Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: The Stepsister's Tale by Tracy Barrett

What really happened after the clock struck midnight?

Jane Montjoy is tired of being a lady. She's tired of pretending to live up to the standards of her mother's noble family-especially now that the family's wealth is gone and their stately mansion has fallen to ruin. It's hard enough that she must tend to the animals and find a way to feed her mother and her little sister each day. Jane's burden only gets worse after her mother returns from a trip to town with a new stepfather and stepsister in tow. Despite the family's struggle to prepare for the long winter ahead, Jane's stepfather remains determined to give his beautiful but spoiled child her every desire.

When her stepfather suddenly dies, leaving nothing but debts and a bereaved daughter behind, it seems to Jane that her family is destined for eternal unhappiness. But a mysterious boy from the woods and an invitation to a royal ball are certain to change her fate...

From the handsome prince to the evil stepsister, nothing is quite as it seems in Tracy Barrett's stunning retelling of the classic Cinderella tale.

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published June 24th 2014 by Harlequin Teen  

The Stepsister's Tale was surprisingly delightful.  In the story, we get to follow the elder of the two "ugly stepsisters" from the classic tale of Cinderella.  Jane Montjoy is not what those of us who remember the Disney version would expect: she is hardworking, caring, and impoverished.  Jane constantly has to worry about how to feed herself, her sister, and her mother -- who is living in denial of losing their fortune.  The house they live in is in shambles.  In an attempt to relieve them of their trials, mother Montjoy remarries to a man who appears to have a wealth that could save them, and also a very spoiled daughter.  The plot is filled with little twists and perspective that completely changes the context of the classic tale.

Jane's perseverance and spunk make her a character worth rooting for.  She is the low maintenance counterpart of herself from the classic.  She doesn’t care about jewels or how she looks; she cares about not freezing at night and how the cow in the barn is starving.  She has practical dreams of farming with the manners of an aristocrat.  This combines into a very complex and likable girl who I genuinely hoped things would work out for.

There is uneasiness throughout the reading experience, however, from knowing things won’t work out for the ugly stepsisters.  They don’t get the prince or get out of poverty and we know this from the original tale.  Right?  I loved how perspective can change an ending that I thought I knew.  With this character with her practicality and spark, would she even want riches and formalities?

The other reason for this uneasiness, at least for me, was that Jane has a hard life.  I was on edge the whole time just waiting for an atrocity to befall her.  Reading a book like this always left me with a sour pit in my stomach, and I don’t like that.  It’s a personal thing, so if you like being afraid for characters, maybe that aspect will be more your thing.

While being a tad on the dry side of writing, the book is very enjoyable.  Anyone who loves fairy tale retellings could find some joy in The Stepsister’s Tale.  The small twists on the classic were smart -- they didn’t completely change the story.  It made me think that maybe we’ve had Cinderella wrong this whole time.  And that was the most enjoyable part of reading this tale; I loved doubting the childhood tale since this version just makes more sense.  Though maybe not my favorite book ever, The Stepsister’s Tale proved itself worth a read.

Final Thought: 15 out of 25 toadstools

This review is also posted on GoodReads

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Plus One by Elizabeth Fama

It takes guts to deliberately mutilate your hand while operating a blister-pack sealing machine, but all I had going for me was guts.

Sol Le Coeur is a Smudge—a night dweller in an America rigidly divided between people who wake, live, and work during the hours of darkness and those known as Rays who live and work during daylight. Impulsive, passionate, and brave, Sol deliberately injures herself in order to gain admission to a hospital, where she plans to kidnap her newborn niece—a Ray—in order to bring the baby to visit her dying grandfather. By violating the day-night curfew, Sol is committing a serious crime, and when the kidnap attempt goes awry it starts a chain of events that will put Sol in mortal danger, uncover a government conspiracy to manipulate the Smudge population, and throw her together with D'Arcy BenoĆ®t, the Ray medical apprentice who first treats her, then helps her outrun the authorities—and with whom she is fated to fall impossibly and irrevocably in love.

Set in a vivid alternate reality and peopled with complex, deeply human characters on both sides of the day-night divide, Plus One is a brilliantly imagined drama of individual liberty and civil rights—and a compelling, rapid-fire romantic adventure story.

Hardcover, 373 pages
Published April 8th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
(info grabbed from GoodReads)

This book started off real well, which a main character with a lot of personality and with an interesting concept for a dystopian.  It fell apart somewhere in the middle.  Plus One takes place in a dystopian Chicago where people are separated into Day and Night classes.  People are not allowed to mix between each or even be outside during hours not approved for them.  Sol is a Smudge, a night dweller, with a pension for trouble.  She lives with her kindly (and dying) grandfather and used to live with her older brother, Ciel. While Sol was in her younger teens, Ciel was transferred to Day class to never be seen from again. Since then Sol gets word that her brother had a baby.  The story begins with Sol setting off with plans to kidnap said baby so her grandfather can hold the child once before he dies.

With the cover and blurb, I was surprised that the romance was not more a part of the story.  For more than half of the book, it is non-existent.  For some readers, that may be more of what they are looking for.  With the cover and implications of the blurb, I was expecting a more emotional dystopian story like Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  That is not Plus One.  Plus One is more about half baked kidnapping plans and terrorist plottings than anything else.  What the blurb doesn't tell you is that Sol's plan goes awry and she gets swept up a conspiracy that could shake her world.  It's jarring to read a book that is completely outside of your expectations.  But really, that is all marketing's fault and the team did not do the book justice.

Even though the book was not what I was expecting, I did enjoy it at first.  I thought it read really well and that Sol was interesting, even if her plan was a little undeveloped in her mind.  But the story quickly spiraled into something else: a hot mess of family drama, escapades in Iowa, and more plans that shouldn't work but somehow do.

The back story of the system's origins came from hospitals having day/night shifts, and thus resulting in better work flow and producing power.  I thought the idea that economics and productivity could create a divided society such as this was profound.  Especially with the setting choice of Chicago, made to be one of America's biggest cities because of booming business, I thought it could be plausible.  For a minute.  While I thought the idea of this Day versus Night class system was cool, it seemed so weakly put together it was unbelievable it could have lasted so long.  Maybe in one city in one country, but it not the entire world.   

Everything felt about to collapse at any moment within the story -- and not just the system, but the whole book.  The world building was just so fragile, it might as well have been a house of cards and desperately needed to be elaborated on.  Hour Guards are mentioned, but not explained.  They do random checks on people to see if they are breaking curfew, but what power do they have?  Are they police or are they KGB?  Do they have any kind of enforcement power?  There is a Night Minister, but that role is not fully explained.  The dystopian aspect of this world was skimmed over; it's never clear what is holding this system together.  There’s very little tyranny in this supposedly oppressive society.

Even with less than stellar world building and story that came out of left field, I really liked Sol as a character.  She is smart, impulsive, and full of life.  Her snark is the sunlight of this novel.  However, that is the book's only saving grace.  D'Arcy, the day-dwelling love interest, had no spark to his personality, and the relationship between him and Sol was a fickle match that burned out before the plot even began.  His motivations are never clear or make sense, and he just wasn't enough to hold a candle with Sol. The myriad of other characters were just... I don't even know.  Blah.  They were a blah blur. It felt like random characters were being thrown at the reader in this whirlwind of story.  And not a good whirlwind of story; it's a backwards tornado with a bunch of things that don't belong together.

Without Sol's unrelenting personality, I would have given this book one star.  The story is a bit of mess, the world building was less than stellar, and I just didn't like it.  I was bored.  Plus One earns the stars it does with its good writing and interesting main character, but it wasn't enjoyable.  I read the entire book out of stubbornness, purely.  It really did nothing for this review, because as I kept reading I only got more upset at myself for continuing to read.  Just... ARGH.

Final Thought: 2 out of 5 toadstools

This review is also posted on GoodReads

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Dollhouse by Anya Allyn

Dress-up turns deadly. . .

When Cassie’s best friend, Aisha, disappears during a school hike, Cassie sets off with Aisha’s boyfriend Ethan and their best friend Lacey, determined to find her. But the mist-enshrouded mountains hold many secrets, and what the three teens discover is far more disturbing than any of them imagined: beneath a rundown mansion in the woods lies an underground cavern full of life-size toys and kidnapped girls forced to dress as dolls.

Even as Cassie desperately tries to escape the Dollhouse, she finds herself torn between her forbidden feelings for Ethan, and her intense, instinctive attraction to The Provider, a man Cassie swears she has known before…

Because Cassie’s capture wasn’t accidental, and the Dollhouse is more than just a prison where her deepest fears come true—it’s a portal for the powers of darkness. And Cassie may be the only one who can stop it.
Kindle Edition, 205 pages

Published May 20th 2014 by The Studio, a Paper Lantern Lit imprint
(info grabbed from GoodReads) 

The Dollhouse, a young adult horror set Down Under, begins with Ethan, Cassie's best friend's boyfriend, bursting through her bedroom window in the middle of the night.  This is an awkward dream come true for Cassie, as she has been pining over Ethan for over a year, but he is her best friend's boyfriend.  Her missing best friend's boyfriend.  Ethan has decided to pop in on Cassie to let her know the cops are after him and that he didn't do it even though there may be evidence that indicates otherwise.  He informs her that he is running into the woods to avoid being arrested.  Cassie and her friend Lacey decide to chase after Ethan, the boy who may or may not have murdered Aisha, and help find Aisha (their missing friend).  Cassie has lingering guilt over crushing on Aisha's boyfriend and feels that she is responsible for Aisha running off, which serves as her motivation to run into the forest that three other girls have disappeared without a trace into.  Mayhem ensues.

So, I think I made it clear in my synopsis that these teens don't make the brightest of decisions.  It felt like the author had to dumb her characters down to get them into a horrific situation.  Which isn't anything new, unless you missed the slasher flick bonanza of the 1990's.  I love horror and especially so when it's creepy.  The Dollhouse promises that and so much more in the blurb, but it doesn't really deliver.  It's hard to be horrified when you can't stop thinking about how all of this nonsense could have been prevented.  I mean, really, your friend just disappeared into the woods and you go breaking and entering into a creepy mansion?  That just screams, "Murder me."  Darwin award goes to Cassie.

The biggest problem for me, however, is the writing.  It is what I have decided to call green writing -- it needs to ripen on the vine a bit.  Or be breaded and deep fried.  Anyway, the pacing of the novel was all over the place.  It's fast, it's faster, it's normal; The Dollhouse was like being on a possessed treadmill with all it's stopping and going.  The story starts off in a rush with Ethan busting in through the window and promptly delivering an info dump.  Half the plot and all the build up between characters happens before the novel even begins.  While I appreciate the different approach, it really destroys any chance to get attached to the characters.  Along with the rushed beginning, there is an info dump every couple pages in the first couple chapters to make up for the lost beginning.  Where could have been build up, world building, and character development, we get a rush into a haphazard romp in a creepy house.

The ideas of The Dollhouse really stuck out to me as I love all things messed up and creepy.  I was hoping to be shocked and horrified, but that just didn't really happen.  Reading the Dollhouse is like watching a bad slasher flick in slow motion, but with a lot less blood and entertainment.  I really just wanted to shake the main character until she got some sense and went home, forgetting about her self-rightous journey into the woods to find her friend.

Final Thought: 1 out of 5 toadstools

This review is also posted on GoodReads