions as a soldier and a POW in the South Pacific in World War II, Pete Banning comes back to a hero’s welcome in Clanton, Mississippi. Even his severe injuries—in a cast from his hip down to his feet—can’t stem his enthusiasm for being home. During his months in captivity, thoughts of his wife, Liza, and his children, Joel and Stella, gave him the will to survive. Pete has seen and endured the worst that human beings can do to one another.

Clanton residents receive a rude shock, then, when they learn that Pete has shot and killed the pastor of the Methodist church. Pete doesn’t deny it, and he doesn’t try to run when witnesses find him at the scene. He cooperates with the police, giving them the murder weapon and following them without a single word to the local jail.

His reticence, however, is exactly the problem. Every time anyone—his lawyer; the sheriff; his sister, Florry—asks him why he did it, all he says is, “I have nothing to say.” The small-town gossip mill churns at a furious rate, but Pete refuses to confirm any of it. While he does feel a pinch of remorse for the pastor’s wife and three young children, he believes he made the right decision.

Despite his lawyer’s best efforts, Pete receives the death penalty. Everyone in town agrees the killing was senseless, and they struggle to reconcile the image of war hero with that of common murderer. Surely Pete of all people would understand the sanctity of life, wouldn’t he?

Author John Grisham lets his story flounder from the beginning. In the first 90 pages of the book, the characters spend their time talking about how awful the murder is and the fact that they don’t understand it. By page 175 Grisham takes that part of the story to its conclusion with the exception of one major fact: the motive. Pete Banning remains steadfast in his silence throughout all those pages, but the gossip mongers—and common sense—will lead readers to draw a realistic conclusion on why Pete killed the pastor.

Divided into three parts, the second section goes back to Pete’s time as a soldier and a prisoner of war. Grisham’s research is thorough and meticulous, but his prose keeps readers at arm’s length by simply narrating the story. Even the horrors of prisoner camps receive monotonous treatment. The juxtaposition turns the second part of the book, all 123 pages of it, into a dry history tale. Readers will feel some sympathy for Pete, but they wouldn’t be faulted for wondering about halfway through the narrative just what his experiences there have to do with the murder he commits later.

Grisham attempts to answer that question in the last 112 pages (the final section of the book) and fails in a catastrophic manner, only because readers will already have guessed why Pete did it. A clumsy plot twist four pages from the end will likely disappoint and even anger longtime Grisham fans. The author, at one time known for smart, sharp plots, makes a lazy attempt at an ending that doesn’t fit with the storyline presented and seems more designed for sensationalism than anything else.

The dialogue throughout is stilted and unrealistic. Pete Banning’s family members spend all their time in the book wringing their hands and weeping at this horrible turn of events at their lives. No other characters received the development they so rightly deserved, leaving the Banning family to make the biggest impact. That impact is minimal, because they have nothing to do in the story.

Even the most ardent Grisham fans will find it difficult to justify their loyalty after reading The Reckoning, which is why I recommend readers Bypass it.

Latest review: The Girl I Used to Be by Mary Torjussen

By Ekta R. Garg

November 7, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: April 24, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A business owner finds herself being blackmailed by a prospective client. As the threats become more intense, she scrambles to make sense of them and learns that they may not be as random as she first thought. Mary Torjussen returns with another thriller and takes her readers through a refreshing turn of events in the cheer-worthy novel The Girl I Used to Be.

It’s taken Gemma Brogan years to establish her real estate business, but she’s doing it one client and one house at a time. Even in a challenging housing market not far from London, Gemma has found her footing. Her husband, Joe, stays at home with their son, Rory, and she works with people she likes and respects.

Gemma reaps the benefits of owning her own business, but she also works the hardest. The long hours often mean she doesn’t see Rory in the morning or get to put him to bed at night. She envies Joe’s relationship with Rory; when the three of them spend time together, Rory looks to Joe first.

She wants things to change, and when a potential client arrives in her office with a healthy housing budget Gemma thinks she’s received a prime opportunity. A big win on a home sale means she can breathe easy. It doesn’t hurt that the new client, David Sanderson, is tall, handsome, funny, and friendly. They spend the day together, and Gemma feels confident he’ll commit to one of the pricey homes they visited.

Not long after, Gemma runs into David during a work trip and the two spend the evening together over dinner and drinks. Years earlier Gemma experienced a horrible attack that convinced her never to drink to excess again, yet over dinner with David she finds herself loosening up in an effort to sway his decision about one of the properties. She drinks more than she meant to, more than she has in years, and the next morning she wakes up feeling awful.

The hangover doesn’t bother her as much as the complete lack of memories from the previous night. She doesn’t remember entering her room or going to bed. She has no clue when she and David bid one another good night, and she can’t shake the sense of dread that something terrible happened.

Then Gemma begins receiving pictures and videos of that night with David, select snapshots and clips that put her in compromising situations. Gemma is horrified and tries to contact David. Her efforts to find him fail, but she makes a connection with someone else from her past. As Gemma works with this new person to figure out what happened, she’ll find herself facing her worst fear and weaknesses.

Author Mary Torjussen comes back with a strong novel after last year’s Gone Without a Trace. In this new book, she lays down the foundation for what seems at first a typical thriller. In fact, some of the story elements do follow the tropes of the genre. Then, halfway through the story, Torjussen takes an unexpected detour.

Readers will love the twists as they come along. Gemma’s greatest ally starts out as her greatest enemy; even as the two form a relationship, readers may doubt with every step that they have actually become friends. It’s a sign of the genre as well as our current times that makes it difficult to believe two people on opposite sides of an issue can come together to fight the greater evil. Torjussen resists all temptation to take the cliché route and gives readers a protagonist they can root for all the way to the end.

Getting to that point takes a little bit of patience, however, because it comes halfway through the book. Gemma spends a reasonable amount of time questioning the reason for the pictures and videos, but she spends a little too much time wondering what to do. When the first major twist happens in the story, the pace picks up.

Once again Torjussen chooses first person point of view for her characters, but she’s improved the balance between internal dialogue and external events. Even as Gemma sits and thinks about how her life could possibly have reached this point, readers will get the sense that something is about to happen and it usually does. Despite her husband and office colleagues coming across as stock characters, Gemma herself is real and well-rounded.

All in all, I think readers will enjoy The Girl I Used to Be and recommend they Bookmark it!