Newest review: Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

By Ekta R. Garg

April 5, 2017

Genre: Science fiction

Rated: Binge it!

Ten years after scientists discover a giant robot on Earth, the world must deal with a second robot that appears without warning. Unlike the first robot, however, the second one exhibits malicious intentions. The scientists who found the first robot will have to use every resource at their disposal to stop the new evil visitor before every person succumbs. Author Sylvain Neuvel continues the thrilling story of Themis with aplomb in the second novel of the Themis Files series called Waking Gods.

It’s been a decade since scientist Rose Franklin and her team excavated and assembled the mysterious pieces of metal that turned into the robot she named Themis. The world has become complacent about Themis in that time. Since her appearance, nothing terrible has happened and Themis seems more like a fascinating scientific oddity than anything else.

So when another robot just appears one morning in London, residents of that city as well as others think Themis’s “family” may finally be joining her. Rose doesn’t know what to think about the new robot. As a scientist she’s intrigued, but an unnamed government source told Rose that Themis wouldn’t be the only one to visit. Nor would the other robots necessarily be as benign as Themis.

The prediction becomes truth when the second robot in London emits a deadly gas and kills thousands. Before anyone can formulate a plan, robots begin arriving in other cities. They, too, begin emitting deadly gasses.

The citizens of the world are under attack.

Not everyone dies, however, and Rose races to find out why. The survivors don’t seem to have any connection to one another. Why do they get to live?

Along with all this, Rose deals with her own insecurities about her abilities. Years earlier she was found after an accident in which she supposedly died. When she wakes up, four years have passed and she questions everything she knows about herself and her life.

It doesn’t help that Kara and Vincent, the cracker jack team of scientists who actually pilot Themis, also treat Rose like a delicate vase. They want to restore the friendship the three shared, but they’re not sure how to go about doing that. With the progression of world events, however, Rose, Kara, Vincent, and all the others involved may not get the time they want to sort through their personal challenges.

Author Sylvain Neuvel brings back his flair and innovative storytelling method for the second book in the Themis Files series. Once again Neuvel doesn’t stick to a conventional narration. Like Sleeping Giants, its predecessor, Waking Gods reads like a collection of files recovered from some sort of aftermath. With the events in Waking Gods, the overall concept for Neuvel’s story world becomes more clear and more opaque all at the same time.

Neuvel spends more time sharing the characters’ lives in this book, which sets it apart from the first novel. In particular readers will find out more about the unnamed government source who Rose and others have turned to time and again for access to information and other resources. Like the characters, readers will find themselves in turns delighted and frustrated by him.

The frustration is purely by Neuvel’s design, though, which is what makes this such a fantastic read. Nothing is out of place in the book in terms of pacing or character development, and readers will most likely finish it wishing they already had the third book on hand. Current world events sometimes suggest the kind of society Neuvel proposes, which makes his books timely, frightening, and necessary escapist reading all in one.

Fans of the first book will find everything they love about Themis, Rose, and the others in this second story. I recommend readers Binge read Waking Gods!

Newest review: It Happens All the Time by Amy Hatvany

By Ekta R. Garg

April 5, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it

The close friendship between two college students shatters when one of them takes advantage of the other. They will have to find a way to move forward personally and together if either of them ever want a normal life again. Author Amy Hatvany handles date rape in a story that evokes no sympathy in the new novel It Happens All the Time.

Amber and Tyler have been best friends since their early teens. They bonded when Tyler moved to their small Pacific Northwest town of Bellingham, Washington, and Tyler’s draw to Amber is clear and strong. What started as a friendship has developed into much more for him.

Unfortunately, Amber doesn’t return his romantic feelings. Yes, Tyler is essential to her life. After all, he was the one to stand by her when anorexia had claimed her mind and body. He was the one who found her when she collapsed and sat by her in the hospital as she fought to return to a healthier state. Tyler means home, but he doesn’t mean love.

That place is reserved for Daniel, Amber’s fiancé. After dating only a few months, Daniel proposes and Amber accepts. She comes home for Christmas giddy and brimming with plans to move to Seattle with Daniel after graduation so he can start medical school and she can fulfill her ultimate goal of being a trainer to professional athletes. Seeing Tyler at Christmastime reminds her of their uncomfortable exchange a few months earlier when he declared his love for her, but Tyler seems to have accepted her rejection. Their friendship returns to a more comfortable place, and once again they’re joking around and sharing their lives.

Tyler can’t help slip in suggestions that Amber got engaged too soon, however, and she begins to question her relationship with Daniel. She wonders whether she jumped into an engagement because of love or her inability to control her own life. She comes home for the summer with those questions weighing heavily on her mind, and seeing Tyler again reinforces for her that she does have other options.

They go to a Fourth of July party together and find themselves making out on the dance floor and then looking for a bedroom. At the last minute, Amber changes her mind but Tyler doesn’t and then the unthinkable happens: Tyler rapes Amber. What follows is the fallout of the crime as Amber and Tyler try to decide what it means for their relationship and themselves.

Author Amy Hatvany writes from personal experience. In an author’s note she says that as a victim of sexual assault herself, she hopes to use the book to start a conversation. Unfortunately, a conversation becomes difficult within the context of this particular novel.

Neither Amber nor Tyler evoke any sympathy. Amber asserts repeatedly that she isn’t attracted to Tyler, yet she goes out of her way to flirt with him and follow him to a bedroom. Readers will have a hard time finding her self-righteousness after the rape justified, especially when she embraces a self-destructive lifestyle and eschews the love and support of her parents (the true heroes of the book who, unfortunately, get relegated to the background.)

Tyler’s stubbornness that Amber is the only girl for him sounds like something out of a cheesy TV movie. Hatvany offers an unconvincing backstory for him that reeks of cliché. Tyler’s parents fit standard stereotypes—his mother whines about the unfairness of her own life, and his father chases women. With such blatant home issues, it’s a wonder Tyler hasn’t broken the law long before this.

Rape is inexcusable under any circumstances. It is a crime and should be treated as such. What Hatvany hopes to achieve almost backfires with the extreme behavior of her protagonists. If she accomplishes anything, it is to show that the events leading up to the crime can start in a complicated mess.

Instead of a novel where a woman realizes she could have made better choices and uses her own horrible experience for good, the book turns into a cringe-worthy tome of harmful behavior. Even with the best of intentions, Hatvany misses the mark by a wide margin. I recommend readers Bypass It Happens All the Time.

Brand new review: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

By Ekta R. Garg

March 15, 2017

Genre: YA fantasy

Rated: Bookmark it!

A princess and an emperor’s son become a reluctant team in a tournament of magic, each of them hoping to pursue their options to fulfill their destinies. Along the way they will have to battle unusual beasts and beings as well as their greatest fears and desires if they want to come out alive. Author Roshani Chokshi takes readers through a sumptuous story in the description-rich novel A Crown of Wishes.

Gauri has spent several months in less-than-ideal conditions for a princess: the dank prison of the neighboring kingdom, Ujijain. It doesn’t help that Ujijain and her own kingdom, Bharata, don’t get along. What’s even worse is that her brother, the king of Bharata, arranged for her kidnapping and imprisonment, and it’s supposed to lead to her execution. All under the guise of animosity between the two kingdoms, of course.

All her life, Gauri has been a fighter. She trained as a soldier and knows her weapons better than most men on the battlefield. She never let her gender get in the way, but occasionally her ego has tripped her. There’s no other way to face the truth of how she ended up in Ujijain’s darkest, deepest jail.

Her intentions were good: she wanted to upend her brother’s cruel, relentless rule and take his place to restore resources and order to Bharata. But she let her paranoia trump her ability to trust those closest to her, and her brother took advantage of that blind spot. Instead of fighting her brother for the right to the crown, she ended up fighting for scraps of food and information from Ujijain’s prison guards.

Vikram, the son of Ujijain’s emperor, has no illusions about his own future. Despite the simpering council members under his father, Vikram knows they’re setting him up to be their puppet, and they have the tactical advantage to do so. They’re the only ones in the kingdom, other than the emperor, who know that his mother was a courtesan.

His father treats him with love and affection, but as an aging monarch his opinion has begun mattering less. The council keeps encouraging Vikram to visit ashrams to “improve” himself, which essentially means Vikram stays out of the way while the council members make the real decisions. During one of his visits, Vikram meets a sage who presents him with a unique opportunity: enter the Tournament of Wishes and change his fate.

The prospect sounds tailor-made for Vikram, but he can only participate with a partner. As he ponders his options, he hears about Gauri’s impending execution. Suddenly he gets an idea that seems ridiculous at best: why not invite Gauri along? Her reputation as a warrior precedes her, and that could be an advantage in a tournament that starts, ends, and runs by magic.

With a little convincing, Gauri agrees to Vikram’s proposal. They don’t get along at all and Gauri hates anything to do with magic, but she doesn’t see any other way out of her own predicament. If she wants to save Bharata from her evil brother, she will have to make use of any weapon in her arsenal—even if it’s not made of metal or comes with a blade.

Author Roshani Chokshi gives readers a novel so lavish that every paragraph feels gilded. As a result, readers will definitely want to resist the urge to skim. Despite its official billing as a novel for young adult readers, adults will also enjoy Chokshi’s rich prose. Also, one of the book’s greatest assets comes in the fact that although it is technically the second book in a series, Chokshi creates an independent story that doesn’t require prior knowledge of any of the characters or their history.

Her descriptions push the boundaries of whimsy at times, and readers might have a tough time in a few spots knowing whether Chokshi uses her words in a metaphorical way or a literal one. Also, she slips out of her story world once or twice by using modern-day Western phrases like “having skin the game.” Because Chokshi’s spent so many pages building this fantastical world of magic, the slip-ups feel particularly jarring. Nonetheless, for the most part Chokshi’s story will charm readers in only the way magic can.

I recommend readers Bookmark A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi.

Latest review: The Hollywood Daughter by Kate Alcott

By Ekta R. Garg

March 8, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it

The daughter of a Hollywood publicist gets a front row seat to some of the most glamorous and most sordid real-life tales coming out of the movie business. When her movie star idol makes a very public personal choice, the girl must deal with the gap between onscreen fantasies and the harshness of real life. Author Kate Alcott delves into life behind the scenes of the golden age of Hollywood in the somewhat promising but ultimately disappointing novel The Hollywood Daughter.

Jessica “Jesse” Malloy gets to hear about the lives of Hollywood stars from a primary source: her father, a publicist for the Selznick Studios. In particular, Jesse loves the fact that her father represents Ingrid Bergman. No one else, Jesse believes, exemplifies a wholesome American woman. Ingrid is perfection personified.

Her adulation of Ingrid Bergman comes with its challenges, however, the biggest being that Jesse’s mother doesn’t approve. A devout Catholic, Jesse’s mother finds herself the sole dissenter in the Malloy household. She battles her conscience on a daily basis; while she enjoys the money and social prestige her husband’s job brings, she finds it difficult to justify what the Catholic church calls objectionable content.

Jesse does her best to ignore her mother’s concerns, but her mother insists on sending her to an all girls’ Catholic school run by nuns. Despite her initial misgivings, Jesse begins to enjoy her time at the school and meets Kathleen. The two become fast friends, gushing over everything…including the movie stars. Finally, for Jesse everything seems to come together. A new best friend and a courtside view to her favorite actress’s life. What more could a girl want?

When news breaks about Ingrid Bergman’s extramarital affair and impending pregnancy, however, Jesse’s world flips upside down. Everything she thought she knew about her idol shatters. Jesse’s father decides to fly to Italy to meet Ingrid and try to persuade her in person to come home, and at the last minute Jesse tags along. They do their best to plead their case, but Ingrid doesn’t want to come home. Jesse comes back to the States brokenhearted. Her idol isn’t so perfect after all, and her entire perspective changes forever.

Author Kate Alcott creates some charming moments in The Hollywood Daughter. Jesse’s adoration of Ingrid Bergman ring true, and readers will get a realistic glimpse into life in the movie industry’s heyday. Interesting, too, are the facts about the Catholic church’s level of involvement and influence in Hollywood during that time period.

Unfortunately the charming moments don’t carry the book. What starts as an interesting examination of a heartbroken fan turns into a lackluster story. Alcott devotes the majority of the book to the flashback that details Jesse’s first interactions with Ingrid and Ingrid’s downfall. By the time the flashback ends, readers will most likely forget where the original story arc began.

The story loses even more steam from there. Kathleen joins the story in real time, but the frame story for the flashback weakens the plot’s impact. Jesse’s mother, a main driving force in Jesse’s childhood, disappears from her life and the book after the flashback. While the idea of Jesse questioning her faith works in theory, in practice it doesn’t really do much for the book overall.

In the end the elements in The Hollywood Daughter don’t coalesce. Readers will probably want to Bypass the book.

Latest review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

By Ekta R. Garg

March 1, 2017

Genre: Magical realism

Rated: Bookmark it! first, then Binge

Two people find themselves in a duel set by patrons who train students to fight for them. When the students fall in love and want to stop competing, the circus that serves as the duel’s venue starts to experience trouble. It will take all the magic they possess to find a solution to help everyone. Author Erin Morgenstern enchants readers on multiple levels in the whimsical novel The Night Circus.

From the time they’re both young, Celia and Marco have been groomed to compete against one another in a duel for magicians. Celia’s patron, Hector, begins when she shows up on his doorstep as a young child. After her mother commits suicide, Celia has nowhere else to go. Hector is also Celia’s father, and despite her young age he can see the innate talent that he himself has used for decades to enthrall audiences and compete against his arch rival.

Hector sends word to that rival, Alexander, that he’s found a student for the next phase of their contest. After meeting Celia, Alexander decides to choose a student for himself. He goes to an orphanage and picks a young boy to train. The boy takes the name Marco and follows Alexander’s stringent rules.

Alexander and Hector start teaching their respective charges, albeit in radically different ways. Their rivalry has lasted for decades, and neither of them wants to concede. They keep Celia and Marco apart until they find the appropriate time and place for their students to begin competing against one another.

Through a variety of acquaintances and in separate circumstances, Celia and Marco get involved in a special circus. The circus, known as Le Cirques des Reves or Circus of Dreams, opens at nightfall, closes at dawn, and includes acts the likes of which no one has ever seen. The unusual hours of operation as well as the mysterious way the circus appears in locations unannounced compounds its aura. While other performers suspect the truth, circus patrons don’t know that what they think of as clever misdirection and engineering feats are acts of true magic.

Hector and Alexander have found their dueling venue.

Celia works directly with the circus; Marco acts as a manager. Both create feature tents that delight visitors. Both get to know each other through their creations. The more they get to know the tents, the more they fall in love.

The two have known about the duel since the beginning, of course, but they decide they no longer want to take part in the challenge. By the time they come to this choice, however, they know leaving the circus will be complicated. Too many people have come to depend on it, both those who work in it as well as those who visit it. They will have to decide whether their love is worth sacrificing the circus. If Celia and Marco just walk away from it all, the circus will fall apart—literally.

Author Erin Morgenstern accomplishes a rare feat: four complementary plots that take readers through her book. Morgenstern gives her plots the freedom around the story the way a visitor would meander through the Circus of Dreams. The result: a story that whispers its secrets in lush, lyrical prose.

The main plot of Celia and Marco will keep readers pressing through the pages. Morgenstern draws in readers further by addressing them directly as if they were actually at the circus themselves, using the direct address as one of the subplots. The third subplot introduces readers to a special clockmaker who starts out as a contractor for a clock for the circus and becomes so much more.

Then readers meet Bailey, a farm boy who wants more from life. He and some of the circus performers form the fourth subplot. Bailey finds his purpose when he visits the circus and meets one of its participants in what turns out to be unforgettable circumstances.

Truly, repeat visits to this circus will only enhance and increase its charm and mystique. The novel contains a quality inherent in books like the Chronicles of Narnia, where one visit isn’t enough and multiple visits only deepen the longing for more. In accomplishing this, Morgenstern has created something special.

Her depth of character and story will tempt readers to rush through the book, but the level of detailing she provides demands attention. For this reason alone, I recommend readers not binge The Night Circus; it’s every book lover’s dream come true. I recommend readers Bookmark this book the first time through and then Binge it the second time.

Latest review: The Best Mistake Mystery by Sylvia McNicoll

By Ekta R. Garg

February 22, 2017

Genre: Middle grade mystery

Rated: Borrow it

A teenage dogwalker becomes the target of a threat after mysterious events at his school. He’ll have to figure out who’s sending him threatening texts and also how to help his classmate if he wants his routine to return to normal. Author Sylvia McNicoll gives middle grade readers a straightforward mystery in the fairly likeable novel The Best Mistake Mystery.

Seventh grader Stephen Nobel misses his best friend, but after Jessie moves away during the summer Stephen knows he has to navigate the new school year alone. His trick of counting his mistakes during the day helps but only a little. His nerdy classmate, Renee, decides they’re friends now, but Stephen does his best to avoid her.

Avoiding Renee becomes next to impossible, however, when the fire alarm goes off at school. She stays close to Stephen as they all file out, and soon enough Stephen figures out the alarm wasn’t a drill. Things start to get really tricky when a bomb squad shows up at the school and “detonates” a backpack, which means school gets out for the day. Because Renee doesn’t want to go home alone, she tags along.

Stephen takes the opportunity to walk his new canine clients, Ping and Pong, but the news from school only becomes more complicated in the days that follow. Someone drives a car into the school, and the principal’s wedding dress gets stolen.

The problems become personal when Renee reveals that the police have begun to investigate her brother as a person of interest in the incident at the school with the car. Then someone dognaps one of Stephen’s clients. He’ll have to rely on Renee and his own wits in order to figure out what’s happening before something else bad happens.

Author Sylvia McNicoll creates a fairly relatable character in Stephen. He deals with many of the same issues that today’s middle schoolers tackle, and target readers will identify with Stephen. McNicoll also creates awareness of social anxiety in a subtle way, introducing it in an accessible way to readers unfamiliar with concept.

Less subtle is the way McNicoll presents the mystery itself. Despite the attempts at misdirection and inserting red herrings, the mystery unfolds in a fairly obvious manner. Readers who enjoy the enigmatic progression of a good mystery may find this book a little lacking. The novel is more suited for reluctant readers who might need a little encouragement to get through a book. The easy clues will help them enjoy the payoff of a good mystery.

I recommend readers Borrow The Best Mistake Mystery.

Newest review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

February 8, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Binge it!

A mother to a three-year-old disappears, and 10 years later that daughter wants to know where her mother went. The girl ropes in two reluctant adults to help, and the three of them work together to solve the mystery with an end no one could have guessed. Author Jodi Picoult will make readers pause and want to start over at the beginning of the book as soon as they’re done with it in the thought-provoking novel Leaving Time.

Jenna Metcalf knows one thing for sure: her mother, Alice, left when was three years old. Her grandmother raised her, but her grandmother doesn’t fit the stereotype of a soft-hearted woman who bakes cookies and wears sweaters and comfortable shoes. Jenna knows her grandma loves her, but she desperately misses Alice. All she has of her mother is the journals Alice kept during her research into elephant grief in Africa.

She has read and re-read Alice’s journals hoping for some clue to her mother’s whereabouts. More disturbing is the question of what made Alice leave in the first place. The logical person to ask would be her father, Thomas, except that not long after Alice’s disappearance Thomas got admitted to a psychiatric ward. On his better days, he treats Jenna with gentleness. On his bad days, he sees her as his lost wife.

It doesn’t help that Alice’s disappearance came at the end of a night of tragedy. One of the employees at the elephant reserve in New Hampshire that Thomas built died in a horrible accident. The police found Alice unconscious and took her to a hospital. When she regained consciousness, she left the hospital before anyone could find out what happened that night. No one has seen her since.

But that isn’t good enough for Jenna. She’s spent hours looking into her mother’s disappearance and trying to solve the mystery, if only to get an answer to the question of why. Why would her mother leave her behind? Why didn’t she come back for Jenna at some point?

Having exhausted all other options, Jenna enlists the help of psychic Serenity Jones. By the time Jenna finds Serenity, the woman is doing fake readings for whatever meager prices she can charge. Despite her genuine talent of talking to the dead, a botched reading from her past leaves her unable to communicate with who have passed away. Serenity really doesn’t want to help Jenna, but Jenna eventually talks her around.

Jenna isn’t done recruiting her team, however. She tracks down Virgil Stanhope, the officer on the case when Alice disappeared. After copious cups of coffee to get him sober, Jenna convinces Virgil that helping her is better than spending the rest of his days at the bottom of a bottle. Virgil opposes the entire operation, but Alice’s disappearance has haunted him as much as it’s haunted Jenna.

The three start working through all the details of Alice’s disappearance. The more time they spend together, the more they realize the information from the police investigation isn’t the full story. What the three of them discover will keep them second-guessing until the end of their new search.

Author Jodi Picoult delves so deeply into her story world that before long readers will live and breathe the details of the characters’ lives. She handles younger characters and older ones with ease. Jenna’s voice during her chapters comes through loud and clear. Readers’ hearts will ache for her as she describes life without a mother. The fact that Jenna doesn’t even know whether Alice is alive or dead makes her longing worse, for both her and readers.

Picoult’s mastery with characters’ voices continues with Serenity and Virgil. Both of them have spent considerable time in their careers hiding from the truth. Both of them need Jenna as much as she needs them. They just don’t know it when they meet her. Picoult winds the threads of all three characters with such delicacy that readers won’t see the ending coming. When it does, everything makes sense in the most right way possible for the mystery.

I recommend readers Binge Leaving Time.