Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag

Title: The Dress Shop of Dreams
Author: Menna Van Praag
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: Dec 30, 2011
Rating: 4/5

Cover Impressions: This cover is a wash of magic.  From the beautiful dress to the lovely swirling colors. The font stands out without overwhelming the delicate tone.

The Gist:
Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.

Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.


Review: 

The Dress Shop of Dreams is a really lovely story.  It is one that you know will wrap up in a happy ending, but the journey to get there is really fun.  All of the characters in this book are well developed and have a touch of magic all their own.  Despite there being rivals for one man's affection, there is a decided lack of girl on girl jealousy that is really refreshing.  Cora is unique in her outlook on the world and her obsessive counting which accompanied the narration just enough to be charming, without becoming tedious.  There are several plot lines that weave through one another in a delightful way and a number of smaller mysteries that are sprinkled throughout the plot.  These helped move the plot along and allowed it to avoid stagnating as we approached the answers to the big mystery - what actually happened to Cora's parents.  That particular plotline was a little disappointing as it was fairly predictable.  Despite a slightly slow start, The Dress Shop of Dreams wrapped up beautifully and left me really satisfied.  I am looking forward to delving into more of Menna Van Praag's world.    

Monday, February 23, 2015

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

Title: Vanishing Girls
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher:
Harper Collins
Release Date:
March 10, 2015
Rating:
  3/5

Cover Impressions: Pretty, but not outstanding.

The Gist:
Dara and Nick used to be inseparable, but that was before the accident that left Dara's beautiful face scarred and the two sisters totally estranged. When Dara vanishes on her birthday, Nick thinks Dara is just playing around. But another girl, nine-year-old Madeline Snow, has vanished, too, and Nick becomes increasingly convinced that the two disappearances are linked. Now Nick has to find her sister, before it's too late.

In this edgy and compelling novel, Lauren Oliver creates a world of intrigue, loss, and suspicion as two sisters search to find themselves, and each other.


Review:

Vanishing Girls wasn't a bad book, in fact, it was a pretty damn good book.  The characters were fine, not overly annoying and there was a fairly distinct voice difference between the two sisters.  The love interest was dramatic enough to add interest but didn't overtake the plot.  There was a sense of mystery that would keep readers on the edge of their seat, but - and this one is a big but - I feel like this story has been told before.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I have read this story 2 or 3 times before.

The problem comes with the big plot twist - I'm going to try not to spoil anything, but that may get difficult so please, stop reading if you don't want to ruin your own reading experience.  I figured out the big, unexpected, plot twist about 10% into the book and spent the rest of the time hoping that I was wrong.  Once I had figured it out, it all seemed rather obvious and there were a lot of clues dropped along the way.  I would love to hear from someone else, who perhaps hadn't read this particular story before and see when/if they figured it out and how their enjoyment of the novel differed. 

On top of this, the whole "girl goes missing" mystery felt tacked on as a means to get the main character investigating, thereby revealing the plot involving her own family. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
15 and up
Sex:  Kissing,
Violence:  Car crash, exploitation of underage girls
Inappropriate Language: Dick, Shit, Fuck, Slut, Tits
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage drinking, smoking, use of drugs (marijuana, mushrooms, cocaine)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Playlist For The Dead

Title: Playlist for the Dead
Author: Michelle Falkoff
Publisher: Harperteen
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Rating:  2/5

Cover Impressions: Super cute cover.  Love the silhouettes and the looping earbuds cord. 

The Gist:
A teenage boy tries to understand his best friend's suicide by listening to the playlist of songs he left behind in this smart, voice-driven debut novel.

Here's what Sam knows: There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, his best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs, and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you'll understand.

As he listens to song after song, Sam tries to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it's only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he will finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Part mystery, part love story, and part coming-of-age tale in the vein of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now, Playlist for the Dead is an honest and gut-wrenching first novel about loss, rage, what it feels like to outgrow a friendship that's always defined you—and the struggle to redefine yourself. But above all, it's about finding hope when hope seems like the hardest thing to find.


Review:

I really loved the concept of this book and I was really excited about the whole idea of a built in playlist.  I started out strong, listening to each song as I was reading the chapter, but after a while I started to find it distracting.  It also required that I only read while also wearing headphones which is more difficult than you can imagine with a three year old and an almost 2 month old.  Basically, I could only read for the 10 minutes or so in bed before I fell asleep from exhaustion.  So, while I applaud the idea, it didn't quite work out for me.

The story was decent, though not all that exciting.  Basically we follow Sam around town as he listens to his ipod and tries to figure out why his best friend committed suicide.  He is aided by an ohsospecial pixie girl with her own strange connection to Hayden.  Adding to the drama is a series of attacks on Hayden's main tormenters and Sam's weird hallucinations and/or supernatural encounters.  This had the makings of a good story, but it fell flat because

a) I didn't give a shit about the pain and suffering of the bullies
b) the bullies didn't ACTUALLY get all that hurt.
c) I didn't really get the attraction to the love interest

The characters weren't all that interesting, and the drama just didn't pan out.  It also got a little preachy towards the end.  Sam was just too good to be believable, easily forgiving everyone and things wrapped up way too cleanly.  Everyone learned a lesson and the characters were all set on the road to redemption.

Playlist for the Dead isn't an inherently BAD story, it just wasn't all that great.  The cover blurb compares it to The Perks of Being a Wallflower..... um no.  No. No. No.  It had a great concept, but the execution just didn't cut it.     

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
13 and Up 
Sex: Kissing
Violence: Suicide, Fistfighting, Bullying, Character attacked with a baseball bat
Inappropriate Language: Fuck, Shit, Piss,
Substance Use/Abuse: Smoking, Underage Drinking

Monday, February 16, 2015

First Frost

Title: First Frost
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Rating:
  5/5

Cover Impressions: Pretty, Pretty, Pretty.  I got an advance ecopy of this book but the cover makes me want to run out and buy one for my shelf.  I LOVE the colors, the lights in the background, the light dusting of frost on the apple - SWOON!  I am a huge fan of covers that become more and more interesting as you read the novel and start to understand the meaning behind each image and this is definitely one of those books. 

The Gist:
It's October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree... and all the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store.

Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. Though her handcrafted confections—rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds—are singularly effective, the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, is losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby— a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has.

Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?

When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost.


Review:
All right, get prepared for gushing.  I LOVE Sarah Addison Allen.  I have read everything that she has written and am pretty sure that I will soon be embarking on a re-read because I loved this book so much.  She is a master at creating worlds where a touch of magic is just accepted.  Which is total genre kryptonite for me.  I love when magic just IS - the family that is just a little bit odd, on edge of society but relied on by even the most noteworthy and standoffish citizen in their time of need.  My love is doubled with this also includes a beautiful old house that has been in the family for generations and holds a magic all of its own.

Speaking of the house.  First Frost has a house that is actually one of my favorite characters.  It runs hot and cold depending on its mood, it locks people out and responds to threats of violence.  It has a remarkable apple tree that blooms during the first frost and throws apples at those people who fall out of its favor.  Sarah Addison Allen has a remarkable way of creating a home that makes me long to crawl through the pages in order to live there.

The characters are wonderful.  We first met them in Garden Spells.  Now, Bay is a teenager and the sisters (Sydney and Claire) are struggling with a whole new set of problems.  The family is so sweet and loving that I could read about them for the next 10 novels.  (How about it SAA?  Can I have 10 Waverly novels?)
As always, the writing is just lovely and it has some of the most beautiful imagery.  Even the villain of the novel has a story that steals your heart.  A must read for fans of the author or lovers of magical realism.   

Notable Quotables: Simmering soup on a cold day was like filling a house with cotton batting.  The comforting scent of it plumped and muffled and cuddled.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Title: Red Queen
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: Feb 10, 2015
Rating:  4/5

Cover Impressions: Oh this is so cool.  I love the dripping blood and the simplicity of the background and font.  I can't wait to see how they continue this series, I bet they are going to be some fantastic covers.

The Gist:
The poverty stricken Reds are commoners, living under the rule of the Silvers, elite warriors with god-like powers.

To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change.

Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of
those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control.

But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?


Review:
Ever wonder what would have happened if Magneto had won and the bad-guy mutants had taken over the world, turning the "normals" into the lower-lower-lower class, just one step above slaves?  Well here it is! 
 
In Red Queen, the reds (those with red blood and without superspecial powers) live lives filled with toil and strife while the Silvers (those with silver blood and crazy-ass powers) follow the king and queen on an endless tour of leisure and parties.  Mare is on the edge of seventeen and that doesn't mean she gets to spend a year rocking out to Stevie Nicks - it means conscription to fight the war that has already taken three of her brothers.  In a strange twist of fate, she ends up working in the royal palace and a life-threatening situation reveals that she has more power than she ever imagined.

I will admit, I was trepidatious, I have never been the biggest fan of fantasy and I was a little nervous that this would be like the great Graceling fiasco (cliffnotes version: tried to read it 4 times, quit every time. BLECH!)
but, after reading, this isn't that high on the fantasy meter and the whole "talent" thing was pretty interesting.  In fact, the families having the same powers and some powers being less effective against others (water beats fire) totally reminded me of pokemon types. 
I do wish we had been able to spend a bit more time getting to know the different types of powers.  I could have used a legend in the back to remind me what types does what (did this end up in the final version?  I had an advance ebook...).

Full disclosure - there was a love triangle of sorts, but it didn't overwhelm the story and didn't quite end the way you expected - refreshing, I know.  And there was a bit of whole "every girl hates me and every boy loves me" thing going on.  I'm hoping that we will get less of this as the series continues.  Mare is a decent character, very naive and willing to believe practically anything.  For someone who grew up as a thief in a pretty rough situation I was very surprised at how trusting she was.  I kept questioning the motives of everyone around her but she seemed to believe everything that she was told.  It was almost like she had no idea she was in the middle of a YA novel.
I liked her much more at the end, once she learned some valuable life lessons, than I did at the beginning.  The other characters aren't all that interesting, unless they are using their powers and I wasn't really sold on the romance element.

The plot was fast paced and suspenseful where it needed to be.  I was pretty much on the edge of my seat for the inevitable Final Showdown scene at the end.  There were one or two plot twists which were a surprise but others that were pretty predictable to anyone who has read YA before.   But it was still enough to keep me interested and get me hooked.  Can't wait for news on the next book - especially a kick ass cover.     

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
15 and up 
Sex: Kissing 
Violence: Swordplay, Gunplay, Violent Deaths due to supernatural means
Inappropriate Language: Bastard, Bitch
Substance Use/Abuse: Drinking

Monday, January 26, 2015

Tear You Apart by Sarah Cross

Title: Tear You Apart
Author: Sarah Cross
Publisher:
Egmont
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Rating: 5/5 

Cover Impressions: Love the image of the bloodied apple - perfect for an even darker adaptation of Snow White.  I wish they had chosen a more sustantial title font and perhaps changed the background color to make the apple stand out a little more. 

Review:
I am officially adding Sarah Cross to the list of authors that I want to chain in my basement in order to make her write faster.  In Beau Rivage she has created a world that beautifully blends classic fairy tales with a modern world.  I loved the introduction in Kill Me Softly and was thrilled to find out that this follow up would feature Viv - one of the awesome side characters in the first book.  I love when authors stay in the same world but expand on the stories of interesting characters and am seriously hoping that there will be more novels that do the same (fingers crossed for Jewel and Freddie!)

Twisted fairy tales are a real love of mine.  Sarah Cross has a wonderfully unique take on them.  In Beau Rivage children and teens are cursed to play out their role in a fairy tale.  Sometimes they know who the other players are, sometimes they don't.  In Tear You Apart, Viv is the Snow White Princess just waiting for her not-always evil stepmother to order her death.  Viv has spent her entire life preparing for the inevitable strike.  What she was not prepared for, however, was for her best friend and boyfriend, Henley to be chosen to play the role of the Hunter.  With her fate left in his hands as she waits for him to choose whether or not to carve her heart from her chest, Viv pushes him away and seeks any means of escape, even if that escape comes in the form of a dark underworld and mysterious prince.

I enjoyed Viv's tough exterior in Kiss Me Softly and loved getting to see behind that facade in Tear You Apart.  The relationship between Viv and Regina was wonderfully complex and we got to see the real motivation behind not only the heroine but also the villianess.  The one thing that really bothered me was the constant bickering between Viv and Henley.  They were constantly seeking out new means to hurt one another despite clearly being in love and it was difficult to watch Viv push away the one person who really loved her.

Tear You Apart expertly weaves three fairy tales together while giving them a modern twist.  The plot moves at a steady pace and holds one or two surprising twists.  There are also a few scenes that are downright difficult to read due to their cruel brutality.  This is not a story for the faint of heart or someone without an understanding of the nature of the original (non-disneyfied) fairy tales.
As soon as I finished Tear You Apart, I immediately went to Sarah Cross' website to read After the Ball as well as downloading her novella Twin Roses.  

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
15 and up
Sex:  Kissing, Veiled references to sex between teenagers
Violence: Beheading, Knifeplay, Several very violent deaths
Inappropriate Language: Bitch, Shit, Bastard, Whore, Slut
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Title: The Darkest Part of the Forest
Author: Holly Black
Publisher:
Little Brown
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Rating: 4/5 

Cover Impressions: Pretty, pretty, pretty.  The appearance of moss and leaves taking over the cover is very fitting for this novel.  I love how the title is almost carved out of the greenery. 

The Gist:
Hazel and her brother, Ben, grew up fighting fairies.  The creatures that inhabit the woods in Fairfold are not the gentle sprightly creatures of Disney fame but the much darker versions who are more likely to drag you to your death than to sprinkle you with fairy dust.  The tourists who flock there to see the horned boy in the glass coffin have always been fair game for the folk but they have mostly left the native inhabitants alone - until now.  When Hazel wakes one morning covered in mud and glass she learns that the boy has finally awoken and, with no memory of the preceding evening, she must discover her role in his disappearance and why a dark and sinister force is now terrorizing the town. 

Review:
To borrow a phrase from BookRiot, this is total genre kryptonite.  I have a real weakness for books that feature towns that are a little bit magical.  I especially love with the townsfolk behave as if everything is normal.  The fairies in this novel are very similar to the ones I learned about growing up in Newfoundland.  Those good folk were not to be trifled with.  They were tricksters who could offer you the world but would ask a price you would soon regret.  There were to beings to be respected at all costs.  In fact, when berrypicking back home I still carry bread in my pockets and avoid liminal times like dusk in order to prevent being fairy led.  The fairies in The Darkest Part of the Forest skate that thin line between magical and terrifying (some landing more on one side than the other). 

There are a myriad of magical and non-magical characters who are interesting and complex.  Hazel is a great main character who puts on a strong facade but is beautifully broken underneath.  She is headstrong and independent, never relying on somebody else to save her.  I loved her brother, Ben and was especially happy that while the girl in this situation was the fearless fighter while the boy was the more emotional of the two.  There are also some great side characters who have their own dark secrets.  

The novel features flashbacks that explains more about her life growing up in this strange and often terrifying town with parents who barely noticed that she or her brother were alive.  The novel features a good story but, unfortunately, there is nothing really surprising or mind-blowing.  I would have loved to have a few surprises in the plot. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:
13 and up
Sex:  Kissing
Violence:  Swordplay, Knifeplay, Death by supernatural means
Inappropriate Language: Bastard, Piss
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking
Other Issues: Neglectful Parents