Newest review: Where It All Lands by Jennie Wexler

By Ekta R. Garg

July 14, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 6, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A trio of teens navigate young love and personal challenges while trying to figure out how to balance their friendships with one another. Just as the culmination of their story is revealed, a coin toss changes the entire scenario. Author Jennie Wexler makes the subject of first love sweet and refreshing while navigating her plot in the most subtle yet dynamic of ways in her excellent debut novel Where It All Lands.

High school sophomore Stevie Rosenstein arrives in New Jersey knowing one thing for sure: being the new girl sucks. She’s lived in so many places and had so many friends that it doesn’t even seem possible anymore to become good friends with anyone. And she’s never sure whether the kids who do want to be her friends are sincere or trying to score tickets to football games, all because her father is a coach for the NFL. It doesn’t matter how good she is on the saxophone or that she loves music and is basically a normal teenager.

As she walks into her new school, her guard is up. Then Stevie meets best buds Drew and Shane, and all of a sudden she discovers that both of them know how she feels. Drew’s dad is a famous music producer, leaving Drew to struggle with the same questions about friendships. Shane is a talented musician, a beast of a drummer, and he knows how music is the one thing that can make the world seem all right for a little while.

The boys spot Stevie at band practice at the start of the year, and they’re both drawn to her. They know, though, that fighting about who’s going to ask her out is dumb. Their friendship has survived more than a crush—Drew’s dad had an affair with an assistant and is on the verge of moving out. Shane’s dad died, leaving Shane with a huge hole in his life. The friends have supported each other through the worst; they’re not going to let a girl come between them.

There’s no denying that they both like her, though, and they both want to ask her out. In a moment of inspiration, Drew suggests flipping a coin for it. Shane is reluctant at first, but even he can’t argue with the logic that it’s basically the way they decide everything. They know it might seem a little skeevy, but Stevie never has to know.

As they call heads and tails, the boys have no idea just how their lives are going to change. Life is about to challenge each of them and the strength of their friendship. Both of them want to get to know Stevie better. Both of them have a fair reason to ask her out. But none of them will ever be the same again.

Debut author Jennie Wexler manages to navigate the tropes of YA romance without falling into a stereotypical plot. Telling the story first from when the coin lands on heads and then when it lands on tails, Wexler gives each of the boys an opportunity to explore a relationship with Stevie. In the hands of a less confident writer, the result might have felt caricaturish or melodramatic. Instead, Wexler provides depth and heft to the storyline both times she tells it.

Moreover, she’s able to find new details to share about all three of her main characters in both storylines, no easy job at all. As readers progress through Stevie’s budding relationship with one, they might think they’ll find out everything there is to know about Drew, Shane, and Stevie. Yet Wexler manages to hold back several surprises, both in terms of character development as well as the plot.

The biggest surprise may come in the fact that the stories with each of the boys ends in the same climactic moment, yet here too Wexler wields a deft hand that allows her to navigate possible story traps with ease. There’s no doubt readers will be reading as fast as possible to find out what actually happened.

Those who enjoy YA novels about first love and solid friendships that don’t follow the stereotypes will definitely want to check this out. I recommend readers Binge Where It All Lands.

Newest review: A Dark and Secret Place by Jen Williams

By Ekta R. Garg

June 16, 2021

Genre: Psychological thriller

Release date: June 8, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

After her mother’s suicide, a young woman struggles to deal with what happened. When she discovers a secret her mother held, the woman gets tangled in an ongoing police investigation and must try to figure out what responsibility, if any, she has toward the situation. Author Jen Williams frightens readers in the best ways meant in the genre with her newest novel A Dark and Secret Place.

Heather Evans is fighting to accept her new reality. A reality where her mother has committed suicide in a gruesome way—by throwing herself off a cliff—and left few clues behind as to why she would do such a thing. Heather didn’t even have an inkling of any distress in her mother’s life, but, then again, she and her mother didn’t exactly speak that frequently.

In fact, after the sudden death of her father when she was 16, Heather and her mother seemed to fight about everything. When she couldn’t take it anymore, Heather left home. After that she and her mother, Colleen, only spoke on family occasions and the holidays during awkward, tense conversations that lasted mere minutes. Now there’s this, her mother’s death, with no explanation at all.

The situation becomes even harder to handle when Heather starts going through her mother’s personal items and discovers dozens of letters hidden away. The letters are from a prisoner serving a life sentence for multiple murders in a case that shocked everyone in England. The man, Michael Reave, has always claimed he was innocent, but the available evidence named him guilty. The media named him the Red Wolf.

Heather contacts the police about the letters, and DI Ben Parker has an unusual request for her. He wants Heather to come to the prison and talk to Michael about a new spate of murders that has begun. Someone is attacking young women again, copying the Red Wolf’s signature ritualistic killing style, and Parker believes Michael is connected to the killings even though he’s still in prison.

Despite her reluctance, Heather agrees. She wants to know why her mother was writing to Michael and why they shared this secret relationship no one else knew about. Although she was dismissed from her last job as a reporter, Heather’s instincts kick in as she tries to get Michael to share some scrap of information that will help the police catch the new killer.

Yet Heather can’t help feeling like the crimes of the Red Wolf as well as those of the copycat criminal are both connected directly to her somehow. She discovers more of Colleen’s secrets, making her question what she knew about her mother. In time Heather realizes she won’t get any peace until she helps solve the case.

Author Jen Williams takes full advantage of everything the psychological thriller genre has to offer, which will make readers squirm in discomfort and also keep flipping or swiping pages. Heather’s newfound melancholy at not knowing her mother like she thought she did is grounded and three-dimensional. Readers will identify with her grief and confusion as she tries to navigate both.

While some of the tropes of the genre might feel a little trite—the customary romantic entanglement; weird signs that show up meant only to scare Heather and not really offer clues to the larger mystery—Williams doesn’t lean too heavily on those things to drive her mystery forward. The book’s strength lies in the fact that the characters are fully developed, fully realized people. By mixing generational angst with modern-day trappings, Williams has found the perfect blend of the times to offer a compelling plot.

The climax feels just a touch rushed, but Williams offers a careful, thoughtful explanation for everything. Readers will have no trouble racing through the book, and its pall will linger afterward. I recommend readers Bookmark A Dark and Secret Place.

Brand new review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

By Ekta R. Garg

June 2, 2021

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: June 1, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young woman considered a scientific miracle discovers that there’s a darker agenda behind the science when her mother goes missing. As the woman searches for her mother and for answers about her own existence, she’ll have to decide whether the path she’s chosen for herself is the right one after all. Author Sara Flannery Murphy offers an intriguing premise that’s light on crucial details in the novel Girl One.

When Josephine “Josie” Morrow was born in the 1970s, some people called her a miracle baby. Others called her an abomination. Her scientific father, Joseph Bellanger, called her Girl One, because Josie was the first child conceived without male DNA. Josie came out whole and a perfect replica of her mother, Margaret.

Josie and Margaret lived in a commune known only as the Homestead with eight other Mothers and Girls. Media and social backlash forced the Mothers and Girls to keep to themselves, despite Dr. Bellanger’s confidence that one day the world would accept the Girls for what they are: scientific breakthroughs. Not long after the last Girl is born, however, someone sets fire to the Homestead. One of the Girls and Dr. Bellanger die while everyone else barely escapes with their lives.

In 1994, Josie is in medical school in Chicago. Unlike some of the other Girls, Josie is fascinated by the science that created them and wants to reproduce it in the lab. When the Homestead burned down, the fire took all of Dr. Bellanger’s notes and research with it. Now Josie is slowly piecing it back together. It helps her feel closer to Dr. Bellanger who always called her his most special daughter.

Then word comes that her mother’s house in her small Illinois hometown has burned down. Josie races back home, only to discover that Margaret has disappeared. The circumstances around the fire are suspicious at best, and Josie gets a feeling the whole incident is somehow connected to her status as Girl One.

Having no one else to turn to, Josie starts combing through Margaret’s belongings and finds the contact information for a reporter with a keen interest in the Homestead. They begin a search for Margaret by tracking down the other Mother-Girl pairs to see if Margaret visited any of them recently. As Josie talks to the sisters that science gave her, she begins to understand how their existence is more incredible than anyone realized and how that very existence puts all of them in grave danger.

Author Sara Flannery Murphy offers readers a cursory introduction to the field of parthenogenesis, where a species reproduces without the presence of sperm. Much is made in the book about this accomplishment in humans, yet Murphy doesn’t share any of the scientific details. The oversight makes it a little harder to buy into the concept overall. Dr. Bellanger is purported to be some kind of genius scientist, yet readers never actually get to see what he did to accomplish this incredible feat. Later explanations, too, are skimmed over. Instead, Murphy directs readers to the relationships between the Girls and between them and their Mothers.

Here, too, the story feels a little lightweight. Margaret’s willingness to participate in Dr. Bellanger’s experiment on the Homestead is the only one given much consideration, but the details are sparse. Readers never get the chance to hear the “why” of it all—why would nine women leave behind their lives and all social conventions to participate in a radical scientific experiment?

Without this baseline motivation or any grounded science, the book becomes an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. Josie’s voice is the strongest, and Murphy’s descriptions are delightful and innovative. However, the story lacks the weight to make it truly a knockout. I recommend readers Borrow Girl One.