Latest review: The Sisters of Summit Avenue by Lynn Cullen

By Ekta R. Garg

Release date: September 10, 2019

Genre: Historical women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A pair of sisters who share a troubled relationship must face what’s at the heart of their conflict. With spouses and their mother complicating matters, they have difficult choices to make. Author Lynn Cullen tries to intrigue readers with an unusual setting but fails to offer a solid plot in the uninspiring novel The Sisters of Summit Avenue.

In Minneapolis in 1934, June Whiteleather seems to have the perfect life. Despite the ongoing Depression, she works as a Betty—one of the women in the Betty Crocker test kitchen who maintains the brand of the company. June grew up poor, but no one in the kitchen would ever suspect it. How could they, when she’s their go-to Betty for advice on how to throw the most elegant brunch and maintain a façade of a high-class life? Her physician husband earns enough for June to live that life in truth, so it only makes sense that she be deemed the expert.

June enjoys the respect and deference of the other Bettys, but she aches to have children. She and Richard have been unable to do so, and it’s begun driving them apart. In truth, June was never fully Richard’s to begin with. Her heart went to John a long time ago, and for a time John reciprocated her love. In the end, however, John went to her little sister, Ruth.

On the Michigan-Indiana state line, Ruth is flat out exhausted. For the last eight years, she’s run the family farm by herself while keeping track of her four children and trying to make ends meet. When she and John first got married, life seemed quaint and doable. Ever since the “sleeping sickness” banished him to his bed, however, Ruth’s been doing the heavy lifting—most of the time literally.

The farmhand, Nick, provides a pleasant distraction from time to time, but Ruth still finds herself unhappy. Everything wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. June’s living the good life three states away, and Ruth burns with jealousy for every fancy thing June owns. It doesn’t matter that June sends her entire paycheck to Ruth to help with expenses, and even the satisfaction of winning John has worn off. Ruth wants a different life, but no offers seem to be forthcoming.

The girls’ mother, Dorothy, lives with Ruth and does her share to help with the kids, but Dorothy is worried about her younger daughter’s discontent and the choices she’s making because of it. In a moment of desperation, she calls June and begs her to come visit. Ruth really wants her there, she says. To Ruth, Dorothy makes it sound like June’s been dying to see the family. When the sisters come face to face, old wounds break open and they’re forced to deal with the betrayal and misunderstandings that have kept them apart all these years.

Author Lynn Cullen takes readers to the heart of the country and the Great Depression, bringing to life the desperation of those years. She offers the perfect juxtaposition of the fabricated life the Bettys present to Betty Crocker’s fans while millions of people across the country are struggling to eat. Ruth’s frustration and weariness with her circumstances ring true as do June’s disenchantment with her charmed life.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from too much of the sisters’ internal conflict. Readers will get pages and pages of details on how Ruth spent most of her life envying her older sister and how that envy is misplaced. Dorothy, too, has her own dark secrets, and while they may bring shock value to the story, they don’t help the sisters or the plot in any significant way. Cullen brings it all to a rushed ending that acts like a consolation and breaks character for almost all involved, a hurried attempt to wrap up the story with a neat bow that includes the title street (not mentioned in any great significance anywhere else in the book.)

Those interested in a look at an interesting facet of the early days of one of America’s most iconic brands might find those portions of the novel interesting. The portions on the sleeping sickness, too (a medical mystery to this day,) provide interesting fodder. Otherwise, readers will want to pass this one up. I recommend they Bypass The Sisters of Summit Avenue.

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!

Newest review: Long Gone by Paul Pilkington

By Ekta R. Garg

September 11, 2019

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: August 30, 2019

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A policeman puzzles over the disappearance of his daughter’s friend, despite his initial misgivings that she’s missing at all. The longer she’s gone, however, the more convinced he becomes that she didn’t leave town of her own accord. After a hiatus, author Paul Pilkington is back with another thriller in the excellent novel Long Gone, the first in a series starring Pilkington’s newest hero, DCI Paul Cullen.

Detective Chief Inspector Paul Cullen is having a bad day. As a cop on the British Transport Police force, his jurisdiction includes any crimes committed on London’s public transportation. While on duty he follows a hunch and rushes after a suspect, only to lose him in the worst way possible. The senior officer recommends a week off so he can clear his head and so the department can conduct an inquiry.

Paul loves being a cop; he considers it his life’s calling and worries about the potential fallout from his actions. When his daughter, Amy, calls, Paul welcomes the distraction. He needs something to occupy his time and mind.

Amy isn’t calling just to say hello, however. Her roommate, Natalie, was supposed to come back on the train the previous evening after a weekend at a job interview. The last text Amy received from Natalie was that she was boarding the train and that she’d made a mistake trying for the job. Since then, she hasn’t heard from Natalie. No text and no roommate.

Paul hesitates to do anything. He doesn’t doubt Amy’s sincerity, but he does wonder whether she might be misreading the facts. The previous year Amy struggled with anxiety, and while she’s learned to manage it and turned her life around for the better Paul still worries about her. In fact, Amy’s challenges drove a wedge between Paul and his wife who he’s now trying to win back.

Amy is insistent, however. When Natalie doesn’t come home, Paul’s police instincts get alerted. Because of his leave of absence, he has the time on his hands to look into what happened. Now he’ll just have to remain wary of whatever forces took Natalie, his own colleagues, and even the media if he wants to help bring the girl home.

Author Paul Pilkington comes back in full force with a compelling story that will convince readers to stay up long past their bedtimes. As always, every single strand of the plot is pulled taut until it rings with authenticity. Pilkington weaves his mysteries with care; the result is a complex tapestry of good old-fashioned thriller fun.

Paul Cullen as the protagonist is complicated and flawed. While he never loses sight of what’s ultimately right or wrong, he doesn’t hesitate to get close to the line between the two when it means searching for the truth. Pilkington sets up Paul Cullen well for future mysteries; although readers never get to meet Paul’s wife, his relationship with his daughter will endear both to readers. If she appears in any of them, Amy will be a welcome addition to future Paul Cullen mysteries.

Pilkington will keep readers guessing until the end about Natalie’s whereabouts by setting up what seems like an impossible premise: Natalie disappears after a weekend at an invitation-only job recruitment event and receiving praise for her performance there. While the fallout might feel familiar, from other books, the way Pilkington leads his readers from one plot point to another is invigorating.

Fans of Paul Pilkington’s work will not be disappointed. Anyone new to his books will find this a great place to start. I recommend readers Binge Long Gone.

Latest review: Bridge to Us by Jeanne Felfe

By Ekta R. Garg

September 11, 2019

Genre: Romance

Release date: July 30, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A woman finds herself separated from her husband without warning; a man loses his wife in tragic circumstances. When they find their way to one another, they’ll have to decide whether they can forget their pasts and move ahead together. Author Jeanne Felfe leads readers through a sweet albeit anti-climactic love story in Bridge to Us.

Julianne Garvoli comes home from work one day and discovers that her husband has left their St. Louis apartment. He’s taken all of his belongings and scrawled a note full of what she considers gibberish. How is it possible that he wants to break off their relationship? Weren’t they the perfect couple? Why didn’t he at least give her the chance to work it out? And when is he coming back?

The answer to that last question is a decided never, although he does ask her if he can take the cats with him. Julianne isn’t having any of it. He shattered her heart. The least he can do is let her keep their pets.

In Denver, Jokob O’Callaghan is fighting his own questions. His beautiful wife and soulmate is finally pregnant. She’s also been diagnosed with cancer. Where is the justice in all of this, Jokob wants to know. All they did was dream about spending their lives the way they’ve done thus far—with his award-winning photography acting as the perfect complement to her poetry and prose.

When Jokob loses the person most important to him, he sets off across the country with a renewed fervor for his photography. Maybe if he keeps capturing beautiful moments, it’ll help him retain the most precious ones with his wife. He keeps moving, keeps searching, and keeps hurting.

An exhibition of his photographs in St. Louis brings Julianne and Jokob together. After months of bad dates and long hours in her job as a nurse, Julianne doesn’t think it’s possible to feel any emotion for another man. Her first few minutes of interaction with Jokob changes her opinion; now she’ll have to figure out whether she’s ready to take a leap of faith in matters of the heart once again.

Author Jeanne Felfe gives readers a charming pair of characters in Julianne and Jokob. The two are definitely right for each other, complementing one another’s strengths and encouraging each other through their weaknesses. Given the genre of the book, readers won’t doubt that the two will end up together. The surprise comes in how they do.

Jokob’s grief and his challenge in getting over it both feel authentic. Felfe doesn’t make the sadness disappear just because Julianne makes an appearance in Jokob’s life, a refreshing choice. Too often in romance, the hard issues get glossed over in order to reach the happily-ever-after that much faster.

If the book is lacking in any place, it’s in the form of a tangible, concrete conflict to keep Julianne and Jokob apart. Their doubt is real, yes, but barring a short encounter with Julianne’s ex-husband, nothing or no one is preventing the couple from becoming one. Readers are left, then, just treading water—almost literally, in the case of the story’s climax—until Julianne and Jokob profess their commitment to one another.

Still, even for those who don’t typically read romance, the book is a gentle, sweet tale. Diehard romance fans will most certainly appreciate and enjoy this book. I recommend readers Borrow Bridge to Us.

Latest review: The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Teens/YA memoir

Release date: August 27, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

In 1934 the world witnesses a medical miracle: the birth of a set of identical quintuplets who survive. The Dionne family welcome their daughters but soon learn the girls will be claimed by many people far from the small Canadian town they call home. Author Sarah Miller offers extensive research and sources for her chronicle of this fascinating, yet heartbreaking story in The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

Having birthed several children before May of 1934, Elzire Dionne is no stranger to the aches and pains associated with having a baby. She thinks her most recent pregnancy will proceed like the others, yet it doesn’t. When she goes into labor two months early, no one can predict that the early onset of symptoms means the coming of an incident unlike anything she has seen: she gives birth to quintuplets.

From the start, the Quints, as they come to be known, fight defy all expectations by living beyond the first hours and days of birth. No one, least of all their doctor, Dr. Dafoe, expects them to survive. Still, he and the nurses assigned to the care of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie fulfill their obligation to do what they can to keep the babies alive—and to the astonishment of everyone involved in their care, the girls live.

Word spreads fast about the birth of the Quints, and newspaper readers across Canada and into the United States become fixated on the wellbeing of the girls. During the Depression years, most people struggle to find hope in their own lives. The survival of the quintuplets represents to them a wondrous occurrence: even in the bleakness of the world, an underdog has a chance.

Woefully unprepared for the immediate doubling of their household, the Dionne family do their best to help the new babies. Dr. Dafoe enlists the help of the media, and resources, including breast milk, diapers, and incubators, arrive in droves. So do the people who travel for hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to see the Quints.

Dr. Dafoe worries that someone will try to profit from the unusual birth and eventually convinces Elzire and her husband, Oliva, to allow the Canadian government to take custody of the babies. Despite deep misgivings, the parents agree. For the next nine years, the Quints live in a special hospital built just for them across the street from their birth home. There they receive the exclusive attention of Dr. Dafoe and the nurses who care for them, play with them, and discipline them. They also receive the attention of the thousands of tourists who come to see the girls riding their tricycles in their playground.

Oliva and Elzire object many times to the arrangement, but their voices are ignored for almost a decade. Through the years, the tussle between the Dionne family and the government continues as people near and far profit from Quint newspaper ads, product endorsements, and media opportunities. While Oliva and Elzire eventually win the right to bring the girls home, the discomfort continues. The quintuplets have only known life with the doctor, their nurses, and in the hospital. The relationships they attempt with their parents and other siblings in the following years are strained at best, but one thing that doesn’t change is their bond with one another.

Author Sarah Miller lays out the story of the quintuplets in a chronological format that is easy to follow. Young adult readers as well as adult readers will find themselves fascinated and horrified by turns at everything the Quints endured, including exploitation, abuse, and theft from the significant trust fund set up in their name when they were babies. Miller’s recounting of the experiences of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie circle around one main theme: the tight bond the girls formed and their deep-seated desire to live as individuals in a world that saw them as one person.

Miller takes care to document her sources. If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in quoting the sisters as one. Ironically, the one thing the quintuplets wished for more than anything else—individuality—gets subverted by this collective quoting. Putting that aside, however, the book offers an intriguing look into a time and decade when a medical marvel captivated people and nations.

I recommend readers Bookmark The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

Brand new review: In Conversation with the Stars by Anupama Chopra

By Ekta R. Garg

August 21, 2019

Genre: Celebrity nonfiction

Release date: July 20, 2019

Rated: Borrow it or Watch it / 3 stars

When people think of Bollywood, they probably think of melodrama, music, and beautiful wardrobes. Ardent fans also think of the stars who comprise the Hindi film industry. It’s no secret the industry is driven by stars first and scripts second, although in the last two decades that equation has begun to change (finally.)

In today’s day and age, with social media, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with our favorite actors from any medium in any language. When Anupama Chopra, film critic and wife of acclaimed director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, launched her movie platform Film Companion five years ago, she did so with the intention to offer readers and fans a place where intelligent conversations about cinema could happen.

On that account, Chopra has succeeded a thousand-fold. The articles and videos are thoughtful and informative. Chopra and her plucky team do what they can to push actors to open up while remaining respectful of their stardom.

The announcement of a book of her collection of interviews with some of the biggest names in Bollywood today, then, seemed like a natural supplement to the world of Film Companion. With Chopra’s accessibility to the stars and her ease with interviewing them, the book should have offered readers deeper insight into the world of these celebrities. It does, and yet it doesn’t.

In the book’s introduction, Chopra states outright that the interviews were conducted for Film Companion. What she doesn’t say is that the interviews are verbatim transcripts of the conversations she’s had with actors for the website’s video channel. For anyone who hasn’t seen the video versions of the interviews, the book might offer insights. For those who have watched the videos, the book acts more as a refresher.

One of the challenges of turning video conversations into written text is with the pauses, the sentences that trail into the air, the “ums” and other placeholders most people use when talking. In Conversation with the Stars includes many of these, leading the interviews to read as a little dry and slow. Also, despite many of the stars having moved on from the projects mentioned in the book, Chopra doesn’t share much context for the time in the stars’ careers that the interviews take place.

Priyanka speaks of her work on the ABC show “Quantico.” Ranveer is still shooting “Gully Boy” when Chopra speaks to him here. Both of these events, long passed, date the collection right on publication. It may also leave film fans scratching their heads about why there’s such a long lag between interview time and press time.

Fans of Hindi films enjoy listening to their favorite actors on and off screen. What makes Saif grounded and thoughtful in a live chat makes him come across as privileged and almost uninterested on the page. Anushka’s laser focus in her one-on-one interviews makes her seem almost hyperactive in the written word. Chopra has interviewed the biggest stars and gotten most of them to offer honest, unfiltered looks into their lives in her videos, but this version of those interviews doesn’t showcase her range and talent to be able to do so.

Chopra would have done readers a greater service if she’d used the interviews as source material for full-length articles about the stars. She’s spent enough time in the industry to write cogent, insightful pieces on them. Why not use her sharp training and connections to produce those articles? At the very least, she could update the interviews with the dismal outcome of Varun’s latest film “Kalank” or the comeback-like love Ranbir received for “Sanju.”

The heart of the book is in the right place, but the material is a little disappointing especially considering that Film Companion provided its roots. Given that all of these interviews are online, too, there really isn’t a strong reason for film fans to purchase the book. I recommend readers go online and find the videos of the stars in question and watch Anupama knock it out of the park with those. The result will be three-dimensional, something lacking in In Conversation with the Stars.

Newest review: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

By Ekta R. Garg

August 14, 2019

Genre: Middle grade horror

Release date: September 2018

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A young girl recovering from a recent tragedy must think on her feet to help herself and her classmates out of a scary situation involving ghosts. If she can’t find the answers—or the heart to follow them—all of the kids will be stuck serving an evil power. Author Katherine Arden gives middle grade readers a fair number of thrills and touching moments in the novel Small Spaces.

Olivia “Ollie” Adler just wishes she could stop being “that” girl. The one whose mother died. The one who had a breakdown after it happened. She’s done everything she could to make herself invisible including quitting the softball team and the chess club. But people still keep looking at her and gossiping.

Like when she stands up for Coco Zintner. Is it really Ollie’s fault that Coco has a weird name and is, like, two feet tall? What’s even weirder is that Coco doesn’t really fight back, and she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge afterwards. Just because Ollie stood up to a bunch of the jocks, like Brian Battersby, Coco thinks they’re best friends or something. All the more reason to get lost in a good book. Books are reliable.

On her way home from school one day, Ollie sees a woman standing at the edge of a lake with a book in her hand. The woman looks like she’s ready to pitch the book in the water, and Ollie can’t help herself. She stops to find out what’s going on. The woman looks at her with wild eyes, so Ollie just rescues the book and gets out of there before the crazy lady can hurt her.

When she starts reading, she discovers that the book is actually an old journal kept by someone named Beth who tells the story of her life, hoping, she says, to make sense of it. At one time, a pair of brothers vied for Beth’s attention. Both of them, she says, disappeared after paying a terrible price for one another.

The story is freaky, but what’s even more freaky is the field trip Ollie’s class takes to the very farm where Beth lived. When the class boards the bus to leave, the bus gets lost in a fog that appears out of nowhere. Ollie’s instincts tell her to get off the bus, and just before she does the driver gives her a warning: stick to the small spaces, he says, if she wants to survive.

Coco tags along, and at the last minute Brian does too. The three decide to trek back to the farm to get help, and along the way Ollie learns more about Coco. Even though she’s known Brian for practically most of her life, he, too, surprises her. The three begin to work together as true friends, which will become essential if they want to get out of the woods alive.

Author Katherine Arden offers readers a number of refreshing elements that make the book a departure from others. Ollie’s father breaks stereotypes by being the main chef of the family, a track of the story that is already well established before the novel begins. He doesn’t “discover” a knack for cooking in the wake of losing his wife; instead, his cooking gives him an outlet to reach Ollie through her grief. His dependability—that no matter how hard Ollie cries or how bad the day is, she’ll always have a good meal at the end of it—will endear him to readers, despite the fact that he disappears (out of necessity) for part of the book.

Also, Arden takes Brian from a casual bystander to one of the main supporting characters with deft. She shows his middle school awkwardness in an organic way; it’s clear that Brian feels safe enough with Ollie to share parts of his personality that he wouldn’t share with his hockey friends. Yet sometimes he reverts to that role of class jock, and this seesawing of his nature comes straight out of any middle school. Readers will have no trouble relating to either him or Ollie.

Coco is the livewire, the smallest member of the trio in stature but one who will surprise Ollie, Brian, and readers time and again. Arden establishes her early on as the annoying girl, which gives her space and time to deepen her character when the three friends are faced with the most dire circumstances.

The scary elements later in the book might frighten more sensitive readers, but those who look forward to a good thrill will love them. Arden keeps offering surprises while balancing them with real-life elements, making the book a winner in the end. I recommend readers Bookmark Small Spaces by Katherine Arden.