Brand new review: Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher

By Ekta R. Garg

March 3, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: February 16, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A high schooler mourns the loss of her best friend after a terrible accident. When she receives an unexpected gift, she traces it to its origin and discovers a secret. Debut author Ashley Schumacher uses innovative prose to explore the depth of grief and the healing power of love in her novel Amelia Unabridged.

High school senior Amelia Griffin knows two things: she’s the biggest fan in the entire world of the Orman Chronicles by author N.E. Endsley, and Jenna Williams is her best friend. In fact, the Chronicles are the reason the girls became friends in the first place. Now they’re inseparable.

Ultra-planner Jenna has it all mapped out: they’ll leave hot, sticky Dallas and go to college at the University of Montana, have practical careers, and always be by one another’s side. Amelia is beyond grateful for Jenna’s friendship. After her father left in freshman year, her mother has spent all of her time either at a part-time job or in front of the TV. Amelia craves family, and Jenna and her parents give it to her.

In the summer before college starts, the girls travel to California to meet the N.E. Endsley. Famously reclusive, the young author has agreed to an appearance at a book festival. The publication date for the third book in the Orman Chronicles has been pushed out, but no one knows when the book will drop. Amelia and Jenna, like hundreds of other fans, have come to the festival hoping for answers.

An hour before the event, though, Endsley cancels, and in the Uber ride to the airport back to Texas Jenna reveals she’s partly responsible. The girls fight, and Amelia struggles to forgive Jenna. Less than two weeks later, during a study abroad program in Ireland, Jenna dies in a car accident.

Amelia doesn’t want to accept this new reality. How is she supposed to go to college without Jenna? How is she supposed to read books without Jenna?

Days after the funeral, Amelia receives a gift: a limited edition copy of the first book in the Orman Chronicles. When she calls the Michigan bookstore on the return label, though, they claim to have no knowledge of where the book came from. According to them, they never processed the order. Amelia and Jenna aren’t even in their computer system. Something about the bookstore employee’s explanation doesn’t ring true to Amelia. She decides to go to Michigan to find answers. If Jenna ordered the book for her, she wants to know the story behind it.

Her trip brings her to a little town in Michigan straight out of a fairy tale. Not only does Amelia find the bookstore that shipped her the gift, but also she meets N.E. Endsley himself. As Amelia works through her shock and her grief at the same time, she rediscovers the power of stories to transform anything and the healing factor of love.

Author Ashley Schumacher shines in her debut novel. Although the events in the opening pages move at a brisk pace, Schumacher doesn’t compromise on Amelia’s depth of gratitude for Jenna’s friendship nor the grief from losing Jenna. The emotions feel so real that the events following Jenna’s death make complete sense in the story world Schumacher has constructed.

Schumacher sets for herself a huge challenge. Creating a fictional novel that readers in the story world love and adore and making it just as appealing to real-life readers is not for the faint of heart. Yet she meets the challenge and endears Amelia to readers all in the process. The Orman Chronicles come across as an old-fashioned fairy tale, exactly the kind an older sibling might invent to keep their younger siblings entertained. Given Amelia’s challenges, it’s obvious why this type of story would appeal to her and reiterates the power of a good book in all the best ways.

Like many YA novels, the adult characters are somewhat underdeveloped or absent altogether. Making them more three-dimensional would have enriched Amelia and Jenna’s story even more. It’s a testament to the novel that the lack of that character development doesn’t hurt the plot. It would have been a rich addition but doesn’t take away from the lovely writing already in place.

Readers who love a good story about good books and good friends should definitely pick this one up. I recommend readers Bookmark Amelia Unabridged.

Newest review: The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

By Ekta R. Garg

February 17, 2021

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: February 2, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A woman moves across the country to get a new start in life. What begins as a situation with minor quirks becomes an earth-shattering reality, in more ways than one. Author Susan Meissner excels both in historical fact and compelling fiction in her newest book The Nature of Fragile Things.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sophie Whalen knows she needs to get out of New York City. She left behind her beloved Ireland to start life afresh, but the cramped, dingy living conditions in her tiny shared apartment are making it difficult to imagine anything clean and new. Add to that the horrible work in the factory, and Sophie is desperate to leave.

When she sees an ad in the newspaper offering her a way out, she jumps at the chance. A gentleman in San Francisco is looking for a mail-order bride. A widower, he needs a new wife to take care of his daughter. Sophie doesn’t even blink; she answers the ad, packs up her meager belongings, and jumps on the train across the country.

Sophie isn’t blind to the eccentricity of her situation, and she isn’t looking for romance. She just wants a quiet life in a home of her own, and she gets it with Martin Hocking…more or less. Martin doesn’t talk much, and his daughter, Kat, doesn’t talk at all. Martin confides in Sophie that Kat thinks her mother’s death is her fault but reassures Sophie that in time things will get better.

After bringing both Sophie and Kat to a new house in San Francisco, Martin leaves for a business trip. So starts Sophie’s new routine: getting to know her new home city and her new step-daughter. In no time, both charm her. Kat begins to open up to Sophie, and it seems as if life will finally start settling down. Although Sophie can’t quite figure out why Martin needs to be away so much for his job and why he’s so stiff around Kat, she decides not to question what is arguably a situation that favors her.

The questions do come from someone else, however. On an ordinary April day, a woman shows up on Sophie’s doorstep asking for answers that Sophie can’t provide. Within twelve hours, Sophie, the woman, and Kat barely survive a deadly earthquake and forever become tied to one another. As Sophie fights for survival, she starts to put together the odd pieces that make up her husband in a brand new picture that first frightens her and then emboldens her.

Author Susan Meissner grounds her book in such authenticity that readers will feel like they’re standing right next to Sophie as she disembarks the train in California at the start of the story. Meissner also chose to tell the story in flashbacks, a risky endeavor, but here it works. The scenes in the “present,” as short as they might be, propel the narrative forward and readers will be flipping or swiping pages as fast as possible to find out what happens next.

The entire book is a gem, but the sections that hit the hardest come during the earthquake itself. One of the most devastating events in California history, Meissner gives readers a virtual tactility with the disaster. The descriptions are incredible, offering readers all five senses before, during, and after the tragedy.

Sophie will win readers over as the determined protagonist, and Meissner doesn’t make things easy for her main character. The harder Sophie fights for answers, though, the more readers will cheer her on. Kat’s mutism is heartbreaking, and all of the women Sophie gets to know along the way show the strength of having a village full of loved ones.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction or a book about strong women will thoroughly enjoy this book. I recommend readers Binge The Nature of Fragile Things.

Blog tour! The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

By Ekta R. Garg

February 3, 2021

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: February 9, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A female spy for the Allies during World War II must remain vigilant against the memories of those she lost. As she moves from place to place, she finds herself improvising her way through challenges and bolstering the spirits of people who no longer believe in deliverance from the Nazis. Author Erika Robuck returns with the profile of another incredible woman in history in the brisk, efficient novel The Invisible Woman.

In March of 1944, Virginia Hall is going back to France, and she’s living on borrowed time. Most people survive an average of six weeks in the field as a “pianist” before getting caught. A key part of the resistance against the Nazis, a pianist uses wireless radios to transmit information back to London regarding covert agents in the field. The Germans keep a vigilant ear out for anti-Nazi transmissions and arrest anyone sending them.

Pianists also make sure agents receive the supplies they need. Often this means coordinating a “drop,” a middle-of-the-night fly-by when Allied planes sweep across open spots decided by the pianist and actually shove cargo out their doors. Drops include everything from weapons to food, personal packages to messages.

Despite the danger, Virginia is almost desperate to begin. She lost one team of agents in Lyon, France, and feels immense guilt for being one of the few survivors. Years earlier she lost part of her leg in a shooting accident, and her prosthetic leg makes her limp when she’s overly tired or in too much pain. After Lyon the Gestapo put a price on her head and nicknamed her the “Limping Lady.” For that, if nothing else, she wants to fight against them.

She’s sent to a small town in France for her first job as a pianist, disguising herself as an old woman and using only code names with other agents as they’ve been trained. Not all the other agents are as skilled, trained, or careful as Virginia, and she fights to maintain an emotional distance from them. She didn’t know how attached she was to her team in Lyon until they were captured, and she can’t risk that again.

Even with these safety measures around her heart, Virginia can’t help connecting with the people she meets. They include a young boy who uses his wagon to drop weapons at remote locations to resistance fighters; a confused veteran of the Great War who suspects her of treachery; two young agents who, even with the backdrop of danger, have fallen in love and gotten engaged; and a whole host of Jewish children being smuggled to a sleepy village to keep them from the concentration camps.

Virginia works with other agents, trains teenage boys how to blow up bridges used by the Nazis for transport, and reassures people the Allies are, indeed, coming. After years of promises, many French citizens don’t believe it. By her example and by her words, Virginia helps them witness Liberation.

Author Erika Robuck shares in a note that one of her greatest challenges in writing this book was making Virginia Hall likeable. Virginia does, in fact, come across as likeable but also as brusque and even a little stand-offish. The title makes sense on many levels; in some situations it feels like Virginia is hiding even from herself.

On an intellectual level Virginia’s distance make sense, though, and Robuck does justice to the danger of the era. As an amputee marked by the Gestapo, Virginia takes a greater risk than most by continuing her work with the intelligence community. She never loses sight of the ultimate goal, however, making her a real-life inspiration for anyone struggling under oppression.

At times Virginia stops in her tracks for a vivid recollection of past assignments and agents, a convenient method but overly obvious way of giving readers back story. Also, while she goes on different assignments throughout the book, her way of keeping everyone—including readers—at arms’ length makes it all feel like one continuous mission. Fans of WWII fiction may not mind so much, because ultimately the mission was to defeat the Nazis. Robuck’s descriptions are lovely, and she does justice to this real-life heroine of war. I recommend readers Borrow The Invisible Woman.