Latest review: Pieces of Happiness by Anne Ostby

By Ekta R. Garg

September 20, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it

Five women in their sixties decide to take up residence on the island of Fiji in a bid for a new phase of life. The friends rely on their ties from high school to buffer them from resistance by their families, but they will also have to find something solid to counter their own doubts about the entire enterprise. Norwegian author Anne Ostby offers American readers a plot that proceeds at the same languid pace as a day on a sunny South Pacific island in the book Pieces of Happiness.

Katrine “Kat” Vale lives in the village of Korototoka in Fiji, far away from her home country of Norway. Right after high school, she followed the love of her life, Niklas, on a grand adventure. They traveled the world seeking opportunities to help the less fortunate and downtrodden. They’ve built buildings and started schools and finally decided to set up retirement in the South Pacific with a cocoa farm. An accident takes Niklas from Kat, and she’s lived enough life now to know that she’s lonely and needs company.

Kat reaches out to her friends from high school. They had quite a group, the five of them, and even though they haven’t stayed in consistent contact since their school days Kat sends each of them a letter. She knows them all well enough to guess they’ll join her in Fiji, that they’ll be willing to change their lives and come live out the rest of their days with her.

And they do come. Sina, a single mother whose son’s greatest accomplishment is leeching money from his mother at every possible opportunity, arrives first. Dependable Ingrid comes next, and she brings with her the secret alter ego no one knows about. Lisbeth escapes her lackluster marriage to high school sweetheart Harald to join the others in Fiji.

The only one left to arrive is Maya, but Maya’s daughter emails Kat to let her know that there will be a delay. Maya has been diagnosed with an irreversible health problem. Kat responds with an encouraging note. Bring her anyway, she says. Maybe the sunshine will do Maya some good for whatever time she has left.

In her letters to them, Kat had hinted at the possibility of starting a new business: turning some of the cocoa harvest into chocolate for sale. As they explore the idea, all of the women begin to work through their own issues. Kat deals with her anger at Niklas for dying. Sina must decide if she can stand up to her son. Ingrid leaves behind the ordered world of accounting for a more free-spirited approach to life. Lisbeth finds that she has more to contribute to their new family than just keeping house. All of them, including Kat, look out for Maya who needs more help as the weeks and months progress. When they come to a series of crossroads, all of them will need to make decisions that change their lives more than changing to Fiji ever could.

Author Anne Ostby draws on her own experiences living around the world as well as her Norwegian heritage to create the characters and her plot. Her careful detailing of life in Fiji may draw readers in, but it also leaves the pace plodding along. The story develops in its own sweet time, and some readers may get impatient with the book as they wait for Kat and Company to encounter the novel’s key conflicts.

Readers will guess some of those conflicts long before they come to fruition, but Ostby manages to keep a few secrets along the way. For those who stick with the book all the way through, the secrets may provide some satisfaction. It may take a healthy dose of patience to get that far, however.

I recommend readers Borrow Pieces of Happiness.

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Newest review: The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse

By Ekta R. Garg

September 13, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Date published: Aug. 22, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A housewife finds out in the hardest way possible that her family has gone bankrupt. She and her children lose all the tangible comforts of luxury, and they will need to dig deep to find the strength to survive. Author Amanda Prowse takes readers from a plush life to the throes of poverty while balancing both with aplomb in the realistic and touching novel The Art of Hiding.

Nina McCarrick lives a charmed life. She has two sons who attend one of the most upscale schools in their town of Bath, England, and Finn, her husband, runs his own contractor firm, McCarrick Construction. Her current home is a far cry from her humble beginnings in Southampton where her father struggled to put food on the table after her mother died. Nina’s life could offer movie makers plenty of fodder for a typical rags-to-riches story with a whirlwind romance to boot. When Nina met Finn on a construction site, she knew she didn’t want to be with anyone else.

Now, all these years later, her life in Southampton seems like it happened to another person. Never mind that Nina doesn’t always feel like she fits in with the upper crust society of Bath. Her two children, Finn, and the gorgeous home they all share more than make up for any shortcomings.

Then, in a moment, everything changes. Nina receives the phone call no wife wants to get. Finn has gotten into a car accident and died. In the days that follow, Nina learns that that’s just the beginning of the bad news. McCarrick Construction had begun bleeding money in the months leading up to Finn’s accident. Nina begins fielding calls from a variety of people and organizations that want their bills paid in full to the collective sum of eight million pounds.

Like most princesses in classic fairy tales, Nina had no clue about any of Finn’s financial dealings and struggles. He always reassured her that he had everything under control, and she never thought about asking for details. Now that Finn is gone, Nina must handle the most difficult aspect of their failing business all by herself: its dissolution.

The bank forecloses on the house, leaving Nina and the boys without a home. Faced with no other prospects for help, Nina calls her sister, Tiggy, and asks if she can move back to Southampton. Tiggy agrees without hesitation, and Nina and her kids move into a cramped two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen the size of a closet and with fears the size of the entire country.

Years earlier Nina had ambitions to become a nurse, but after marrying Finn she let herself get swept away with the idea of being a society wife. Now she’s strapped for cash and has to find a way to support herself and her family. As she begins searching for any form of employment, Nina discovers that she does, in fact, have what it takes to fight back one day and one job application at a time.

Author Amanda Prowse doesn’t hesitate to drill into the harshest details of Nina’s situation. Even in this day and age, Prowse asserts through Nina, some women allow their partners to run the most important matters of the household. Nina reacts in a way that will feel real to readers. She doesn’t come up with sunny platitudes and greeting card sayings to face her abrupt change in lifestyle; instead she cries and argues and in one memorable scene even throws up her latest meal. Nina’s helplessness will shock readers because they will be able to see shades of themselves in her.

Her move to Bath from Southampton, too, rings true. Not once does Prowse let Nina have anything too easy. The book ends on an optimistic note, true, but Nina fights with every ounce of energy to earn that ending. By the time the last chapter begins, readers will be ready to cheer Nina on to a better life. Even in that better life, though, Prowse makes no promises. The setup for an improvement in her situation comes because of an internal change in Nina, not another dramatic change in her circumstances.

A welcome change from the typical British novels set in and immediately around London, readers will definitely want to Bookmark The Art of Hiding.

Newest review: Seeking Sarah by ReShonda Tate Billingsley

By Ekta R. Garg

August 23, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: August 15, 2017

Rated: Bypass it

A woman discovers that her “dead” mother actually abandoned her and the rest of the family years earlier and goes to find her. The questions that plague her, however, also cause her to neglect the other relationships in her life, and she comes to a life-altering moment that may make her lose everything. Author ReShonda Tate Billingsley tries to shape a compelling novel but instead misses the mark by a cavernous margin in the juvenile plot of Seeking Sarah.

Brooke Hayes knows what it’s like to lose someone she loves. The love of her life died in an accident, and her mother died when she was 7 years old. She even lost her dog a year ago. Her father and grandmother do all they can to help her, even this many years later, but Brooke still feels the emptiness left especially by her mother’s death.

When Brooke’s father goes into the hospital and then dies unexpectedly, Brooke doesn’t think she can hold herself together. How much more loss, she wonders, will she have to sustain? The question becomes irrelevant for her, though, when her grandmother reveals the most stunning news of all: Brooke’s mother, Sarah, didn’t die. She simply left the family.

As she tries to grapple with the fact, the new man in her life, Trent, announces he’s re-enlisting in the Navy. At one time Brooke thought she could see herself sharing a future with Trent, which included a civilian life and no more tours in the military. Now everything she knows for sure has spiraled out of control.

She decides that before she can explore a future with Trent, she has to find her mother and get the answers to questions that have left her longing for maternal affection. Brooke hires a private investigator who tracks her mother down in Atlanta, just hours away from Brooke’s home in Raleigh, NC. More shocking than the proximity is the news that Sarah remarried and has other children.

Incensed that the woman who gave birth to her has been so close for so many years and apparently living a happy life with a new family, Brooke drives straight to Atlanta to confront Sarah. There she meets Sarah’s children and then her new husband, and before Brooke knows it she finds herself in the most compromising situation of all. She has the power to destroy her mother’s life to get revenge; all she needs to decide is whether she’s going to go through with her plan.

Author ReShonda Tate Billingsley gets everything possible wrong with this story that an author can. Her main character, Brooke, evokes absolutely no sympathy whatsoever. Because the story is told in first person, readers get to know Brooke in the most intimate of ways. Her justifications to herself for her actions only weaken her argument. She sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself that because her mother hurt her, she has carte blanche to do anything her whims might dictate for revenge. She does get that revenge, but it’s in the most immature way possible and only brings about more sorrow for everyone involved.

By the end of the book, readers will most likely wonder why they waited around for some possible redemption. Despite numerous opportunities for it, Billingsley never steps in and allows Brooke a gracious way out of a difficult situation. At one point, Brooke makes the observation that she’s in her mid-30s; her characterization makes her sound like a whiny teenager.

The other characters, too, lack any traits to make readers like them. Trent, Brooke’s love interest, comes across as self-centered and pig-headed. Brooke’s father doesn’t get a chance to offer any explanation whatsoever for why he and Sarah split, which makes him look almost unnecessary to the story. Sarah’s new husband will repel readers with his “creepiness” from their first interaction with him, and her stepson seems more disturbed than Brooke herself.

Most disappointing is Sarah. Billingsley doesn’t give her titular character a concrete reason for leaving Brooke. Readers will have a bevy of guesses before reading the book for why Sarah might have left. All of those guesses will be wrong. In truth, Sarah herself never manages to answer Brooke’s question of “Why” even though Brooke confronts her on numerous occasions. The best Sarah can manage is a shrug and a mumbled apology.

I recommend readers Bypass Seeking Sarah.

Latest review: Holding by Graham Norton

August 16, 2017

Genre: Mystery

Rated: Bookmark it!

An officer in a small Irish town finds himself looking into a mystery that turns into a murder investigation. When he starts to dig for details, however, he realizes that the residents of the town may be hiding more than they’re sharing. Irish television personality and memoirist Graham Norton offers readers his debut novel full of charming characters and an old-fashioned mystery in the endearing book Holding.

It’s no secret that Sergeant P.J. Collins struggles with his weight, but then, in a town like Duneen, people notice things like that because there’s not much else to notice. The town’s residents spend quite a bit of time in one another’s lives, both figuratively and literally. P.J. doesn’t mind—so much—that Duneen doesn’t experience much crime. It means he doesn’t have to run around and work up a sweat.

When construction workers discover the remains of a body on a farm in town, P.J. experiences excitement and dread by turns. He finally has the chance to prove his chops as a garda, but he also comes face to face with the reality of an actual investigation. This isn’t some scuffle at O’Driscoll’s shop. It’s an honest-to-goodness body of someone who most likely got killed.

The investigation becomes personal to several people when speculation arises that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a young man who people say left Duneen decades earlier. P.J. finds out that two of the women in town used to be in love with Tommy. One of them wanted to marry him, the other one actually got a proposal, and neither of them have seen him since his disappearance.

Despite his interviews of the women, though, P.J. can’t seem to get any straight answers. The women’s family and friends also get roped into the investigation, which starts to spiral outwards from Duneen. As he works with an investigator from a larger town nearby, P.J. learns more about the women who loved Tommy and other members of the community. Additional surprises during the inquiry bring up more questions, and P.J. realizes the residents of Duneen may be closer to one another than anyone understands.

Author Graham Norton creates a familiar community in Duneen and its citizens. He builds a comfortable place and a lovable, bumbling protagonist in P.J. Collins. Norton doesn’t waste time making P.J. appeal to readers; from the first page of the book, they know exactly what P.J. thinks of himself and how others view him in terms of his bulky size. It makes P.J.’s successes and failures during the investigation feel that much more important.

Norton doesn’t allow stereotypes about obesity pigeonhole P.J., however. The sergeant is smart and intuitive; he’s just never been challenged before, and this story is as much about his awakening to himself as an investigator as it is a mystery in the classic sense. Readers reap the benefits of a story that twists and turns while enjoying the quirkiness of a small town in Europe.

The supporting characters do their jobs in the most capable of ways. Superintendent Linus Dunne, at first glance a foil to P.J., garners some sympathy for his own personal issues. Brid Riordan, the town’s resident alcoholic, fights her addiction with tenacity that anyone could admire. Evelyn Ross, the third of a trio of spinster sisters, pines for Tommy while trying to maintain that she’s moved on with her life. All these people and others in the book come across as complicated, regular people, and readers will enjoy every single one.

Some readers may guess some of the surprises before the characters do, but Norton invites his audience into his story world with a gentle approach that appeals to all the sensibilities of a reader who just wants to enjoy a good book. Like other European authors Norton writes from an omniscient point of view, so it takes a few pages to acclimatize to the impromptu change from one character to another. The town of Duneen and the problems of its inhabitants, however, provide enough of a distraction from the head hopping.

Those who like a mystery about a faraway place with characters who feel like they could live next door will thoroughly enjoy Holding. I recommend readers Bookmark it.

Latest review: The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

By Ekta R. Garg

August 9, 2017

Genre: Psychological thriller/mystery

Release date: March 7, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A woman determined to turn her child into the symbol of academic and extracurricular perfection goes missing. The detectives on the case must piece together who would want to harm her and figure out whether her tendency to antagonize others may have been her undoing. British author Paula Daly will keep readers guessing until the end in her latest book The Trophy Child.

Physician Noel Bloom is doing his best to be patient with his second wife, Karen, and her obsession with the child they had together, Bronte. Karen has made it her mission in life to turn 10-year-old Bronte into the golden child: a star in all academics as well as music and the arts. If a person names an activity or a subject, chances are Bronte is going to those classes or to extra coaching for them.

As if Karen’s laser-like focus on Bronte wasn’t creating enough tension in the house, Noel’s older daughter (and Karen’s step-daughter,) Verity, is fighting her way through probation at school. After an incident in which Verity attacked Karen, everyone in their small community looks at Verity askance. Their family has become the talk of the town, and all Noel wants is for everything to go back to normal.

When Bronte goes missing, however, normal is the last thing possible. Detective Sergeant Joanne Aspinall and her partner look into Bronte’s disappearance, only for Joanne to discover she already has a connection to the Bloom family. Connection or not, Joanne has to deal with Karen’s melodramatic tantrums. Karen refuses to take anyone’s advice on the investigation; she talks to the press when the police tell her to stay quiet, she answers the phone when the police tell her to leave it alone, and she continues to spread gossip about anyone she thinks will stand in Bronte’s way of success.

Just as the community and Karen begin to enter a frenzied state, Bronte comes home. She arrives unannounced, unassisted, and unharmed. Joanne tries on several occasions to coax Bronte to reveal where she went and whether anyone hurt her. A physical exam reveals that no one harmed Bronte’s body, but her mouth stays shut. She’s not answering questions for anyone.

Life sort of settles down and then becomes wildly out of sync again when Karen goes missing. No one can figure out the logic of it, least of all Joanne. The more she digs into the family, the less she understands about Karen and the other members of the Bloom household. Nothing resembles the previous cases Joanne has worked, but her tenacity pays off when gets a small break. As she follows up on that break, everything starts to chip and crumble until the entire case cracks wide open.

Author Paula Daly uses what readers love most about British books to her advantage: the dry wit; the moody climate; the “prim and proper” societal expectations. She includes all this and more in The Trophy Child. Readers will find themselves forming opinions about characters and changing those opinions based on the information Daly reveals in painstaking fashion.

The mystery takes its time to unfold, and some readers might get a little antsy as they’re waiting for one clue after another to be revealed. The plot in some places does drag a little. Karen’s older teenage son from another relationship, for example, offers a nice diversion from the main story, but readers may wonder at times whether as a character he’s necessary. Also, while Daly offers hints to Karen’s motivation for her almost manic behavior when it comes to Bronte, readers don’t really get a good look at Karen’s back story. If by design, this may increase sympathy and frustration by turns.

Noel’s passive, almost hapless, approach to life may also make some readers shake their heads, but it is exactly his passivity that keeps the engine of the story moving forward. A more self-assured person would have taken matters into his own hands, which would have taken the story in an entirely different direction. Also, when it matters most to him, Noel, doesn’t hesitate to act.

A few of the minor plot points linger longer than necessary, but for the most part this book hits all the right buttons for a mystery. I recommend readers Bookmark The Trophy Child by Paula Daly.

Review: The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

By Ekta R. Garg

August 2, 2017

Genre: Thriller

Release date: July 25, 2017

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

A couple enter into a covenant with a mysterious organization that promises to help the newlyweds with their marriage. When members of the group begin putting pressure on the husband and wife to conform to the agreement’s stringent ways, they find themselves squirming under the intense scrutiny. Author Michelle Richmond manages to keep readers flipping pages through a novel that can’t stand up under closer examination in the breakneck-paced novel The Marriage Pact.

After living together for two years, Jake and Alice have finally decided to take the plunge. They’re getting married, and Jake can’t wait to start their life as a married couple. He loves Alice more than anything else, but they’re both feeling a bit of strain from their careers. Maybe getting married will offer them mini reset.

As a founding partner of a new psychology practice in San Francisco, Jake has spent a lot of time in the office. Alice has been burning hours as a new lawyer in a large firm. She wants to make a good impression at the firm, so when big-shot client Liam Finnegan visits the office Alice invites Finnegan and his wife to the wedding.

Finnegan sends Alice and Jake an unusual present that shows up on their doorstep days before the wedding with a note that states, “The Pact will never leave you.” The goal of the Pact and all Pact members is to uphold, support, and help develop marriage as a sacred union between two people. There are rules to follow, of course, but Jake and Alice don’t seem to take that part too seriously. All clubs seem to ask for some level of commitment from their members, right? How could the Pact be any different?

But it is different, which they find out the hard way. The leadership demands strict adherence to the Pact’s bylaws, including reading and memorizing its hefty manual. Alice seems to get on board with the entire concept, but Jake can’t help feeling a little frustrated by the entire venture. On the surface, the Pact preaches the very things he tells his marriage counseling clients. Inside the group, it’s another matter entirely. Before long Jake begins to wonder whether joining the Pact was a mistake, but regardless of what he thinks the Pact doesn’t seem quite so ready to let go of him and Alice.

Author Michelle Richmond manages to accomplish a puzzling feat: she writes a novel with a relentless pace that will make readers moving through the entire book, but the plot’s main turning points don’t stand up to closer analysis. Alice seems to have no problem accepting the Pact’s ways. Jake is more resistant to the Pact, especially when he discovers that an old college friend is also a Pact member but wants to get out.

The friend’s ambivalence about the Pact makes Jake suspicious, but at a key moment in the story he does what looks like an about face. In a follow-up scene, Alice reacts in a way that doesn’t keep in line with her character to that point in the novel. The rest of the book will certainly engage and maybe even shock readers, but the events that follow and the end don’t line up with the first part of the book.

At one point a character states that Jake and Alice are in a position to upend the entire Pact, but nothing in the story really explains how or why. In fact, in the larger narrative of what the Pact is trying to accomplish, Jake and Alice’s transgressions don’t come across as that egregious. It doesn’t make sense, then, why the Pact targets them in particular, and in hindsight all of Richmond’s devices to build up the suspense feel weak.

Readers who don’t mind a fast read without gravity may want to check this book out; otherwise, The Marriage Pact Borders on Bypassing it.

 

Newest review: The Island by Victoria Hislop

By Ekta R. Garg

July 26, 2017

Genre: Historical fiction

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman travels to the island of Crete off the mainland of Greece in search of her ancestral heritage and the answers her mother refuses to give her. She hopes that what she finds there will help her make decisions about her own life challenges. Instead she discovers secrets about her family that come from a world and era unlike her own. British author Victoria Hilsop uses the backdrop of the real-life defunct leper colony in Greece as the location of a sweeping family saga in her award-winning novel, The Island.

The restlessness Alexis Fielding experiences comes as much from her boyfriend’s impatience as it does her own questioning of their relationship. On the surface, Ed seems perfect for her. They epitomize the “opposites attract” philosophy. Despite their trip to Greece for a long-deserved holiday, however, Alexis can’t help but wonder if this is the beginning of the end of their life as a couple.

Greece offers plenty of other distractions too. Alexis knows her mother grew up in Crete off the coast of the mainland, but that piece of information and an old photograph on her mother’s bedside table provide the only real chinks in her mother’s implacable façade. Sofia Fielding doesn’t yield to emotion, and she certainly doesn’t bend to requests for stories from her past. Even then, Alexis can’t help pressuring her mother for answers before she and Ed go away. In a rare moment of sentimentality, Sofia tells Alexis about an old friend in Crete and gives Alexis a letter to deliver.

Alexis knows Ed won’t want to visit the small fishing town of Plaka, some 150 miles away from their lodging in Iraklion, so she makes the trek alone. She finds her mother’s old friend, delivers the letter, and sits down to hear a story almost 50 years old. The story spans generations, includes love and jealousy, and ultimately centers on the island of Spinalonga.

For Alexis the name evokes a sense of history, but for many in Plaka it meant a death sentence. Spinalonga served as the Greek government’s main leper colony for more than 50 years in a political bid to rid the island and the surrounding area of entrenched Turkish settlers. As Alexis visits the island and hears about her own family’s connection to it, she begins to understand her mother’s reticence and the need for Sofia to keep her story to herself.

Author Victoria Hilsop wrote The Island after visiting Spinalonga and finding it draw her into its past. The real-life citizens of Spinalonga found themselves cast away from society, yet they determined to stay resilient. They turned Spinalonga into a thriving community with shops and church services, movies on the big screen, and a hospital dedicated to the well-being of the island’s residents. Hilsop’s passion for and dedication to the island’s existence shine in the research she obviously did for the book. As Alexis gets drawn into the past, so do the readers.

The book reads like a sweeping saga with the essence of the classic Russian novels. Readers might find it hard to follow all the storylines, and the head hopping (switching character points-of-view) takes a little getting used to. Also, some of the choices made by some of the characters feel a little pat. Hilsop fulfills some tropes, but for the most part she’ll keep readers guessing.

Alexis’s own story gets relegated to the background, so readers shouldn’t expect to hear much from her during the entire book. Her visit to Plaka really is meant just to set up the entire premise. In fact, Hilsop could have started the story in the early 1950s and still come away with just as successful a novel.

The people of Plaka and Greece overall appreciated Hilsop’s careful detailing. The Greek television industry turned the novel into a 26-part mini-series that went on to become, by most accounts, the most successful mini-series of all time on Greek TV. The book itself has sold thousands of copies, hitting the bestseller lists in many countries, and many shops in Plaka sell autographed copies of the novel in its paperback version.

While the mechanics in the writing may have a few issues, overall the story is enjoyable. I recommend readers Borrow The Island by Victoria Hilsop.