Latest review: The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Teens/YA memoir

Release date: August 27, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

In 1934 the world witnesses a medical miracle: the birth of a set of identical quintuplets who survive. The Dionne family welcome their daughters but soon learn the girls will be claimed by many people far from the small Canadian town they call home. Author Sarah Miller offers extensive research and sources for her chronicle of this fascinating, yet heartbreaking story in The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

Having birthed several children before May of 1934, Elzire Dionne is no stranger to the aches and pains associated with having a baby. She thinks her most recent pregnancy will proceed like the others, yet it doesn’t. When she goes into labor two months early, no one can predict that the early onset of symptoms means the coming of an incident unlike anything she has seen: she gives birth to quintuplets.

From the start, the Quints, as they come to be known, fight defy all expectations by living beyond the first hours and days of birth. No one, least of all their doctor, Dr. Dafoe, expects them to survive. Still, he and the nurses assigned to the care of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie fulfill their obligation to do what they can to keep the babies alive—and to the astonishment of everyone involved in their care, the girls live.

Word spreads fast about the birth of the Quints, and newspaper readers across Canada and into the United States become fixated on the wellbeing of the girls. During the Depression years, most people struggle to find hope in their own lives. The survival of the quintuplets represents to them a wondrous occurrence: even in the bleakness of the world, an underdog has a chance.

Woefully unprepared for the immediate doubling of their household, the Dionne family do their best to help the new babies. Dr. Dafoe enlists the help of the media, and resources, including breast milk, diapers, and incubators, arrive in droves. So do the people who travel for hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to see the Quints.

Dr. Dafoe worries that someone will try to profit from the unusual birth and eventually convinces Elzire and her husband, Oliva, to allow the Canadian government to take custody of the babies. Despite deep misgivings, the parents agree. For the next nine years, the Quints live in a special hospital built just for them across the street from their birth home. There they receive the exclusive attention of Dr. Dafoe and the nurses who care for them, play with them, and discipline them. They also receive the attention of the thousands of tourists who come to see the girls riding their tricycles in their playground.

Oliva and Elzire object many times to the arrangement, but their voices are ignored for almost a decade. Through the years, the tussle between the Dionne family and the government continues as people near and far profit from Quint newspaper ads, product endorsements, and media opportunities. While Oliva and Elzire eventually win the right to bring the girls home, the discomfort continues. The quintuplets have only known life with the doctor, their nurses, and in the hospital. The relationships they attempt with their parents and other siblings in the following years are strained at best, but one thing that doesn’t change is their bond with one another.

Author Sarah Miller lays out the story of the quintuplets in a chronological format that is easy to follow. Young adult readers as well as adult readers will find themselves fascinated and horrified by turns at everything the Quints endured, including exploitation, abuse, and theft from the significant trust fund set up in their name when they were babies. Miller’s recounting of the experiences of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie circle around one main theme: the tight bond the girls formed and their deep-seated desire to live as individuals in a world that saw them as one person.

Miller takes care to document her sources. If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in quoting the sisters as one. Ironically, the one thing the quintuplets wished for more than anything else—individuality—gets subverted by this collective quoting. Putting that aside, however, the book offers an intriguing look into a time and decade when a medical marvel captivated people and nations.

I recommend readers Bookmark The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

Brand new review: In Conversation with the Stars by Anupama Chopra

By Ekta R. Garg

August 21, 2019

Genre: Celebrity nonfiction

Release date: July 20, 2019

Rated: Borrow it or Watch it / 3 stars

When people think of Bollywood, they probably think of melodrama, music, and beautiful wardrobes. Ardent fans also think of the stars who comprise the Hindi film industry. It’s no secret the industry is driven by stars first and scripts second, although in the last two decades that equation has begun to change (finally.)

In today’s day and age, with social media, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with our favorite actors from any medium in any language. When Anupama Chopra, film critic and wife of acclaimed director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, launched her movie platform Film Companion five years ago, she did so with the intention to offer readers and fans a place where intelligent conversations about cinema could happen.

On that account, Chopra has succeeded a thousand-fold. The articles and videos are thoughtful and informative. Chopra and her plucky team do what they can to push actors to open up while remaining respectful of their stardom.

The announcement of a book of her collection of interviews with some of the biggest names in Bollywood today, then, seemed like a natural supplement to the world of Film Companion. With Chopra’s accessibility to the stars and her ease with interviewing them, the book should have offered readers deeper insight into the world of these celebrities. It does, and yet it doesn’t.

In the book’s introduction, Chopra states outright that the interviews were conducted for Film Companion. What she doesn’t say is that the interviews are verbatim transcripts of the conversations she’s had with actors for the website’s video channel. For anyone who hasn’t seen the video versions of the interviews, the book might offer insights. For those who have watched the videos, the book acts more as a refresher.

One of the challenges of turning video conversations into written text is with the pauses, the sentences that trail into the air, the “ums” and other placeholders most people use when talking. In Conversation with the Stars includes many of these, leading the interviews to read as a little dry and slow. Also, despite many of the stars having moved on from the projects mentioned in the book, Chopra doesn’t share much context for the time in the stars’ careers that the interviews take place.

Priyanka speaks of her work on the ABC show “Quantico.” Ranveer is still shooting “Gully Boy” when Chopra speaks to him here. Both of these events, long passed, date the collection right on publication. It may also leave film fans scratching their heads about why there’s such a long lag between interview time and press time.

Fans of Hindi films enjoy listening to their favorite actors on and off screen. What makes Saif grounded and thoughtful in a live chat makes him come across as privileged and almost uninterested on the page. Anushka’s laser focus in her one-on-one interviews makes her seem almost hyperactive in the written word. Chopra has interviewed the biggest stars and gotten most of them to offer honest, unfiltered looks into their lives in her videos, but this version of those interviews doesn’t showcase her range and talent to be able to do so.

Chopra would have done readers a greater service if she’d used the interviews as source material for full-length articles about the stars. She’s spent enough time in the industry to write cogent, insightful pieces on them. Why not use her sharp training and connections to produce those articles? At the very least, she could update the interviews with the dismal outcome of Varun’s latest film “Kalank” or the comeback-like love Ranbir received for “Sanju.”

The heart of the book is in the right place, but the material is a little disappointing especially considering that Film Companion provided its roots. Given that all of these interviews are online, too, there really isn’t a strong reason for film fans to purchase the book. I recommend readers go online and find the videos of the stars in question and watch Anupama knock it out of the park with those. The result will be three-dimensional, something lacking in In Conversation with the Stars.

Newest review: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

By Ekta R. Garg

August 14, 2019

Genre: Middle grade horror

Release date: September 2018

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A young girl recovering from a recent tragedy must think on her feet to help herself and her classmates out of a scary situation involving ghosts. If she can’t find the answers—or the heart to follow them—all of the kids will be stuck serving an evil power. Author Katherine Arden gives middle grade readers a fair number of thrills and touching moments in the novel Small Spaces.

Olivia “Ollie” Adler just wishes she could stop being “that” girl. The one whose mother died. The one who had a breakdown after it happened. She’s done everything she could to make herself invisible including quitting the softball team and the chess club. But people still keep looking at her and gossiping.

Like when she stands up for Coco Zintner. Is it really Ollie’s fault that Coco has a weird name and is, like, two feet tall? What’s even weirder is that Coco doesn’t really fight back, and she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge afterwards. Just because Ollie stood up to a bunch of the jocks, like Brian Battersby, Coco thinks they’re best friends or something. All the more reason to get lost in a good book. Books are reliable.

On her way home from school one day, Ollie sees a woman standing at the edge of a lake with a book in her hand. The woman looks like she’s ready to pitch the book in the water, and Ollie can’t help herself. She stops to find out what’s going on. The woman looks at her with wild eyes, so Ollie just rescues the book and gets out of there before the crazy lady can hurt her.

When she starts reading, she discovers that the book is actually an old journal kept by someone named Beth who tells the story of her life, hoping, she says, to make sense of it. At one time, a pair of brothers vied for Beth’s attention. Both of them, she says, disappeared after paying a terrible price for one another.

The story is freaky, but what’s even more freaky is the field trip Ollie’s class takes to the very farm where Beth lived. When the class boards the bus to leave, the bus gets lost in a fog that appears out of nowhere. Ollie’s instincts tell her to get off the bus, and just before she does the driver gives her a warning: stick to the small spaces, he says, if she wants to survive.

Coco tags along, and at the last minute Brian does too. The three decide to trek back to the farm to get help, and along the way Ollie learns more about Coco. Even though she’s known Brian for practically most of her life, he, too, surprises her. The three begin to work together as true friends, which will become essential if they want to get out of the woods alive.

Author Katherine Arden offers readers a number of refreshing elements that make the book a departure from others. Ollie’s father breaks stereotypes by being the main chef of the family, a track of the story that is already well established before the novel begins. He doesn’t “discover” a knack for cooking in the wake of losing his wife; instead, his cooking gives him an outlet to reach Ollie through her grief. His dependability—that no matter how hard Ollie cries or how bad the day is, she’ll always have a good meal at the end of it—will endear him to readers, despite the fact that he disappears (out of necessity) for part of the book.

Also, Arden takes Brian from a casual bystander to one of the main supporting characters with deft. She shows his middle school awkwardness in an organic way; it’s clear that Brian feels safe enough with Ollie to share parts of his personality that he wouldn’t share with his hockey friends. Yet sometimes he reverts to that role of class jock, and this seesawing of his nature comes straight out of any middle school. Readers will have no trouble relating to either him or Ollie.

Coco is the livewire, the smallest member of the trio in stature but one who will surprise Ollie, Brian, and readers time and again. Arden establishes her early on as the annoying girl, which gives her space and time to deepen her character when the three friends are faced with the most dire circumstances.

The scary elements later in the book might frighten more sensitive readers, but those who look forward to a good thrill will love them. Arden keeps offering surprises while balancing them with real-life elements, making the book a winner in the end. I recommend readers Bookmark Small Spaces by Katherine Arden.

Latest review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

By Ekta R. Garg

August 7, 2019

Genre: Thriller

Release date: August 6, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A nanny discovers she got much more than she anticipated in what sounded like the “perfect” job. Between creepy elements in the house and children who won’t listen, the young woman fights her growing anxiety and paranoia until she finds herself in prison. Except she says she’s innocent. Author Ruth Ware offers readers her latest thriller in the mostly successful novel The Turn of the Key.

When Rowan Caine answers the ad to become a live-in nanny for a family in the Scottish Highlands, she has no idea she’ll end up in prison accused of murdering one of her charges. Yet here she sits writing to a lawyer, hoping he’ll take her case. She wasn’t the perfect nanny by a far stretch, but Rowan didn’t kill the child and she needs someone who will listen to her story and help her figure out who did.

She’d answered the ad after getting fed up with her employment in a London nursery. Moving to Scotland from a busy city seemed like the perfect life change, and her meeting with her employer, Sandra Elincourt, sealed the deal for Rowan. She wanted more than ever to live in Heatherbrae, the renovated Victorian smart home that did everything anyone needed with the swipe of a screen. Almost overnight Sandra left Rowan with a toddler and two elementary-aged children to join her husband, Bill, on a business trip.

The learning curve for Rowan was steep: dealing with the temperamental smart home app, the temperamental children, and the temperamental housekeeper who clearly disapproved of her. Stories of the home being haunted by its former inhabitants didn’t help, although the mysterious handyman Jack Grant provided Rowan with a distraction. All of Rowan’s instincts told her that something was off about the situation, but she would never have imagined the circumstances leading to the death of one of the children under her care.

Rowan knows she’s not blameless. She lied to get the job, and she’s held things back from her employers. Yet insists she’s innocent of the murder, and she’s hoping the lawyer will understand her position after hearing her story. She doesn’t want to die for someone else’s crime, and despite the tough time she had dealing with the kids she can’t stand the thought of the unnecessary loss of such a young life.

Author Ruth Ware takes her time building the suspense, which may force readers to reevaluate what they think they might know about standard thrillers. At face value, the novel seems to be a “begin-at-the-end” kind of book with the protagonist leading readers through the “how” and “why.” Yet two shocking revelations at the end of the novel—one spelled out, one implied—will make readers pause and rethink what they’ve read.

The result is an ending that could be too subtle. The killer is revealed point blank, but another part of the story might escape notice. Some readers may not understand Ware’s aim in the closing pages, resulting in confusion or the assumption that she took the easy way out. Some of Rowan’s choices regarding the smart home or the outrageous behavior of the oldest child under her care might make readers wonder about her capability for the job. This point gets explained later in the book, but some readers might miss it due to Ware’s aim for subtlety.

Ware excels in revealing tidbits of information along the way, and here, too, she drops breadcrumbs for her readers to follow. Some of them lead to the most unexpected places. Others won’t reveal anything too startling. The end seems to want to convey the final surprise, but the framing of the story might make some readers miss that last shocking piece of information altogether.

Diehard Ruth Ware fans will enjoy this one. Those new to her work might do better starting with a different book. I recommend readers Borrow The Turn of the Key from their local libraries.

Brand new review: Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

By Ekta R. Garg

July 31, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: March 1, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A PhD student meets a young girl who claims to be an alien. Despite the student’s efforts to send the girl home, the child persists in sticking close to her. As she works through the mystery of where the child came from and what to do about her, the student will discover a spark of magic that still resides in her own heart. Debut author Glendy Vanderah draws readers into the world she’s built in meticulous detail with a touching first novel in Where the Forest Meets the Stars.

As a cancer survivor, Joanna “Jo” Teale is eager to get back to her research. Her sudden diagnosis and treatment set her back months, maybe even a year or so, and now that she’s in remission she wants nothing more than to catch up on the bird habitats she’s investigating. As a PhD student in bird ecology and conservation, the budding ornithologist relishes the quiet she’s found in the small cabin she’s rented from her advisor. After the setback of chemo and recovery, life has begun to return to normal.

Normalcy is short-lived, though, when a young girl shows up in Jo’s back yard one night. The girl calls herself Ursa Major after the constellation and claims she’s traveled from its Pinwheel Galaxy to Earth to study humans. When she’s witnessed five miracles, Ursa says, she’ll go back to her own planet.

Jo doesn’t have time for a little girl playing an elaborate prank and tries to convince Ursa to go home. Ursa refuses then hides when Jo calls the police. The sheriff in the small Southern Illinois town refuses to help. If the girl’s a runaway, he says, Social Services will just dump her into a foster home, and he has a personal agenda against foster homes.

It seems like Jo is stuck playing babysitter, which she does not want to do. She has her research, for one. Also, the longer Ursa sticks around, the more she reminds Jo of what she’s lost after a double mastectomy and the removal of her ovaries. Given that Jo’s mother also died from cancer shortly before Jo’s own diagnosis, she’s had enough loss to last a lifetime and then some.

Ursa is beyond stubborn, insisting on staying with Jo and continuing with the claim that she’s an alien child. Whether that’s the truth or an elaborate lie, Jo can’t say for certain, but she also can’t doubt that since Ursa’s arrival life has begun to get complicated and interesting all at once. Jo teams up with one of the locals, a young man selling eggs, and between the two of them they try their best to figure out what’s best for Ursa while trying hard not to let the little girl win them over with her wit, her intelligence, and her affection.

Author Glendy Vanderah builds a balanced tale right from the start with excellent layering of character and story development. As readers get to know about Jo’s personal losses and challenges, Vanderah also draws straight lines to Jo’s present predicament—what to do about Ursa. The child’s innocence provides the perfect foil to her high IQ; clearly, this is a bright girl, and the longer she’s in Jo’s life, the more Jo, and readers, will start to question whether she really is an alien child after all.

Vanderah gives Jo a love interest but takes her time making the transitions between the romance and the rest of the book organic. Even as some of them feel serendipitous, none of the big events feel forced or out of place. The progression of the novel, from one highlight to the next, will keep readers engaged. The arc of Jo’s romantic outcomes might come across as a foregone conclusion, but that just leaves readers free to enjoy the “how” instead of the “what” or “why” of the novel.

While the end of the book might strike some as a little too fortuitous, by the end readers will find themselves glad that Vanderah chose the conclusion she did. She keeps Ursa’s secrets until close to the end, heightening the book’s intrigue when most of the other questions get answered. The careful plotting of the novel shines in the revelation of Ursa’s origin.

Those who enjoy a quiet novel that still moves forward with purpose will definitely like this book. I recommend readers Bookmark Where the Forest Meets the Stars.

Newest review: Whisper Me This by Kelly Anne King

By Ekta R. Garg

July 24, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: July 1, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

When a woman gets a disturbing phone call about her parents, she discovers family secrets that make her question her childhood. As she and the rest of the family work through the emotional and physical pain, they must decide whether they will face the past together or suffer individually. Author Kerry Anne King drives right to the heart of grief and difficult questions in the excellent, compelling novel Whisper Me This.

Maisey Addington knows she’s supposed to be a grownup, but she hasn’t figured out all the rules yet. It’s hard to do so when, for most of her life, other people have made her decisions for her. When she lived at home, her mother, Leah, pushed her in one direction or the other on a given day. When she started dating Greg, he did the same.

The one big decision she made on her own was not to marry Greg when she found out she was pregnant with his child. Now, more than a decade later, she has a beautiful, smart, self-assured daughter named Elle who astounds her on a regular basis. At the age of 12, Elle already has more common sense than Maisey thinks she does at 39. In fact, Elle reminds Maisey of Leah, minus the constant nagging and disappointment.

On the day that Maisey gets a phone call from her parents’ next-door neighbor, Elle is the one who lends her emotional support and Maisey needs it. Nosy Mrs. Carlton is making all sorts of strange accusations about Maisey’s father hitting her mother and then letting her lie unconscious in the house for days on end. Walter Addington is an accountant; the most dangerous thing he does is prepare people’s taxes. He’d never hit Maisey’s mother, and he’d certainly never neglect getting her medical attention.

Without a second thought, Maisey and Elle drop everything and fly from Kansas City to Washington state where Maisey grew up. She walks into an unrecognizable scene: Leah is in a coma and Walter is confused. Then she makes a discovery that causes her to question her entire childhood. Leah worked hard to drum certain facts into Maisey’s head; now she finds out those facts are all false.

She doesn’t think she’s up to the task of finding out the truth, but there’s no one else to do it. With the unequivocal support of Elle and surprising new friends, Maisey makes a decision for herself; then it becomes two. She’s not sure, however, whether she can follow suit with the biggest questions, whether she’s grown up enough for those yet.

Author Kerry Anne King pulls readers straight into the story and doesn’t let go until the final pages of the book. Maisey is a deeply flawed yet winning protagonist. In a fresh departure from other novels, instead of using all of Maisey’s bad choices as backstory King allows Maisey to make bad choices on the page. Even as some of those choices may cause readers to cringe, they ground the novel in reality.

Strong tween characters often come across as snarky or unrealistic, but King scores another winner with Maisey’s daughter, Elle. Her self-confidence provides the perfect foil to Maisey’s constant self-doubt, and King balances the two with ease. When the time comes for Maisey to show how she’s grown and become more sure of herself, Elle retreats into her pre-teen shell. The result is a subplot that displays in the best way possible just how fluid the entire issue of self esteem can be.

While Leah’s journal might read a little more dramatically than the rest of the book, readers will probably forgive the tone of the passages in favor of their content. King also mines the depths of love interest Tony and former boyfriend Greg in a way that will empower readers. For those who enjoy strong characters and a strong plot with ample emotional support, I recommend readers Bookmark Whisper Me This.

Brand new review: A Murder on Jane Street by Cathy Cash Spellman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 17, 2019

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: July 16, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it / 2.5 stars

When an elderly woman is murdered, her ex-cop neighbor investigates the strange circumstances. The deeper he digs into her life, the more he realizes his neighbor was anything but an ordinary person. As his family and friends pitch in to help solve the case, they’ll find themselves on high alert in the middle of a larger plot. Veteran author Cathy Cash Spellman debuts in the mystery/thriller genre with the well-intentioned but wieldy, bulky novel A Murder on Jane Street.

After decades as one of New York City’s finest, retired police chief FitzHugh Donovan is enjoying ownership of an independent bookstore. He lives in a charming brownstone with his daughters and his granddaughter, and for the most part he’s content. While he’s friendly with their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Wallenberg, they haven’t formed a close friendship.

Fitz is shocked, then, when Mrs. Wallenberg calls him one day sounding frightened. She insists that someone is targeting her, and she wants to leave important materials with him in the event that she dies. She asks if he can stop by on his way home from the store, but Fitz doesn’t know what to think. Why would someone go out of their way to kill a little old lady well into her nineties?

By the time he checks on her, it’s too late. Mrs. Wallenberg is murdered in a gruesome fashion. From her house, Fitz retrieves a packet addressed to him of mysterious documents, and he realizes that one of them is written in invisible ink. It turns out to be a journal and reveals that Mrs. Wallenberg led quite the life before migrating to the United States from Poland decades earlier.

Her journal warns of a global conspiracy dating all the way back to World War II, Hitler’s plans to take over Europe and beyond, and the complicity of Allied countries in hoaxes and cover-ups. For 75 years she’s kept secret evidence of it all, but she knows those on the wrong side of justice have long memories.

Fitz is quickly joined by his daughters, granddaughter, and several friends in finding Mrs. Wallenberg’s killers. The longer they pursue the truth, the more they realize that the global scale of the operations means the wrongdoers will stop at nothing to keep their secrets. Fitz and Co. will need to be careful with who they approach for help and who they trust if they want to stay alive.

Author Cathy Cash Spellman’s efforts succeed within a limited range. The story introduces endearing characters, but Spellman brings on so many to solve the murder that at one point readers may forget names or who does what. The book tries to tackle science, history, the supernatural, present-day politics, and police procedure; the various elements, like the various characters, may overwhelm the target audience.

Worse, at some point readers may feel the need to skim ahead, and Spellman’s didactic writing approach means reading every single page might be unnecessary. The characters gather at regular intervals to meet and “update” one another on their progress as they work to uncover the secret plots. What happens is, essentially, an update for the readers.

Most of the big action happens “off stage,” so readers only find out about big discoveries via these updates or character conversations. The result is that the book feels less like a heart-stopping murder mystery and more like an interesting newspaper feature article—in multiple parts—after the fact. It doesn’t help that the characters spend the bulk of the book doing research into Mrs. Wallenberg’s journal and her claims. Readers never get a clear-cut answer on what the brave cast was going to do once they uncovered the complicated, webbed truth.

In a book that makes the characters call out the Allied powers in World War II for secretly supporting the Germans, the tone is upbeat and optimistic in a Nancy Drew kind of way. While Fitz and family all know they might run into dangerous factions, the book’s tone never lets the reader doubt that in the end the Donovan family will come out all right. The lack of major conflict throughout the book confirms this; the characters run into dangerous elements a total number of two times. For a book that tops out at more than 120 (short) chapters, the danger needed to be sky high.

A couple of small factual errors might make some readers wonder what other facts don’t line up with reality. Those plus the long length and the sense that the characters are having all the fun without letting the readers partake in most of it might make some readers shun the novel. I rate the book as Bordering on Bypassing it.