Brand new review: Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

By Ekta R. Garg

March 22, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: March 20, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

A world-renowned musician receives a devastating medical diagnosis. As his condition deteriorates his estranged ex-wife becomes his caretaker, and the two of them reflect on their relationship as everything comes to an end. Author Lisa Genova brings all her scientific knowledge to illuminate yet another mystifying disease in the informative yet unsatisfying novel Every Note Played.

Richard Evans knows how to enthrall a crowd. He’s done it for years, and the attention makes him preen. Piano fans all over the globe have listened to him play the most complicated pieces with flawlessness.

Of course, his personal life is far from flawless. After several years of resentment and neglect, his wife decides she’s had enough and they get a divorce. But that doesn’t really matter to Richard. Why does he need the attention of one woman when the entire world sits with bated breath at his feet?

Then comes the day when his fingers stop doing what he wants them to, and Richard goes to the doctor. He doesn’t have tendinitis or any other condition common to pianists. Richard has Lou Gehrig’s disease, known in the medical world as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis‎, or ALS. Most research states he’ll die within five years.

Since the divorce, Karina has done what she can to live a normal life. She sits at a piano day after day trying to impart some love and appreciation for the instrument to kids who come for lessons. The majority of them plunk their way through those 30-minute sessions, torture for students and teacher both.

Karina despises Richard, no doubt about that. When she had the opportunity to take her own music career forward in a major way, he convinced her to move from New York City to Boston. The move benefitted Richard tenfold. It took Karina’s music away from her. It didn’t help that she started as a classical pianist like Richard and veered into the world of jazz, something Richard has sneered at time and again. No, she’s happy to have her space now that he’s gone.

Then she finds out about Richard’s diagnosis. Her initial attempts to offer her sympathy get rebuffed, but that doesn’t surprise her. What does surprise her is the day Richard calls, desperate after he falls and no one is around to help. Even though she would rather slam the cover of the piano keys over her own fingers repeatedly, Karina tells Richard he needs to move out of his Boston brownstone and back in with her.

As Richard’s disease progresses, the two find neutral ground. When Richard musters up the courage to tell Grace, their college-aged daughter, about his disease, Karina acts as mediator between the two. Whether she wants to forgive him or not for the utter carelessness he showed her during their marriage, Karina realizes she won’t have a choice. One way or the other, she will simply have to let Richard go.

Author Lisa Genova shows her command once again in tackling a neuroscientific disease. As with her other books, Genova takes the complicated issues surrounding the disease and presents them in laymen’s terms. If a person knows absolutely nothing about ALS before reading Every Note Played, they will be armed with a wealth of information by the end of the novel.

It’s truly a shame, then, that Genova’s detailed research and lively descriptions aren’t supported by characters worthy of either. Richard’s arrogance as a concert pianist may seem justified in the start of the book, but his arrogance never wavers. Even when he’s completely dependent on Karina for the simplest of tasks like wiping his chin, everything about his life revolves around what he thinks and wants.

As the wronged wife, Karina may deserve sympathy at first. At some point her willingness to let Richard push her around makes her character balance that fine edge between a dignified partner and a whiny victim. It’s hard to tell sometimes what role she wants to play.

Their daughter, Grace, figures into the book more as a placeholder. The story really revolves around Richard and Karina and their individual struggles. Even knowing they were previously married makes it difficult to imagine them as a unit. They don’t like one another at all, which may make it harder for readers to suspend their disbelief when Karina allows Richard to come back home for the duration of his life.

Fans of Genova’s work will definitely appreciate her careful detailing. For other readers, however, I suggest they Borrow Every Note Played.


Latest review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

By Ekta R. Garg

March 15, 2018

Genre: Mystery

Release date: March 20, 2018

Rated: Bypass it

When an abandoned boarding school gets bought by a mysterious benefactor, a journalist decides to do a story on the transaction. She has a personal attachment to the school, and when a body is discovered on the grounds her article almost becomes a crusade. Author Simone St. James strings together a series of unrelated events and forces them into the well-written but failed novel The Broken Girls.

Despite the two decades that have passed, Fiona Sheridan can’t let go of the facts surrounding the murder of her sister, Deb. Fiona’s boyfriend, a cop in their town of Barrons, Vermont, wishes she’d let it all go, but she can’t. That’s why Fiona finds herself at odd hours wandering the grounds of Idlewild, the shuttered boarding school where Deb’s body was found.

Unlike other people, though, Fiona doesn’t have to deal with uncertainty when it comes to the identity of her sister’s murderer. Deb’s boyfriend, Tim Christopher, was convicted of the crime and sent to prison for life. He’s spent 20 years declaring his innocence, but Fiona isn’t buying it. His assertion most likely comes from the arrogance that only the wealthy can afford; Tim’s family once owned Idlewild.

Until now. Fiona receives word of the school getting sold to a woman who seems to have no connection to it. The news sparks Fiona to pitch the idea to the magazine where she works of doing a story on the sale. Her editor lets her start working on the story with reluctance. Even though it’s been so long, no one in Barrons has forgotten Deb’s death.

As Fiona starts doing research, a body is discovered on the grounds of Idlewild by the crew hired for renovations. Fiona is disheartened by the reality of what Idlewild was: a school where parents sent their daughters when those daughters didn’t match society’s standards and needed to be hidden from the world. At least Deb had a family who mourned her death. The mystery girl, it seems, had no one. Fiona is determined to give the girl some dignity by searching for her identity. The more research she does, though, the more she gets drawn into the shadows that persist around Idlewild and the secrets they hide.

Author Simone St. James takes a story that could have blossomed with possibilities and instead lets it wither with the book’s biggest weakness: too many unrelated ideas. The book goes back and forth between a group of friends who attended Idlewild in 1950 and Fiona in 2014 as she pursues the story of the school and its tragedies. All of the characters talk about Mary, a ghost purported to haunt the school, but readers only get Mary’s story through second-hand information.

An abandoned school haunted by a ghost seems to offer the perfect setting for a story juxtaposing the past and the present. Instead, St. Simone tries to force a string of unrelated events into one cohesive novel. Her strategy doesn’t work and will leave readers frustrated as they keep looking for connections between Mary, the mystery girl, and Fiona’s sister but find none. The only thing the girls have in common is that all three died on the grounds of Idlewild, and that fact alone isn’t enough to carry a book.

The writing itself is lovely. St. Simone offers descriptions of small-town Vermont in rich detail that will bring the streets and the landscape to life. Readers will find it easy to picture Barrons in the fall. Unfortunately, strong descriptions can’t save the story. The novel, then, becomes a collection of pages of unfulfilled potential. I recommend readers Bypass The Broken Girls.

Brand new review: Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

By Ekta R. Garg

March 8, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 23, 2018

Rated: Bypass it

A CIA analyst discovers a horrible secret about her husband and must decide between her job and her marriage. As she grapples with her loyalty to her country and her loyalty to her relationship, she discovers that her devotion to both aren’t as airtight as she thought. Author Karen Cleveland, a former CIA analyst herself, gives readers a stereotypical plot and a helpless protagonist in her novel Need to Know.

Vivian Miller spends her days looking into other people’s lives. As a counterintelligence analyst for the CIA, Vivian specializes in Russia—that is, she uses the technology at her disposal to spy on people suspected of being Russian agents hiding in plain sight. Sleepers, they’re called, but her project keeps her up at nights. Despite developing an algorithm that has the potential to identify Russian sleepers, Vivian’s piece of the project is in danger of being shut down after a dismal lack of results.

When she gets into the computer of a confirmed Russian sleeper, then, Vivian feels relieved. Finally, something is going right. Until she pokes around in the sleeper’s files and finds a picture of her husband, Matt, staring right back at her. Contrary to protocol, her training, and her allegiance to the United States government, Vivian doesn’t tell anyone. Instead, she goes home and confronts Matt.

Matt doesn’t deny anything. Vivian’s dread turns to horror when she learns he’s been aligned with Russia since he was a teen, taken in as an orphan and groomed to spy on the United States. Through the years, given the nature of her job, Vivian shared limited information about her work with Matt; he’s quick to reassure her now that he’s only passed on benign facts. His marriage to her may have been by design—direct access to the CIA through one of its own—but somewhere along the way he fell in love with her and now wants only to protect her and their four kids.

Vivian finds herself testing the limits of her commitment to her work and the country. By all reasonable accounts, she should turn Matt in immediately. In fact, he urges her to do so. It’s the right choice. But she loves him, and her heart clenches when she thinks of what their four young children might have to face if their father gets sent to prison. With her marriage vows in the forefront of her mind, Vivian begins making compromises until she’s left with the worst choice possible.

Author Karen Cleveland writes with authority about the CIA. Her own time as an analyst serves her well in writing fiction. Readers will have no problem seeing Vivian’s work as real and an organic part of what keeps our country safe.

It’s a shame, then, that Cleveland allows her plot to undo Vivian’s intelligent, self-assured, enterprising spirit. Had Vivian joined the CIA mere months or a year before her discovery of Matt’s identity, her willingness to turn a blind eye to her husband’s deception would be easier to justify. For someone who has spent a decade working to out-think and out-smart political enemies, it comes as a major disappointment that she refuses to utilize her training even at the risk of losing someone close to her.

As the story progresses, Matt cajoles, pleads, and stonewalls Vivian into making choices that only benefit him. Even as he tries to convince Vivian to turn him in, readers will be able to see through his lies. He may feel strongly for Vivian, yes, but he didn’t survive decades as a Russian operative only on his charm. The story is told in first-person, so readers only get Vivian’s side of the story, but Matt’s strength and sheer grit to stay loyal to his interests come through loud and clear. Vivian melts into a puddle of indecision by the end, which may leave readers shaking their heads and wishing she had remained steadfast to her work and, ultimately, herself.

Despite the many opportunities to redeem herself and the book, Vivian doesn’t do either. In the current day and age, readers would have welcomed a strong female CIA analyst with the guts to use her training and intelligence to do her job well. I recommend readers Bypass Need to Know.

Newest review: The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth

By Ekta R. Garg

March 1, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: March 6, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

When a woman moves to a new town, her arrival incites curiosity. As the neighbors get to know her, they must juggle their own challenges and secrets while trying to figure out how to save face in front of one another. Australian author Sally Hepworth gives readers a well-rounded look at small-town life in the warm yet slightly confusing novel The Family Next Door.

In the cul-de-sac of Pleasant Court in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham, everyone gets along well enough. Essie Walker knows she can count on her neighbors to take in her mail or water her plants if she and her husband, Ben, ever go on vacation. Of course, as a mother to preschooler Mia and six-month-old Polly, Essie and Ben haven’t gone anywhere in ages. Ben’s a devoted father and husband and a fitness enthusiast; he created a fitness app that took off and now has a workout studio to boot. Essie…well, Essie is managing life with two young children.

On the surface everything looks fine, but Essie knows that’s just a front. When she had Mia, she dealt with severe postpartum depression. It was enough to make her mother move in next door. Fortunately things were much better after Polly was born. Now Essie just wishes she could get more sleep.

The heat of summer is making people a little cranky, so everyone welcomes the distraction of a single woman moving to Pleasant Court. Essie’s neighbor across the street, Ange, has the most information about Isabelle Heatherington, the new arrival. Ange owns her own real estate firm and handled the transaction of Isabelle’s rental. Her kids are a little older, so of course, Essie reasons, it would be easier for Ange to have a career and a family. Not like Essie or Fran, whose girls are about the same ages as Mia and Polly.

Essie envies Ange and Fran. They always seem to have everything put together. What she doesn’t know, however, is that behind their closed doors Ange and Fran experience their own challenges. Secrets and lies in their marriages plague them. Each of them looks at her neighbors and wishes for the other’s life. When Isabelle shows up, she seems to have the freedom they all crave. Something doesn’t seem quite right, though, about Isabelle, and the longer she spends on Pleasant Court the more the other women find themselves challenged with situations they never imagined.

Author Sally Hepworth gives readers a familiar setup: the goings-on of small-town families. There’s something inherently charming in Hepworth’s writing. The Family Next Door evokes the feeling that, say, Fredrik Backman’s novels might. Hepworth doesn’t necessarily write with Backman’s level of whimsical prose that delights and touches hearts all in the same sentence, but she creates the same atmosphere of wanting to spend time with these characters and making sure that at the end of it all everyone will be okay.

The biggest drawback in the book comes in too many characters. Readers may forget who Essie, Fran, and Ange are all married too and will have to remind themselves. Stopping for that mental checklist will inevitably pull readers out of the story over and over again, which becomes distracting. It’s a shame too; Hepworth paints a cozy picture of this Australian neighborhood and its inhabitants, and readers will find the distraction slightly annoying because it takes away from their time with the women in the book.

Hepworth creates intrigue by giving each of the women, as well as Essie’s mother, Barbara, and a mysterious, first-person narrator, their own chapters. The women take turns telling their stories, and by the end they endear themselves to readers. Hepworth also succeeds in adding a twist that truly surprises, and although some of the information in the climax feels rushed it contributes to the story in a meaningful way. By the end readers will receive the message loud and clear: the family next door to theirs really isn’t so different from themat all.

Those looking for a book about marriage and relationships, including the ones we wish had the courage to formulate, may enjoy this novel. I recommend readers Borrow The Family Next Door.



Latest review: Killer Choice by Tom Hunt

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

February 22, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 30, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it!

A man who needs money desperately for his dying wife receives an unbelievable offer. Someone is willing to give him all the funds. All he has to do is kill a person. The man must grapple with the ultimate struggle of conscience: save his wife or keep his morality intact. Author Tom Hunt presents an interesting question in an entertaining, albeit somewhat predictable, plot in his debut novel Killer Choice.

Gary Foster and his wife, Beth, cling to one another with that old-world brand of love, the kind where two people meet at a young age and stay together forever. The only expression of love they haven’t shared yet is a baby. Finally, after ages, that dream is also going to come true. Beth is seven months along in her pregnancy with their first child, a baby boy they can’t wait to meet.

Life gets tossed in an unpredictable direction, however, when Beth collapses while shopping. Passersby help her to the ER where doctors begin conducting tests. Within days, Gary and Beth get the news: Beth has a malignant and aggressive brain tumor. The prognosis says she has less than a year to live.

Their physician tells them about a new experimental treatment that has shown some promise. A doctor in Germany is ready to accept Beth as a patient if Beth and Gary can move to Europe for the duration of the treatment. The total cost is $200,000. Insurance won’t cover any of it.

The amount almost crushes Gary’s spirit. Less than a year earlier, he and his brother, Rod, opened their own store and struggle to stay in business. Thanks to budget cuts, Beth lost her full-time job as an art teacher and now works the odd day as a substitute. Money had already become a precious commodity. Now it’s all Gary and Beth can think about.

It seems like a godsend, then, when Gary receives a call from a mysterious man who calls himself Shamrock. A spate of PR drummed up by community service organizations has put Gary and Beth’s story in the media. Shamrock has heard about their financial need and can donate the entire amount. All he asks is one favor: Gary needs to kill a man handpicked by Shamrock. Without asking any questions.

Gary didn’t think anything could shock him after Beth’s diagnosis. He was wrong. He’s never acted in a violent manner, never mind killing someone. If he doesn’t commit this heinous crime, Beth will definitely die. If he goes through with the horrific act, Beth gets an honest-to-goodness chance to live but he’ll spend the rest of his life knowing he murdered someone. As Beth’s condition continues to deteriorate, Gary knows he’ll have to make a decision soon.

Author Tom Hunt gives readers a pretty straightforward novel. Many readers will spot the supposed twists in the story, and Hunt depends heavily on stereotypical devices to advance the plot. For example, when Gary comes home from meeting Shamrock determined to turn down the money because of the strings attached, Beth’s health suddenly gets worse. Hunt puts the story close to Detroit to make it impossible for Gary to find a different way to fund Beth’s treatment. Shamrock needs someone killed because of a drug deal gone bad.

Despite the stereotypes that would induce groans in a different book, Hunt’s simplistic approach also composes its strength. Even as readers guess accurately what will happen, Hunt’s audacity to follow through on those guesses will keep readers swiping or flipping pages. The thrill comes, then, not from the actual premise Hunt proposes but by what comes after the main conflict comes to pass.

In that way, too, the book falls squarely into its genre. Most thrillers offer a series of highs, each more heady than the last, and Hunt doesn’t disappoint in this factor. I recommend readers Bookmark Killer Choice by Tom Hunt.

Newest review: This Is Not A Love Letter by Kim Purcell

By Ekta R. Garg

February 15, 2018

Release date: January 30, 2018

Genre: YA mystery

Rated: Bypass it

When a teen goes missing, his girlfriend refuses to believe he’s run away. Instead she focuses on the positive and begins documenting the search for him, hoping to share it with him when he returns. Author Kim Purcell recounts this tale for teens by using the unusual choice of second person point of view that ultimately weakens her novel This Is Not A Love Letter.

Jessie Doone loves her boyfriend, baseball star Chris Kirk, but lately Chris has gotten clingy. He wants to get married before they both graduate from high school, and while Jessie can’t imagine her life without Chris she also wants a chance at pursuing her own dreams outside their small town. She wants to leave it all behind: her mother who struggles with hoarding and the prejudiced residents of Pendling, Washington, who look at her and Chris and see only a biracial couple.

Chris supports her goals of studying the environment in college, but he’s begun pressuring Jessie for a decision on getting married. Jessie finally hits her limit and asks Chris for a break. Just a week, she says, of no contact, to give them both time to think about their futures. Surely, she reasons, a week apart can only yield good results.

Then Jessie gets the news: Chris has gone missing. Unlike other times when Chris would take some time for himself, he has left no note. No one knows where he’s gone.

The police think Chris has run away. Jessie thinks something more sinister is possible. Just weeks earlier, several other baseball players beat up Chris because he’s black. Chris believes deeply in nonviolent forms of protest and didn’t fight back. Now Jessie wishes he had.

Jessie decides to keep a record of the search for him. In her journal entries, she talks directly to Chris in the hopes that sending out her love in strong waves will bring him home. The longer he’s gone, however, the less positive the people around Jessie remain that Chris will come back safe and sound.

Author Kim Purcell presents her story with an unusual choice of point of view: she tells the story in second person, which means the main character addresses the reader as “you” in telling the story. In the case of This Is Not A Love Letter, Jessie tells the story to Chris as she waits for some news of him. She tells him several times throughout the book how much she loves and misses him and wonders why he left. In some ways, the second person point of view might make sense. Unfortunately it doesn’t work.

Because Jessie spends the entire book “talking” to Chris, the majority of the conversation turns into how she feels about him and their relationship. Jessie also spends plenty of time detailing life in Pendling with a mother who can barely leave the house because of her issues with hoarding. What readers won’t get is much time with Chris or anyone else in the book, and because the story contains a mystery at its heart the essential elements for that mystery never get shared.

Chris and Jessie’s friends hint at issues Chris may have, but readers get only those hints. More astute members of the target readership will probably figure out early on what happened to Chris, but receiving confirmation of a correct guess comes with little satisfaction. At a key point in the story, one of the secondary characters reprimands Jessie. Not everything about Chris missing, the character says, is about Jessie. Yet the choice of point of view and the heavy doses of teenage melodrama give readers the distinct feeling that Chris going missing is about Jessie’s feelings.

The book tries to raise some serious issues teens face today, including racism and what it’s like to live with a hoarding family member, but it doesn’t do much justice to any of them. I recommend readers Bypass This Is Not A Love Letter.

Newest review: The Book of Pearl by Timothee de Fombelle

By Ekta R. Garg

February 8, 2018

Genre: YA fiction/magical realism

Release date: February 6, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

A young man gets sent to the world of ordinary humans, doomed to spend the rest of his life away from his one true love. He does everything he can to go home, but the enemy that chased him away wants him dead. Translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon do their best to interpret French author Timothee de Fombelle’s book, The Book of Pearl, but ultimately can’t fill in the blanks of a loose story.

A boy runs—almost literally—into Joshua Pearl, a stranger and loner, in the middle of the woods. The boy wants to escape his own challenges, but when he meets Joshua he reevaluates his life. There’s something about this elderly gentleman that keeps the boy in the woods with him.

Despite his skepticism, Joshua develops a friendship with the boy and reveals his story. Joshua is not, in fact, Joshua Pearl. His true name is Ilian, and he is the younger prince of his land in a place far removed from this world. Ilian’s older brother, jealous and greedy about ruling after the death of their father, banishes Ilian to the land of ordinary humans.

Ilian then tells his new young friend about Olia, a fairy charged with protecting Ilian in their home country. Ilian and Olia met when the two were young, and through the years developed first a friendship and then a love that seals them to one another. Ilian’s brother knows about Olia, if not exactly the nature of Ilian’s relationship to her, and manages to sideline Olia long enough to send Ilian away.

Ilian arrives in the middle of one of history’s greatest tragedies: the Second World War. He finds himself on a street in Paris where a kind couple takes him in, and he becomes the son they lost years earlier in a tragedy. When the war demands the couple’s son as a soldier, Ilian takes the son’s name and rechristens himself Joshua.

Slowly he learns the ways of this world but is convinced that if he can collect enough artifacts with the sense of magic, they will transport him back to his home. Unknown to Ilian, Olia has found a way to the world of humans and has begun searching for him. Right on her heels, however, is a contingent sent by Ilian’s brother to eliminate him for good.

Author Timothee de Fombelle builds a story with beautiful descriptions. The care taken by translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon is evident in the lushness of the English version of the story. If the language is this rich in a translated version, readers will probably wish they could experience the book’s true depth in the original French.

The plot itself has its own share of problems, however. The protagonist recounting Ilian and Olia’s tale remains unnamed, which keeps considerable distance between the readers and him. Because the focus of the book is, in fact, Ilian and Olia and Ilian’s new life as Joshua, readers get little information about the narrator. They may end up wondering why he’s necessary.

Also, Fombelle tries to unfold several ideas at roughly the same time—the narrator’s own angst in life; Ilian’s birth and his brother’s vengeance; Olia’s charge as Ilian’s protector; Ilian’s arrival in Paris; his transformation into Joshua Pearl; Pearl’s mystique and pursuance of artifacts. Unlike other books that have reveled in a multi-story plot—Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus comes immediately to mind—here the various plot points don’t coalesce to create one single pool of shimmering fairy tale magic. It certainly tries but doesn’t quite get there.

Equally frustrating is the way Fombelle tries to duck the need for some necessary story devices. The book moves forward confidently in some parts and in others relies too much on the fact that readers will accept major action because the characters state it. Late in the book, the narrator pops up as an afterthought to take the story to its climax. It’s almost as if Ilian and Olia had to wait for the narrator to arrive before moving forward.

Readers who enjoy the language typically employed in fairy tale stories will appreciate The Book of Pearl. Others may find the multi-plot system and the unnamed narrator too much of a distraction. I recommend readers Borrow The Book of Pearl.