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.

Latest review: Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren

By Ekta R. Garg

October 30, 2019

Genre: Romance

Release date: October 22, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A young woman’s heart is broken after she reveals a secret. Years later, she comes face to face with the same man who betrayed her, and she must decide whether she’ll give him another chance. Author duo team Christina Lauren tackles the complications of first love coming back around in the dragged-out novel Twice in a Blue Moon.

At 18, Tate Jones can’t believe she’s in London. It’s a long ways away from Guerneville, California, the small town where she lives with her mother and Nana. In the U.K., Tate’s getting a taste of what life will be like when she goes to college. Well, if Nana goes with her when she leaves for school. But Tate won’t let her grandmother dispel the magic of visiting a new place. She’ll follow the schedule Nana set up and drink in every minute of the two weeks they’ve planned to spend on their vacation.

The magic becomes electric when Tate meets Sam Brandis and his grandpa, Luther. Sam is 21 and already in college; he’s handsome and funny and kind, and there’s no doubt he feels a connection to Tate too. Within days, the two become inseparable.

Tate finds herself falling hard and fast in love with Sam, and he tells her the same thing. He feels something for her that he hasn’t felt for anyone else. Tate gives Sam her heart, her love, and her deepest secret: her last name isn’t Jones, it’s Butler. She’s the daughter of the famous Hollywood actor, Ian Butler. When she was eight years old, her mother moved Tate from L.A. to Guerneville to get away from the PR machine. She and Tate changed their last names and went underground.

Tate has never shared the truth about her identity with anyone. People in Guerneville think she’s just plain old Tate Jones, and the media have no idea where Tate Butler lives. That information would be golden to anyone, and it becomes especially true for Sam who leaks it.

Years later, Tate, now an up-and-coming actress herself, walks onto the set of a film that everyone says could be the turning point of her career. Tate’s excited about the prospect, as much for the challenge the role provides as for the fact that it’s the first time she’ll be working on a movie with her father. Maybe, she thinks, the surface-level relationship she and Ian have had all these years will sink deeper and become more than just a publicity stunt.

Then she discovers that that the scriptwriter is Sam, and the clock rolls back 14 years. As Tate grapples with her feelings and the movie role, she’ll have to face the reality of how he betrayed her and whether she can forgive it. Either way, Tate knows one thing for sure: she won’t be forgetting Sam any time soon.

Author team Christina Lauren build a believable story of first love during the time Tate and Sam spend in London. Readers who have had their hearts broken by someone will find themselves reminiscing about their own experiences. Tate’s wide-eyed acceptance of Sam and her indecision about whether to trust him ring true to life.

The problem comes after the London portion of the book, which takes up more than a third of the novel. The years that pass between Sam’s betrayal and when he and Tate meet again get tossed to the wind. Tate goes from an innocent 18-year-old to an actress in her mid-thirties adept at handling the paparazzi and the ancillary inconveniences of celebrity life. Readers don’t get the benefit of watching her struggle in her craft as an actor or through the subsequent relationships after Sam.

As a result, Tate’s success doesn’t feel earned; neither does Sam’s return nor his reason for exposing her true identity to the media. Both get mentioned in passing as if readers don’t need to bother with those facts. The events in the present day feel overtly orchestrated. Tate at 18 and Sam at 21 feel more genuine, more relatable, more real than their grownup selves.

Because the book is in the romance genre, readers will already know before they open the cover what the ending will be. The point of romance novels is how the characters get to that “happily ever after.” In this case, Tate and Sam seem to be treading water and not really fighting any great storm back to one another.

I recommend readers Bypass Twice in a Blue Moon.

Newest review: Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani

By Ekta R. Garg

October 30, 2019

Release date: October 1, 2019

Genre: Memoir

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A journalist shares the story of her immigrant family’s journey from their birth country to the United States. She speaks with frankness about the double standards in the justice system and reveals telling details about the immigration process. As she works through the normal and unique challenges of growing up, she forms a stronger bond with her father. Author Aarti Namdev Shahani shines a light on many of the problems immigrants face in the fairly solid but overly long memoir Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares.

As the child of Indian immigrants, Aarti Shahani lives a life of contradictions. Aside from skin color, her home looks nothing like that of the other kids. When she gets admitted to one of the most elite high schools in Manhattan, her life becomes further divided into two factions. The conversations that challenge her on an intellectual level during the day don’t seem to have any place in her family at night.

Her fractious relationship with her father, too, bothers Aarti, despite her efforts to brush off her emotions. He fought for her with his own mother, walking out on Aarti’s grandmother when the “burden” of Aarti’s gender became too much to bear. Yet when he and Aarti’s mother migrate to the United States, it is Aarti’s mother who becomes Aarti’s greatest champion. Her father finds the cracks in Aarti’s veneer; her mother and sister fill them.

The irony is not lost on Aarti, then, when she takes up the battle cry after her father’s incarceration in prison on Rikers Island in New York. In a terrible, made-for-movie turn of events, Aarti’s father and her uncle are found guilty of selling electronic items to a prominent drug cartel. After all he does to achieve his American dream, including sweeping streets, Aarti’s father finds himself inside one of the worst nightmares this country has to offer.

As if going to prison isn’t enough of an ordeal, Aarti and her family members discover another complication: for immigrants, going to prison often means deportation. After her uncle is sent back to India, Aarti becomes determined not to let the same happen to her father. She begins educating herself on immigration policies, becoming an activist in the process, and finding her way back to her father and her roots.

Author Aarti Namdev Shahani tells her story in straightforward prose; she doesn’t mince words in sharing her father’s experiences or her own. Non-South Asian readers may shake their heads in shock or horror at some of the stories Shahani shares. For many South Asian readers, Shahani’s litany of woes will sound familiar.

Shahani brings to light revelatory information on the deportation of legitimate green card holders after their release from jail. Like many children born and raised in this country, she’s ignorant, initially, of this loophole in immigration policies. When her father’s future comes into question, however, she plunges into the reality of those policies and fights back as hard as she can. At one point, she begins writing letters to the judge presiding over her father’s case. Anything to find a way to keep her father in the U.S.

At some point, though, the book becomes less about her father’s struggle as an immigrant and more about Shahani’s own successes and failures. Her outrage at the treatment her father and so many other immigrants receive is palpable, but that outrage begins to fade into the background as Shahani navigates the struggles of her own life. Readers follow her through her activist days, her exploration of various careers, and her romances. While interesting, these mini stories feel a little like they’re padding the main narrative.

The book feels a little too long. It would have worked well at a much shorter length and with some of the less prominent stories summarized or even taken out altogether, particularly when they start with fanfare and then lose some of their principal characters (such as her brother’s wife, who seems to figure largely in the family for a while but then disappears late in the book.) While compelling, Shahani’s story might have packed an even greater dramatic punch at novella length.

Readers unfamiliar with the immigration process or its shortcomings will find this book fascinating. I recommend they Borrow Here We Are.


Latest review: I Will Make You Pay by Teresa Driscoll

By Ekta R. Garg

October 16, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: October 10, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A journalist experiences extreme anxiety when a stalker sends her threatening messages. As the messages escalate in scope and type, she battles her fear as well as the looming questions of who would do this to her and why. Author Teresa Driscoll keeps readers guessing all the way to the last pages of her excellent novel, I Will Make You Pay.

On what feels like an ordinary Wednesday, reporter Alice Henderson answers the phone at her desk to a distorted voice. The caller makes a threat and hangs up, leaving her breathless with terror. Her coworkers rally to cheer her up, but Alice is shaken. Then on the following Wednesday, another threat comes from the mystery man. This time Alice’s editor takes it more seriously and calls the Devon police department.

Alice doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s not like she’s a reporter for one of the big-time publications out of London. She works on a small newspaper out of a city suburb, and for the most part she does special features. Why would anyone want to hurt her? What could she have possibly done to anger someone so much?

Her boyfriend, Tom, furious at her stalker, hires a private investigator. Matthew Hill used to work as a policeman but has since changed careers. He promised his wife that life as a PI would bring in better money and offer less dangerous work. After taking on Alice’s case, he’s not so sure the latter is true.

As the weeks go by, the attacks get worse: more menacing and definitely more personal. They happen every Wednesday, a day Alice has come to dread and hate. With a forced leave of absence keeping her away from the office, she splits her time between Tom’s home and her sister’s house. She just can’t sit on her hands, however, so Alice begins to work on other story ideas. She refuses to let the stalker ruin her life, even if he is bent on making her suffer for some unknown crime.

Matt Hill is determined to keep Alice safe, and a lead on a possible suspect gives him hope. The pieces don’t quite fit the puzzle, however, and as each Wednesday comes and goes Matt realizes he’s working against a clock. He uses every resource at his disposal, calling in old favors at the police department, to make sure the stalker can’t hurt Alice—or worse.

Author Teresa Driscoll takes a familiar storyline and infuses it with freshness. She builds a likeable, relatable protagonist in Alice. As the attacks on her get worse and no obvious suspect is brought forward, readers will begin to worry about who’s threatening her and why.

Driscoll takes a major risk in not revealing any connection between Alice and her stalker until the last couple of chapters, a feat considering the book runs more than 60 chapters long. In this case, however, the risk pays off. She accomplishes this by a two-pronged approach: offering readers compelling subplots with their own twists and turns and including a parallel storyline of the stalker’s life without giving any identifying details.

The result gives fans of thrillers an interesting advantage. By the end, they will know much more about the stalker than Alice will. In many cases where readers have more information than the characters, readers can get frustrated waiting for characters to “catch up” to the story. Here, with careful planning, the plot makes sense as is. It allows for a richer, more satisfying experience. The resolution also plays closer to the reality of these types of cases.

Those who appreciate thrillers or books about British characters (or both) will certainly enjoy this novel. I recommend readers Bookmark I Will Make You Pay.

Brand new review: Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart

October 9, 2019

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: October 1, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

After surviving a terrible accident, a teenager grapples with going back to high school. Her altered appearance provokes deep anxiety about fitting in and makes her an introvert. With the help of new friends, however, she learns about her true self-worth. Author Erin Stewart offers target readers a predictable storyline with a refreshing take in the solid novel Scars Like Wings.

Ava Lee is like most typical sixteen-year-olds. She just wants to be accepted for who she is. Of course, in Ava’s case, that’s a huge ask. She used to be like most other teenagers. Now she just sees herself as the Burned Girl.

A house fire took away her parents and her cousin, Sara, and it left Ava with major burns on more than half her body including her face. She’s endured a year of multiple surgeries and intense, painful rehabilitation. As if life couldn’t get worse, her doctor says it’s time to go back to school.

Ava’s aunt and uncle love the idea, but Ava knows they’re just fulfilling their roles as her dutiful guardians. They’ve been nothing but loving and supportive during the entire ordeal, but Ava isn’t kidding herself. She knows she’s the consolation prize life handed them after they lost their only daughter.

She finally agrees to go back to school on the condition that she go to a new one. She doesn’t need to spend her days with people who knew Before Ava and have to live with the reality of Burned Ava. Before long, she finds herself in the hallways of a new high school with most people pointing, staring, and laughing at her.

Most people; not Piper. Piper’s a burn survivor too and in some ways has it worse. After a horrific car accident, she’s dealing with burns and is also in a wheelchair. That doesn’t stop her from standing up for Ava, even if that means she has to ram a jock in the shins with her chair to do it.

Between Piper’s audacity and the gentle persistence of another new friend, Asad, Ava rediscovers her love of theater. Asad can’t get enough of the stage, and he makes Ava laugh with his nonstop theater references. At first Ava doesn’t believe that Asad’s intentions are genuine, but he convinces her that he doesn’t see her burns. Through it all, Ava will have to decide whether she wants to stop thinking of herself as the Burned Girl and start thinking of herself as just Ava again.

Author Erin Stewart offers a three-dimensional view of the life of a burn survivor. She doesn’t hold back in describing the physical agony and the emotional pain experienced by people who have lived through this awful experience. By adding the extra layer of the anxiety of life as a teenager, she rounds out the complexity of Ava as a main character and gives her well-developed friends in Piper and Asad as well.

The book’s biggest weakness comes in the form of an omitted detail. Ava mourns for her parents and cousin (who was also her best friend,) but the novel lacks specifics on how the fire spread so fast. While the challenges she faces in the present might eclipse the technical aspects of the life-changing event, it would have heightened the dramatic impact even more—a tough task, given how haunting the book already is.

Also, the conflicts in the last scenes get resolved a little too easily. After all Ava fights for and all she suffers in her new school, the about-face of one of the characters is surprising. Target readers might feel some relief and encouragement in the change of events, though, which reinforces the book’s main theme: with or without physical scars, everyone struggles from time to time.

Anyone wanting to read a compelling book about teens surviving a traumatic book will want to check this one out. I recommend readers Bookmark Scars Like Wings.

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.

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.