Second review: Love and Other Alien Experiences by Kerry Winfrey

By Ekta R. Garg

July 12, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 11, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A teen suffering from mild anxiety finds her condition kicked into overdrive when her father abandons her family. She holes up at home, but when someone nominates her for homecoming queen she realizes this may be the only chance she’ll have to force herself out of her comfort zone and back into her life. Author Kerry Winfrey charms readers in her lovely debut novel about facing life’s challenges in Love and Other Alien Experiences.

Mallory Sullivan doesn’t leave the house. Ever. Some kids at her high school assume she got pregnant and stayed at home. Some think she’s doing meth. A few have wondered whether she got arrested and is currently in juvenile detention.

One girl swears Mallory died, although how Mallory could be dead and attend school via webcam is beyond anyone’s guess.

Because that’s the only option left to her. Every morning Mallory checks into first period physics along with other juniors, except she does it through a computer screen. Ever since her major breakdown in the Cheesecake Factory one night when she was at dinner with her brother, Lincoln, and her best friend, Jenni, Mallory doesn’t leave the house.

Of course, Lincoln, Jenni, and Mallory’s mother have all done their best to coax her outside. Mallory even has phone sessions with a therapist who talks often about working up her courage to step onto the front porch for more than a few milliseconds. But the mild anxiety Mallory used to experience before her father left consumes her now, and every time she tries to go get the mail her heart pounds and she feels severely short of breath.

So she spends her days searching online for any clues to her father’s whereabouts and watching the world through her computer. Her chief source of entertainment is the web forum called “We Are Not Alone,” a place where conspiracy theorists swap stories about alien abductions and all things unexplained. With an ardent interest in The X-Files, Mallory has spent quite a bit of time talking through favorite episodes with other members. She enjoys her exchanges with one in particular who goes by the handle BeamMeUp.

A deadline of sorts hangs over Mallory’s head. The teachers at school insist she show up in person to take the upcoming midterms. Then one day while video chatting with Lincoln and Jenni at lunch, Mallory logs in just in time to hear that she’s been nominated for homecoming queen. Now she’s going to have to find a way to make her presence known at the homecoming dance.

She’s never played the popularity game, but the nomination spurs Mallory on to start caring. The winner gets $500, which could kick her search for her dad into high gear. All of a sudden Mallory is scheming with Jenni and Lincoln on how to win the most votes.

It doesn’t hurt that she gets paired with hunky football player Brad, a shoo-in for homecoming king, for a major physics project. She finds out that Brad isn’t a stuck-up jerk, and that gets Mallory thinking. If Brad isn’t what he seems, what does that mean about the other kids at school? And what does that mean about how they see her?

Author Kerry Winfrey offers positive messages and a less sullied side of high school life in her debut novel. Readers will identify with her anxiety. Mallory’s worries may be elevated, but everyone knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Everyone, at one time or the other, has wanted to stay at home when life throws them a bevy of challenges.

Winfrey could have done a better job of balancing the reality of Mallory’s anxiety with what she’s built up in her head. She gets coaxed outside a few times but doesn’t ever really stop to analyze how this means that much of what she feels is manufactured by her sadness at being abandoned by her father. This small lapse notwithstanding, Winfrey doesn’t apologize in any way for the fact that she’s writing a fairly clean book. No salacious high school affair; no extreme cattiness. By giving Mallory a manageable, relatable problem, Winfrey reminds readers that sometimes a challenge really is surmountable.

I recommend readers Bookmark Love and Other Alien Experiences.

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Newest review: Just A Normal Tuesday by Kim Turrisi

By Ekta R. Garg

July 12, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

A girl receives a suicide note from the older sister she adores and rushes to save her, only to realize it’s too late. As she fights to understand why her sister, a seemingly happy person, would take such drastic measures, she begins to follow a path of self-destruction and alarms her parents enough to send her to a grief camp. Author Kim Turrisi mines her own heartbreaking experience to bring to life the reality of a sibling committing suicide in the very real novel Just A Normal Tuesday.

Sixteen-year-old Kai Sheehan thinks it’s a regular Tuesday until she gets home from school and picks up the mail. In it she finds a letter addressed to her from her big sister, Jen. Curious, Kai opens the letter. Jen just had dinner with Kai and their parents a couple of days earlier. Why the need for the letter?

As Kai reads, she realizes Jen hasn’t just sent her a letter: it’s a final goodbye. Jen tells Kai to be strong, to go forward with all her plans for life. To wear anything but black at the funeral.

Despite her efforts to get to her sister’s apartment as fast as possible, Kai reaches there only to realize she’s late by two days. Jen had dinner with the family and then went home and made her choice. Something drove her to make an irrevocable decision that will change Kai’s life forever.

Kai and her parents spiral out from one another in their grief as they struggle to understand just why Jen would do this. Jen’s friends, too, have no answers. No one can remember Jen ever appearing overly sad or upset. From what anyone can gather, she didn’t undergo any traumatic life experiences. So what would make her just give up and kill herself?

For Kai the burden of her sister’s death becomes too much. She begins to find solace in stolen prescription drugs and alcohol. Her two best friends, TJ and Emily, cover for her for a while, but eventually they start worrying about Kai. Eventually the truth comes out, and Kai’s parents make a decision: they’re sending Kai to a special camp for grieving teens.

At first Kai resents her parents for shipping her off. What do they know about losing a sister? And do they actually think sending her away is going to fix anything?

As Kai gets to know the other campers, some older, some younger, she discovers grief wears many faces. Someone has lost a parent; someone has lost a grandparent. Others have lost siblings like her. The kids at camp may come from different backgrounds, but all of them know what it’s like for parts of their hearts to be missing. If she’s ever going to learn how to move forward after Jen’s death, Kai will need to stay open to love and whatever form it takes.

Author Kim Turrisi shares in a note that she wrote Just A Normal Tuesday from personal experience. When she was a teen, her sister committed suicide. That painful experience allows Turrisi to give the most authentic voice possible to Kai and her pain. Instead of dressing up Kai’s grief in poetic phrases, Turrisi lets Kai express herself in some of the plainest language possible.

“I dread the sound of the locking dead bolt on the front door as my father seals us all inside,” Kai says after Jen’s funeral. “The finality is undeniable. The population of our family is now officially three.”

Later, as Kai argues with her parents, she doesn’t shy away from trying to guilt them into letting her get her way. “It’s not my fault that Jen killed herself,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to pay the price.”

At times, too, Kai’s thoughts compress into single words that say everything.

“Mad. Sad. Resentful. All colliding.”

When she’s dealing with the fallout from Jen’s death, Kai’s time at the grief camp comes across as just as authentic. Some of her interactions with the other characters feel a little less so, but the flip-flopping Kai does between emotions can also be attributed to the face-slap reality that grief causes without a moment’s notice. Turrisi’s commitment to the story, in any case, never wavers and carries Kai to the end.

Anyone who has dealt with the suicide of someone close or who knows someone contemplating the act would be well advised to read this book. I recommend readers Bookmark Just A Normal Tuesday.

Latest review: Textrovert by Lindsey Summers

By Ekta R. Garg

July 5, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Rated: Bookmark it!

When a shy high school senior accidentally switches phones with a football star, she gets more than a week-long text exchange. The teen finds out she can be funny and outgoing and all the things she imagined only other girls embodied. As she finds out, however, people can only reveal the truth about themselves when they’re actually face to face. Wattpad author Lindsey Summers shares this sweet story with readers in her first novel, Textrovert.

Keeley Brewer knows one thing for sure: her twin brother, Zach, is way more popular than she is. And why wouldn’t he be? As a bona fide football star, the entire student body of Edgewood High is counting on Zach to take them all the way to victory at the state finals. Although she’d never really say it to his face, Keeley just doesn’t get what the big deal is with football. She’d much rather hang out with her best friend, Nicky, anyway.

The girls make a plan to visit the fair at the end of the summer as a sort of last bash before senior year starts, and Keeley could definitely use a night out. Despite her assertion at the beginning of vacation that she’d get all of her AP homework done, she hasn’t even cracked a book yet. Maybe a trip to the fair will help her with all the stress. Unfortunately going to the fair only makes the stress worse when Keeley accidentally leaves her phone on a food table. She rushes back to find it sitting there, only to realize much later that the phone she picked up isn’t hers.

Somehow she managed to switch phones with a boy named Talon. The two begin texting back and forth, and while Keeley would do anything to get her phone back ASAP Talon says he’s off to football camp for a week. After some banter, he agrees to contact Keeley any time she has a text or voicemail.

It may have started off as a simple message exchange system, but soon enough Keeley finds herself talking to Talon about all sorts of things. With him, behind the safety of the cell phone screen, she acts like a different person. She isn’t the introverted girl who lives in her brother’s shadow. She’s funny and flirty and can come up with some great one-liners to dish it right back to Talon.

Talon finally gets back into town, and the two agree to meet and exchange phones. Before Keeley knows it, though, their meeting leads to a disaster of identity. Talon has been hiding something about himself. When she finds out what it is, Keeley will have to decide whether she can keep talking to this guy who she’s been falling for one text at a time.

In her first novel, author Lindsey Summers offers the YA set something to balance other books in the genre: a sweetness that feels more authentic than much of the dystopian or heavy-handed fare available. Readers expecting a life-altering experience, such as in The Hunger Games, will find Textrovert all the way on the other end of the spectrum, and that’s a good thing. As much as target market readers need books to ground them in the grim reality of the world, they also need stories that reflect their most common experiences.

Some of the plotting feels a little rushed. Keeley’s brother, Zach, accepts what he perceives as her flaking out on him early in the book without questioning her on it even once. They may be twins, but often they don’t act within the cultural parameters expected of twin siblings. Summers may have taken this approach intentionally; readers might think it’s an oversight.

Still, Summers manages to offer teens issues they can identify with: cyber bullying; the uncertainty that comes with a first love; and feeling out of place even among one’s friends and family. All of these topics surface in the book in a manner accessible and solvable. Some readers might wonder if the problems discussed come across as too simplistic. Others may appreciate the lack of the heavy-handed approach that often accompanies YA novels.

I recommend readers Bookmark Textrovert.

Second review: The Devil’s Dance by Kristen Lamb

By Ekta R. Garg

June 28, 2017

Genre: Mystery

Rated: Borrow it

When a woman gets blackballed because of a corporate scandal, she returns to the town where she grew up. Her problems follow her home, however, and only get bigger as she realizes someone is stalking her. If she wants to stay alive, she’ll need to figure out who wants her dead while also dealing with her crazy family. Social media giant Kristen Lamb puts her efforts toward a likeable heroine stuck in a surprisingly mundane plot in The Devil’s Dance.

Romi Lachlan wants nothing more than to find a place where she can curl up and wait for the world to forget about her. It’s bad enough that the company she worked for, Verify, has crashed faster than a plane in a nosedive. It hurts even more that Verify’s top brass stole the income and savings of all the employees, Romi included.

The kicker, though, comes in the fact that top exec Phil, Romi’s fiancé—or, rather, ex-fiancé—betrayed her. Except that no one believes that Romi didn’t see his deception earlier. Many think she was in on the plan and is just waiting for the right time to join him on a sunny beach somewhere.

When she runs into trouble, she knows she really has nowhere else to go but home. Romi left Bisby, Texas, with grand thoughts of moving up and out. Who needs a small backwater town where her mother ran off one day without a word, and her father, a mean man harder than a rock in the first place, has only gotten more cantankerous with time? Plus, dealing with her crazy grandmother would make anyone go insane.

She finds out that the trailer park where she grew up is scheduled for demolition within a month. An FBI agent shows up on her tail, grilling her about Phil’s location. Then the murders begin, and Romi gets the sneaking suspicion that somehow she’s walked into something big. Her goal is to stay alive long enough to figure out whatever it is, before someone—either the murderer or the FBI—gets to her.

Author Kristen Lamb has guided independent authors for years. Many writers continue to look to her blog and books for advice on how to best position themselves in the market for success. She emphasizes the quality of story above everything else, which is why the plotting and character problems in The Devil’s Dance may surprise her fans. Truly, the book needed a few more rounds of editing before publication.

The positives in the book lift it from the depths of mediocrity. Lamb’s writing, in many places, sparkles. Romi’s voice comes through loud and clear. In her explanation for how she created Romi, Lamb states that she wanted to address stereotypes while breaking them at the same time. She gives Romi a degree, summa cum laude, in information systems. Romi is smart, and she knows how to use her education and her common sense to get ahead. She doesn’t need to resort to dumb blonde tricks or lurid means.

It’s heartbreaking, then, that while Lamb breaks some stereotypes, she fulfills others in her plotting and story treatment. In the “big reveal” Romi goes into a monologue that lasts for 14 pages to answer every major question posed in the story. In other places, too, Romi suddenly comes up with all the information that a character just happens to need in the moment. The convenience of her knowledge is jarring and hard to believe.

One of the characters changes in a fundamental way, but because readers don’t spend much time with the person it’ll be hard for them to buy into the major shift that leads to the climax. The story itself veers into the territory of its genre—mystery/thriller—in a somewhat abrupt way. One minute Romi is trying to deal with a kleptomaniac grandmother; the next she’s trying to figure out how to solve a major case for the FBI. The rough transitions don’t make sense.

In fact, many of Lamb’s choices could have come from any one of her blog entries on how not to write a story. The repeated editing, spelling, and formatting errors, too, will distract readers enough to make them scratch their heads and wonder whether Lamb actually did write the book herself. It’s hard to believe that someone with her level of expertise would turn out a story that’s less than stellar.

A great protagonist and Lamb’s reputation may keep some readers engaged. Those who don’t know of her may give the book a pass. I recommend readers Borrow The Devil’s Dance.

 

 

 

 

 

First review of the day: The Child by Fiona Barton

By Ekta R. Garg

June 28, 2017

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Bookmark it!

A journalist begins to investigate what her gut tells her is an important story. As she looks into the death of an infant, she finds out that the truth is far more complicated and shocking than anyone could have imagined. British author Fiona Barton brings back a character from her first book to headline her second novel in the thought-provoking story of The Child.

It’s 2012, and reporter Kate Waters has hit a lull in her work. Everyone seems to be talking about the upcoming London Olympics, but Kate wants to work on something different. When she runs across a tiny blurb in a newspaper about the skeleton of a baby found in a neighborhood slated for demolition and rebuilding, she gets a tingling sensation. Kate loves nothing more than taking a seemingly innocuous piece of information and chasing down the story behind it.

Emma spends her days managing her emotions and cleaning up the manuscripts of ghostwriters who tackle minor British celebrities. She finds herself circling back to trauma from earlier in her life, but she can’t approach it with shoulders squared and head held high. Instead she cowers in the face of her experience, sharing stealthy glances with it on her good days. On her bad days, she doesn’t look at anything. After she reads the bit about the remains of the baby, Emma wonders whether she’ll only have bad days from now on.

Angela does her best to forget about her kidnapped baby, but the child’s spirit hovers over her shoulder in the most unsettling ways. Even though she now has two other children, she can’t forget about the little one who made her a mother for the first time. It’s inevitable, on hearing about the infant skeleton, that hope starts to flutter in her chest. More than anything, she’s just wanted to know what happened to her little girl.

Kate’s investigation brings her to both Emma and Angela, for different reasons and in different capacities. Her instinct keeps pestering her to follow leads, even the ones that come across as half-baked, much to the chagrin of her editor who just wishes she would get on with a “real” story. Despite being saddled with a new intern who sees the world with digital eyes first, Kate refuses to get sidelined. As she chips away at the truth, however, even she isn’t prepared for what she discovers.

Author Fiona Barton drew in the world with her debut novel about a woman hiding the secrets of a man accused of a horrific crime, and after the positive response to journalist Kate Waters in the first book Barton decided to make Kate the star of The Child. In Kate Barton finds a plucky protagonist, the kind readers will cling to as she makes her way through the facts and the confusion. Choosing Kate as the main character proves to be a smart move on Barton’s part. Readers will get to spend time in Kate’s world without feeling like they’re treading well-worn ground from Barton’s first book.

Despite the ultimate tragedy of a dead baby, Barton manages to infuse her story with trademark British wit. The one-liners offer relief in the midst of a sad book, but, really, readers won’t mind this brand of sad at all. Barton shows that in a world where monsters exist, heroes and heroines also stand tall to fight against evil forces.

The multi-layered novel seems to be Barton’s writing approach of choice, and it works on every single level. She doesn’t leave a single question unanswered, but she also doesn’t make readers feel like everything has been wrapped up with a neat bow. Life is messy; so is the reality these characters live in. Barton captures both with satisfying precision.

I recommend readers Bookmark The Child.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Brand new review: Born Under A Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield

By Ekta R. Garg

June 7, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Binge it!

A young boy must navigate the intricacies of love and friendships, as well as avoid the Taliban and getting killed in general, in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Despite the prevalence of poverty and the challenges to make it from one day to the next alive, the boy approaches his life with a fairly positive attitude and good humor. Andrea Busfield drew on her personal experiences in Kabul to craft the delightful, stirring debut novel Born Under A Million Shadows.

Fawad is 11 years old and doesn’t mince words. His mother told him he was born under the shadow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and while he may have to spend his days watching where he steps so his foot doesn’t accidentally hit an old landmine he has to navigate much bigger problems at home. After the Taliban killed his father and brother and kidnapped his sister, Fawad and his mother have moved from the small town of Paghman to the Kabul suburb of Khair Khana to live with his aunt.

It’s the daily bickering between his mother, Mariya, and his aunt that present the real problem to peace in Fawad’s life.

Nevertheless, he manages, more or less, to keep a smile on his face. His cousin, Jahid, can act like an idiot sometimes, but Fawad has his two best friends, Jamilla and Spandi, to keep him sane. Fawad and his friends “work the foreigners on Chicken Street together”—that is, they trail after the ever-present expatriates and beg, cajole, and charm their way into running errands in exchange for money. Fawad’s mother cleans the homes of the rich residents of town, and generally Fawad can’t complain about his life.

His mother can, however. After hearing her sister whine about the extra strain on the family due to more mouths to feed, Mariya gets fed up and finds a new job. She and Fawad move to the home of foreigners in the more posh suburb of Wazir Akbhar Khan. Mariya’s main job is to cook and wash the clothes of the three foreigners living in the house, and even though Fawad can’t comprehend living with women who can’t even wash their own clothes he’s relieved. Anything has to be better than dealing with his aunt’s family every day.

With this development, Fawad comes to learn that life outside of his experience as an Afghan is radically different. He’s taken aback by the warm welcome he receives from Georgie, the British woman responsible for hiring Mariya, and his shock increases when he learns that Georgie lives with James, a journalist, and May, an engineer, and that none of them are married to one another or anyone else. Georgie herself has come to Afghanistan to work with an NGO that promises to create new jobs for the Afghan people and decrease their dependence on the opium trade; her work allows her to stay close to her boyfriend prominent community figure, Haji Khan, who some say may or may not be the country’s biggest drug dealer.

Even if he is, Fawad can’t deny that he’s a kindhearted maybe-drug dealer.

After developing alternating crushes on Georgie and May and having a hilarious run-in with James, Fawad settles into his new life. He and Mariya have their own rooms for the first time as well as a television, and Fawad continues to go to school and even finds a part-time job. But the Taliban creeps along the edges of the country, and Fawad starts to learn how to balance personal safety with concern for his housemates and other friends and family. As he comes of age, he understands one thing clearly: life in Afghanistan may be almost impossible, but it is certainly worth it with his loved ones close by.

Author Andrea Busfield accomplishes an incredible feat in Born Under A Million Shadows: she balances the horrors of a country blasted—literally—by the Taliban and terrorism with authentic humor and optimism. Having spent significant time in Kabul herself, Busfield has the depth of experience to write with confidence about the town and its conditions.

She doesn’t hold back in describing the challenges of the country’s residents. Power cuts, child beggars, and destroyed families stay firmly in the reader’s vision in the story. But even as Busfield gives readers a wide lens, she makes sure to draw the eye to Fawad and his funny, astute observations on life.

The gentle story will make readers laugh aloud and nod with gravity by turns. After a major event, Fawad muses to himself, “I couldn’t help thinking that despite their height, adults were just plain unbelievably stupid: men were blowing up other men; soldiers were shooting at children; men were ignoring women they loved; the women who lived them were pretending they didn’t; and when I read the newspapers to Pir Hederi, everyone they talked about seemed to be far more interested in rules and arguments and taking sides than the actual business of living.”

A few pages later, he shares that James has begun some new research about secret treasure in the mountains and observes, “My guess was that if there was treasure hiding in Afghanistan’s mountains, it would probably be on sale in a Pakistani market by now, along with all the rest of our old stuff.”

Given the tremulous state of affairs in Afghanistan today, readers might find it difficult to believe in this version of the country. A version where, despite the daily news cycle, the residents continue to love and laugh and live. Busfield gives readers just that, however. A story that is wholly Afghani in its attitudes and approach and yet universal in the challenges a regular 11-year-old might face: a growing interest in girls, concern for his friends, and a boundless curiosity about new ideas.

Readers will definitely want to Binge Born Under A Million Shadows!

Brand new book review: The Party by Robyn Harding

By Ekta R. Garg

May 31, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Release date: June 6, 2017

Rated: Borrow it

A girl tries to impress members of the “in crowd” by inviting them to a party. When a horrific accident occurs, the girl and her family will have to face intense scrutiny from the community and other students at school as they navigate the moral and legal issues surrounding the event. Author Robyn Harding tells with authority a story about today’s teens in a book that lacks some of that authority in the actual writing in The Party.

Hannah Sanders finds herself in an enviable position at San Francisco’s Hillcrest Academy. Ever since Noah, one of the hottest guys in school, turned his attention on her, Hannah’s social quotient has risen dramatically. She’s on the cusp of the “in crowd,” led by her elementary school BFF, Ronni Monroe, and the other “it” girl, Lauren Ross. Now Hannah just needs to prove to Ronni and Lauren how cool she can be, and she’ll be in the group for sure.

The perfect opportunity comes in the form of her sixteenth birthday. Hannah tells her parents she wants a low-key sleepover instead of a huge bash and lists Ronni and Lauren as her top two guests, with friends Marta and Caitlin rounding out the list. Marta and Caitlin aren’t a part of the clique, but Hannah needs them to maintain appearances so her parents won’t suspect what she really has planned. Kim, Hannah’s ever vigilant mother, couldn’t be happier with Hannah’s choice of party and guests, and father Jeff also voices his approval. After all, what could possibly go wrong when five girls get together for movies, pizza, and cake?

Plenty. With drugs and alcohol thrown into the mix, things get out of hand. One of the girls suffers a horrible accident and is rushed to the hospital. The others go home, and Hannah can’t believe her bad luck. How could something so awful happen at her party? How will she survive high school now?

The situation becomes much more grave for Kim and Jeff. Other parents begin shunning Kim at various school functions. Jeff starts to feel the pressure of supporting his family through the financial strain that could come with the fallout from the party. Their marriage wasn’t in the best place even before Hannah’s party; with a possible lawsuit and shades of infidelity starting to bleed into their relationship, their marriage becomes even more fragile. The entire family will need to find a way to survive the consequences of the accident as well as the possibility that the entire community will find out their most personal issues.

Author Robyn Harding nails the language and mannerisms of a cross section of today’s youth. Parents of teens will want to read this book so they can better prepare themselves for the ever-increasing possibilities of just how hard and how far some young people will go to climb the high school social ladder. Harding doesn’t hold back. She tells the story from various points of view, including Hannah’s, and she doesn’t hesitate to allow Hannah to be her worst when the story demands it.

Less convincing are some of the characterizations of the other point of view characters. Kim insists to everyone she meets that the police cleared her and Jeff of any wrongdoing at the party. Jeff spends a lot of time grinding his teeth about the hold Kim has over him due to a past indiscretion. Ronni’s mother, Lisa, can’t seem to let go of her own past issues long enough to face the reality of the present. In actuality, Hannah is the most grounded of all, despite being the youngest of those narrating the story.

It’s only fitting, then, that Hannah has the last say in the book, and those readers who stick with the story long enough will find her final words haunting and sad all at the same time. Harding shows readers that even a major break in the cycle doesn’t necessarily end it. Only someone with a magnanimous amount of courage can accomplish that.

Some readers might find Kim, Jeff, and Lisa’s personal issues grating. For that reason, not everyone may get through the entire novel. I recommend readers Borrow The Party.