The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag
Pub. Date: December 30, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Ballantine Books!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Magical Realism, Contemporary
Recommended For: I’m hesitant to recommend this one..perhaps only to those who haven’t read The House at the End of Hope Street?

Earlier in the year I fell hard – and that’s putting it lightly! – for Menna van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street. It wasn’t just a favorite for 2014, but a favorite for all time. Naturally when I found out about an upcoming novel I was drooling all over myself and when I received a review copy, I immediately settled in to fall in love with a brand new story. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned..

The Dress Shop of Dreams packs a lot in its pages and, at times, it can be a bit of a story arc overload. Cora is a young scientist working alongside her professor to create plants that can grow without water. As a child, her parents – also scientists – died in a terrible house fire and since then, Cora has thought of little else except carrying on her parents’ dream of eradicating world hunger. Her beloved grandmother, Etta, owns a tiny dress shop in town, but it is far unlike any clothing shop imaginable. With a few quick stitches, Etta weaves magic inside the clothes, a tiny boost of confidence or courage and it’s this courage she provides Walt, gently pushing him to finally (finally!) confess his feelings for Cora. The two grew up together and since they were children Walt has been madly in love with her. Etta’s plans backfire, however, and the confession quickly goes south, leading to multiple misunderstandings. Walt decides it’s finally time to move on and meet someone who can return his love, Cora delves deeper into her parents’ death, and Etta accepts a fifty-year-old truth.

The Dress Shop of Dreams broke my heart – and not in a good way. There’s just so much going on here and, to be honest, I didn’t care for most of it. If just one or two story lines had been cut the entire novel could have been far more fleshed out, but as it stands, these characters didn’t receive nearly enough attention as their stories warranted.

I didn’t care for Cora at all. I think she was meant to be quirky. Instead, she comes off as odd and, for the majority of the novel, cold and even heartless. Her entire life has been dedicated to science, to facts. She looks down on people for enjoying fiction novels (if she’s going to read novels for pleasure, she’ll delve into a biography of a prominent female scientist, thank you very much). She feels love is a silly emotion – especially when there’s SCIENCE to be done. I could relate to her counting as a coping mechanism, holding onto numbers as a way to calm down, but that’s it. There was nothing likable about this girl and Walt can do much better if you ask me.

There are side plots involving a police officer and his recent divorce from his wife. Henry is able to tell when people are lying (which makes him great at his job) and he knows his ex-wife still loves him, but cannot understand why she wanted out of the marriage. After twenty years of not questioning her parents’ death, Cora wants to have the case reopened and Henry automatically knows there was more to it than what the original report said. There’s a man working for the radio station where Walt has taken a night position reading novels for a program. Walt’s voice is silky smooth and lonely housewives start sending in letters. Walt refuses to even look at the letters, he only has eyes for Cora. So what does Dylan do? Why he responds of course! He replies back but not as himself. No, he signs the letters with Walt’s name (all the while keeping it a secret from Walt). A year after marrying her husband, Millie found herself a widow. Ten years later she’s finally ready to open her heart to love once more and meets Walt. She also wrote him an innocent fan letter, but these two lives become messy: she enjoys her time with Walt, but the letters (written BY Dylan AS Walt) leave her feeling something else entirely. Sebastian is a tired priest who lost his faith decades ago. Prior to taking his vows, he fell in love and has been yearning to see Etta these past fifty years. The Dress Shop of Dreams also throws in some betrayal (of all sorts!), a secret baby, and alcoholism. I couldn’t keep up with any of it.

When the end does come around, it’s so poorly executed I felt ripped off. It’s hard to believe this novel came from the same writer as The House at the End of Hope Street! In fact, were it not for a cameo from one of Hope Street‘s characters, I honestly would have assumed the two books were written by completely different authors. The Dress Shop of Dreams might enchant a newcomer to Magical Realism, but reading this after having experienced the magic of The House at the End of Hope Street, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth. This book was a huge letdown.

Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen

Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen
Pub. Date: July 8, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Thomas Dunne Books!)
Summary: Meet Captain James Benjamin Hook, a witty, educated Restoration-era privateer cursed to play villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends. But everything changes when Stella Parrish, a forbidden grown woman, dreams her way to the Neverland in defiance of Pan’s rules. From the glamour of the Fairy Revels, to the secret ceremonies of the First Tribes, to the mysterious underwater temple beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, the magical forces of the Neverland open up for Stella as they never have for Hook. And in the pirate captain himself, she begins to see someone far more complex than the storybook villain.

With Stella’s knowledge of folk and fairy tales, she might be Hook’s last chance for redemption and release if they can break his curse before Pan and his warrior boys hunt her down and drag Hook back to their never ending game.
Genre: Fantasy
Rating:

Everyone knows the evil Captain Hook, the villain of Neverland. What Alias Hook delivers is the tale of Jamie Benjamin Hookbridge, the eleven-year-old boy obsessed with ships. James Hookbridge, the charming young man who enjoyed women and drink and was in no hurry to settle down. The curse that cast him a devil, the boy who haunts him day and night, and his only chance at a way out.

I’m a big fan of retellings. A big fan. When I first heard about a retelling that focused on Captain Hook, the story that told his side, I couldn’t contain myself. This was a story for me. Unfortunately, after an extremely strong start, I quickly found myself losing focus; Alias Hook lost its steam hardly a quarter of the way into the story.

Hook’s childhood was fascinating and I loved these early alternating chapters between his life in London in the late 1600s and his hellish existence in Neverland in (what turns out to be) 1950. I’m a total sucker for a good backstory and I think it’s crucial to a successful retelling. Hook’s time spent with his father, his passion for the sea, even his early adulthood when he was often found in a saloon with his uppercrust pals or entertaining ladies in a seedy brothel. These windows into just who this man was made the story for me. I’ll take some good old-fashioned character exploration over action scenes any day of the week.

Unfortunately, once his backstory was established and there were no longer any of those lovely looks into his previous life – his mortal life – I found it was a struggle to continue. There was a woman Hook loved, though he secretly wasn’t looking forward to a life at home with a wife and children. He took to the seas and never returned. A dark curse was placed upon him, sending him to a boy’s fantasy world where he would forever be tormented and challenged. Two centuries later – two centuries worth of shipmates, Lost Boys, Wendys, and Pan’s antics – Hook discovers something new to Neverland: a woman.

Stella Parrish was a nurse who aided wounded soldiers in the Second World War. When that world became too unbearable, she sought the refuge of her childhood dreams and soon found herself in a place she immediately recognized from her storybooks. Naturally she doesn’t believe Hook is really the Captain Hook, nor does she take Pan’s word as truth; he’s just a silly boy, a child. What power could he possibly wield? It’s not until she witnessed firsthand just how deadly Pan’s games are that she comes to realize this isn’t silly, this isn’t a game. For centuries Pan has acted out his heroic fantasies while Hook is predestined to lose every single time. While he is never fatally harmed (despite his longing for release from this dreadful place), his men, mere mortals, die for Lost Boys grow up to become men and Pan would never allow grown-ups to plague his world.

Stella’s arrival is met with confusion – if Pan’s in charge and he adamantly refuses to allow adults, just how did a grown woman appear? Hook takes her aboard his ship in an attempt to protect her and possibly gain the upper hand on Pan for once (Hook reasons that Stella made her way to Neverland without Pan’s knowledge and he won’t pass up any advantage he could have over the boy). Over time the two become close and, yeah, I wasn’t at all surprised by the romance – anyone reading this book should not be surprised. The only woman in Neverland and the first woman Hook has seen in over two hundred years? Yeah.

There’s lovely homage paid to J. M. Barrie. Although he’d long since passed by Stella’s arrival, Hook remembers him as Pan’s Scotch Boy. Barrie was one of the Lost Boys and when he returned to our world and grew up, a part of him retained those childhood memories. In his recollections, however, Barrie viewed Peter as a great leader, as all Lost Boys do, thus making Peter Pan beloved and renowned while Hook was demonized.

While I felt the story began to drag once James became Hook, I was never not interested. I certainly wasn’t nearly as invested in the story as I had been in the beginning, leading to it taking nearly two weeks to read when I typically get through a book in two or three days. By the halfway mark I found myself skimming over the longer passages, usually those scenes where Hook was lamenting Stella’s absence or discussing matters with his men. A large part of the book was slow-going and as much as I love a story that takes its time, Alias Hook didn’t have enough to keep me turning the pages. Many nights I only got through a chapter – two if they were short. Although I wasn’t as in love with Alias Hook as I had hoped, I like the idea behind it and I loved the look into Captain Hook’s life before Neverland. His quest for redemption, for death, captivated me and the ending is open to a variety of interpretations. And, really, the cover is seriously spectacular in person. The colors are astoundingly vivid!

NOTABLE QUOTES

We were the envy of every clerk and apprentice in London, and most of their masters. We were dazzling. We were immortal.

This is what I am, what I’ve become in this place: handmaiden to the dead. My last, my only desire is to one day be rewarded for my centuries of service, earn my own passage into the Kingdom of Hades, and be allowed to rest in peace. But I am aged Charon ferrying the souls of the damned to the Underworld where I can never follow. The obolus has yet to be coined that will purchase my passage out of this never-ending Purgatorio.

Spirits of Ash and Foam by Greg Weisman

Spirits of Ash and Foam (Rain Cacique #2) by Greg Weisman
Pub. Date: July 8, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley + print ARC via publisher (thank you, St. Martin’s Griffin!!)
Summary: Welcome to the Prospero Keys (or as the locals call them: the Ghost Keys), the beautiful chain of tropical islands on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle where Rain Cacique lives. When Rain’s maternal grandfather passed away, he left her his special armband: two gold snakes intertwined, clasping each other’s tails in their mouths. Rain soon discovers that the armband is actually a zemi – a very powerful talisman created by the island’s native Arawak Taino Indians – and that it allows Rain to see ghosts, including her own grandfather who is determined to help her uncover the Ghost Keys’ hidden world of mystery and mysticism, intrigue and adventure.

Now, Rain Cacique’s looking for a few answers — and the second zemi, a Taino relic that allows her to see dead people. But it’s the first week of school, so she’s pretty busy juggling teachers, homework, baby-sitting duties, new friends, missing tourist kids… and a vampire with a tribal twist.
Genre: Middle Grade, Paranormal, Adventure
Rating:

This is a review for the second book in a series. I’ll try to keep vague, but there might be some spoilers for the first book.

Last year’s Rain of the Ghosts was a quick, fun read that kept me entertained but left me with a few questions. The sequel, Spirits of Ash and Foam was one I was really looking forward to and I couldn’t wait to get back to the Ghost Keys. Unfortunately, it seems this book suffers from the dreaded Second Book Syndrome. The bad outweighed the good here.

There’s a string of islands in the Bermuda Triangle known to the locals as the Ghost Keys. Rain Cacique and her family run an inn on one of the islands and she recently inherited a magical bracelet from her grandfather. The zemi is just one of nine and Rain isn’t the only one who’s searching for them.

With literally no time elapsed since the first book, Spirits of Ash and Foam kicks off the morning after Rain of the Ghosts ended. Rain is still coming to terms with everything: magic, her new-found ability to see ghosts, her recently-deceased Grandpa ‘Bastian-turned-ghostly sidekick…and the beginning of the new school year is just around the corner. It was a joy to see Charlie and Miranda again (although Charlie’s massive crush on Rain still hasn’t gone anywhere) and there were some new faces too. While the other characters were beautifully crafted, Renee was little more than a Mean Girl stereotype. Miranda unknowingly sits in a seat Renee had wanted, and now Renee is out for blood. She enters their group, goes along with them on adventures…all the while intent on getting revenge. She wouldn’t let it go – even AFTER they finally became friends. Did this girl really have nothing else going on in her life?

The only thing I enjoyed about Spirits of Ash and Foam was that, in the first ten pages, I had answered to the questions I had from the first book. Everything was spelled out for me and I appreciated that. Sadly, that was where the good ended.

In a novel this short – 280 pages – there’s only room for so much. Whereas I had been under the impression this series was about the mysterious zemis and Rain’s quest to find the rest of them, here there were numerous plots and hardly any of them went anywhere. Callahan, the Bad Guy, is back. The inn has new guests and Rain’s forced to babysit the three unruly children. A murder or two. A search party. Mermaids and ancient legends. Charlie’s crush. There was so much packed into these pages and I felt that there wasn’t enough attention devoted to any of them. Cut out a few storylines and the book as a whole would have been far stronger.

A large chunk of this book was devoted to a strange woman/manatee the children glimpse one afternoon. Rain is told the tribal tales of the woman and how she’s an evil witch that, for centuries has been luring children away from their families and they’re never seen again. Centuries, remember. Many, many years. ‘Bastian simply asks her to return the missing children (the guests at the Cacique’s inn) to their parents and that’s it. Hundreds of years of suffering could have been avoiding if the parents had simply asked nicely. Turns out this woman was never evil at all, just misunderstood and lonely. Right.

Another issue I had was with the logistics. There are a handful of ghosts in this book and, for the most part, they’re free to come and go as they please. They can walk through walls and floors with ease. Yet they still need to take ferries to get from island to island. I couldn’t wrap my mind around this concept.

It’s such a shame when a solid first book is followed by a lackluster sequel. It wasn’t until the very end that Rain discovered the second zemi. There are still seven more to find and if the rate is one per book I really don’t see myself keeping up with this series. While I enjoyed Rain of the Ghosts, Spirits of Ash and Foam was such a downgrade that, unless something drastic changes in the third book, my time with this series is over.

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lance by Kelly Harms

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane by Kelly Harms
Pub. Date: July 1, 2014 (orig. May, 2013)
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Thomas Dunne Books!)
Summary: This year’s lucky winner of a brand-new dream home: Janine Brown of Cedar Falls, Iowa
For heartbroken Janine “Janey” Brown, this announcement has the hallmarks of one of her Aunt Midge’s harebrained plans to lure her from her tiny kitchen, where she’s been submerging her grief in the pursuit of the perfect pot-au-feu. Meanwhile, across town, Janine “Nean” Brown couldn’t be more thrilled. She just knows that this house is her destiny, the chance to escape the latest in her revolving door of crappy jobs and drunken boyfriends.
When both Janine Browns descend on Christmas Cove, Maine, to claim the prize they both think is theirs, however, they discover that more than just a dream home awaits them at the water’s edge.

Genre: Contemporary, Beach read
Rating:

As a beach/summer read, The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane is perfect. If I had read it at any other time, however, I would have been less than impressed (and actually felt a bit disappointed I hadn’t enjoyed it more while reading). This book reads like a check list of beach read staples: heartbroken main character, wise/quirky grandmotherly figure, handsome strangers (in this case, two), a passion for cooking/baking, etc etc. Really, all that was missing was a loyal dog.

Janey’s fiance passed away unexpectedly five years ago and with his death her world shattered. While she had always been shy, Ned’s death took her fear and turned it into a debilitating phobia. She was no longer able to pursue the teaching degree she had so desperately wanted and, instead, became holed up inside her apartment, only speaking to her Aunt Midge. She can barely hold down a job and any interaction with someone new causes Janey to break out into hives. Unbeknownst to Janey, Aunt Midge enters her into a nationwide dream home contest – and her name, Janine Brown, is chosen.

Nean’s 24 years have not been kind to her. In and out of foster care and shelters, she’s well on her way to following in her mother’s footsteps (minus the heroin). She goes for the wrong guys, but at least those guys have a place to live, some food, and a television. Geoff isn’t boyfriend material, as her bald patches and bruises show, and the night she hears her name, Janine Brown, announced on live television, she knows her life is about to change.

The two (make that three – 88-year-old Aunt Midge is in tow) women head for Maine, and it’s not until they’ve reached the sprawling mansion with a state-of-the-art kitchen and lake view, that they realize there’s another Janine Brown. Who’s the real winner? How could Janey possibly survive living with a stranger? There’s no. way. Nean is going to be put back on a bus to Iowa. And who’s that cute farmer?

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane doesn’t pull any punches and any reader of this kind of fiction knows how the story will end before it even begins. So, yes, as a carefree beach read, this book is perfect. Entertaining enough without asking for a lot in return. While I can certainly get behind some good brain fluff, I had a good time getting past these characters and their actions. 24-year-old Nean is bratty and stubborn. Despite being nearly 90, Aunt Midge rocks out to the Rolling Stones and enjoys swimming in her birthday suit. Janey has a passion for cooking – which I loved – and she claims she loves cooking so much, she always makes way more than one person could ever eat and throws the leftovers away once she’s had her fill. I couldn’t excuse this, though it made for a nice coincidence since Noah just so happens to work at the local shelter. Naturally, the moment she meets him, her 5-year phobia all but vanishes.

As far as substance goes, there wasn’t a whole lot to this story, but that’s exactly what you’d want in a summer-y read. Unfortunately, this one was simply decent – and wholly forgettable.

Goodnight June by Sarah Jio

Goodnight June by Sarah Jio
Pub. Date: May 27, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (thank you, Penguin!)
Summary: June Andersen is professionally successful, but her personal life is marred by unhappiness. Unexpectedly, she is called to settle her great-aunt Ruby’s estate and determine the fate of Bluebird Books, the children’s bookstore Ruby founded in the 1940s. Amidst the store’s papers, June stumbles upon letters between her great-aunt and the late Margaret Wise Brown—and steps into the pages of American literature.
Genre: Adult, Fiction, Contemporary
Rating:

You know those books you hear about that sound AMAZING, those books you cannot wait to get your hands on and cherish, only to be horribly let down? Allow me to introduce you to Goodnight June. Let’s revisit that summary: June Andersen is the vice president of a very lucrative bank in New York where she oversees foreclosures, even personally shutting down beloved businesses. She’s carved out a new life for herself on the East Coast and never planned on returning to her past in Seattle until the day she received a letter; her great-aunt Ruby passed away and everything was left for June. Including Bluebird Books, the children’s bookstore Ruby owned for decades. As much as June loved Ruby, returning home would mean facing things she’s just not ready for. When she uncovers a secret Ruby kept hidden – her friendship with Margaret Wise Brown and the true story of how Goodnight Moon came to be – June finds herself enchanted. Could she possibly learn to let go and move on?

Goodnight June sounded positively dreamy: a bookstore, an absolute classic work of children’s literature (raise your hand if you had – or still have! – a copy of Goodnight Moon), and a treasure hunt! Nothing better, right? Sadly, this novel fell victim to the Matthew Pearl Effect (new friends to the blog, the MPE is where a story has an incredible premise, but the actual storytelling falls short – named after one-too-many disappointments following Matthew Pearl’s works). Goodnight June sounded great, but the execution was anything but.

There were so many issues I had with this novel, it would be easier to discuss what I did like. The idea behind the story? Ruby and Margaret’s friendship? And that’s where my praise ends.

June, a painfully stubborn and immature woman, falls for a cute new guy and after two short weeks they’re in love. The problem? Gavin is co-owner of a restaurant with his ex-fiancee. The ex-fiancee who’s still in love with him. This doesn’t matter to June though, because mere days after meeting Gavin, she suggests they team up, knock down a wall between their buildings, and combine the two businesses into a bookstore/cafe. …and Gavin agrees. Uh.. Then there’s the problem with the bookstore. The entire reason June left for Seattle was to settle her aunt’s finances and sell the place. Ruby had amassed an overwhelming amount of debt and even if she were to sell her apartment and use her entire savings, June still wouldn’t have enough to cover the cost. So what brilliant plan does Gavin come up with? Why not e-mail her boss to ask for money! And June does. She e-mailed her boss JUST ONE DAY AFTER QUITTING to ask him to help her pay the money Ruby owed.

Honestly I’m surprised my eyes are still in my head they were doing so much rolling. Any obstacle or conflict that arose in the story was swiftly dealt with. There was nothing for June to work for. At one point she’s trying to locate a man who had been given up for adoption in the 70s. It was a closed adoption and she only had the name he was given at birth. Well what do you know, June does a Google search, comes across a website for adults who had been adopted, and types up a post on their message boards. The following day she receives a reply. The entire book was like this. June’s money problems? She holds a grand reopening (I was ROLLING at the scene where Bill and Melinda Gates randomly showed up along with big name authors like Clive Cussler) and gets a ton of donations. I get that this is supposed to be the Happy Ending, but I never saw it as a reward. June never had to struggle or put in any effort to reach her goals.

My other big issue was with the actual writing. If this is what Jio’s work is like after six books (with a seventh coming out later this year) I’d seriously hate to see what her debut was like:

We pretend to be angry at each other for about three seconds before we hug.
“I’m going to miss you,” he says.
“I’m going to miss you too.”

We sit at a corner table and talk and laugh over Americanos and blackberry scones, then continue our tour of Winslow, stopping at a wine store. Gavin buys a case of local cabernet for the restaurant, and an extra one for me. When I notice a bookstore, Eagle Harbor Books, across the street, we walk there next.

I study the letter carefully and see that Margaret must have heeded Ruby’s advice, because the letter has obviously been folded many times. Its creases are very deep and worn, as if she might have done just what Ruby suggessted. ‘I hope you’ll take what I’ve just written and put it in your pocket and save it.’ She must have done just that.

Of course, I should point out these are from an uncorrected copy. Her editor is definitely earning her paycheck with this one. Overly simple sentences – they went here, then they went here, then they looked at this – and an absurd amount of repetition (you think Margaret took the advice??). No thank you.

It’s such a shame that I truly have nothing good to say about Goodnight June but I certainly can see the appeal in Jio’s works; Goodnight Moon was an extremely easy, very quick read with an abundance of fluff. Unfortunately, I wanted more from this book than I received.

NOTABLE QUOTE

Sometimes I think of my life as a great big story. Each silly thing I do is a new paragraph. And each morning I turn to the next chapter. It’s fun to think of life that way, each day being an adventure of the grandest proportions.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
Pub. Date: May 13, 2014
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, HMH!)
Summary: A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from a hotel room that was the site of a famous murder/suicide fifteen years earlier, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with the dark and giddy pop culture pleasures of The Shining, Agatha Christie, and Glee.
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery
Rating

Let’s take another look at that summary, shall we? In just a single sentence I was hooked and needed to read Bellweather Rhapsody. Not only did the plot sound delightful (or as delightful as a murder/suicide can be), but then to be thrown references to The Shining and Agatha Christie! Unfortunately, when all was said and done, I felt this novel relied too much on those references and lacked its own spark. Take away Jack Nicholson and all that’s left is a book with many, many (too many!) characters and far-reaching aspirations it can’t quite attain.

In its heyday, the Bellweather hotel was THE place to be. Its rooms were constantly rotating with girlfriends and wives – never at the same time! – and every day was a party. Fifteen years ago, however, a bride shot her husband and then hung herself. Since then the hotel has been in a slow state of decline, the only time its rooms are mostly full is once a year for Statewide, a high school music festival. Careers can be made at Statewide and the best musicians from across the country show up to put their talents on full display. This year, however, a girl goes missing – and no one’s quite certain whether or not she’s dead – and the events from fifteen years ago seem to be replaying once more.

I wasn’t joking when I mentioned the sheer number of characters. Usually I follow a ‘the more the merrier’ adage when it comes to characters and storylines. Here, however, I had a hard time keeping them straight and in one case didn’t figure out two characters were completely different people until 100 pages from the end. While I’m not entirely blameless, I do think the novel suffered for not having clear-cut characters: readers shouldn’t be confused as to who’s who. In my case, I was thoroughly convinced Minnie’s sister/brother-in-law was the couple from fifteen years ago; they were all at the Bellweather for the wedding and it was Minnie who discovered the bodies. Imagine my surprise then when Minnie’s reintroduced over one hundred pages later with her family alive and well. There was simply too much to keep straight; characters and storylines that were mentioned in the beginning of the novel were completely forgotten about by the time the ending rolled around.

I felt Bellweather Rhapsody tried too hard to be too many things and tackle too many topics: Rabbit’s sexuality was the focus of his chapters from the get-go – he’s decided to come out to his sister – and by the time the climax rolls around, it’s SO anti-climatic that I wasn’t sure what the point was the begin with. In a single throw-away remark April mentions she knows he’s gay and that’s that. The entire book was spent waxing poetic about the boys he’s crushed on in the past, the moment he realized he was different, what will his parents say!, there’s a cute boy at Statewide and Rabbit’s ready for a new beginning…it all culminated into one whispered question and then never brought up again.

There’s a Scottish conductor who was once a prodigy until he lost three fingers in a barfight, a former prodigy who grew up to be evil incarnate and has groomed her prodigy of a daughter to be the best, a chaperone who had once loved music and carries a world of guilt on her shoulders, the hotel concierge who’s slowly losing touch with reality – the list goes on. I honestly enjoyed these characters and their stories – I especially liked Fisher and Rabbit – but the focus quickly blurred toward the end to the point where I truly have no idea if certain characters even existed or if certain scenes ever happened. Perhaps that was the point of the novel and I missed it entirely. That said, when it comes to mysteries I like – and expect! – clear-cut answers and, sadly, Bellweather Rhapsody failed to deliver.

I don’t want to give the impression that the novel was all bad – it certainly wasn’t! When it was good it was great and I was thoroughly ensnared. Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance were dampened by the multitude of narratives and plot points and readers should never be confused. I’m positive Bellweather Rhapsody will find its audience – I wanted so badly to love it! – but it just wasn’t for me. This year I took a long look at publishers and which imprints work for me. When it comes to Houghton Mifflin, I tend to enjoy their Young Adult novels far more than Adult, and Bellweather Rhapsody further proves my findings.

NOTABLE QUOTES

Alice is unlike anyone Minnie has ever met, let alone tried to make friends with. When you look in her eyes they fix and look back instead of darting off to another corner of the room. She opens to people. Minnie folds in like an envelope; Alice erupts like a self-exploding pinata. She’s easy to be with, provided you don’t mind the constant chatter, the non-sequitur song cues, or her total lack of an indoor voice. Maybe this is what it would have been like to have a sister, a sister who wasn’t already grown up, moved out, and married by the time Minnie was ready for all-night candy binges and video marathons, for hand-me-down trashy romance novels with the juicy parts dog-eared at the corners.

“I’m a twin. My brother has always been the good twin, the sweet and kind and smart one, and I’ve always been the bad twin, the loud and funny one who would probably run her own saloon if the Gold Rush were still on, and I’m afraid of who I’ll be when Bert isn’t there to remind me what my better self, my best self, is made of.”

I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira

Title: I Always Loved You
Author: Robin Oliveira
Pub. Date: February 4, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is begging her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever. Years later she will learn that he had begged for the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships.
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction
Rating:

She would adore her child and tend her husband, but love, that elusive prize, had left her now. What a horror it was to be mortal, she thought, subject to such appalling weaknesses and needs. What a horror it was to be alive.

These are the reviews that are the hardest to write. If I had felt strongly about this book – on either end of the spectrum – I would have no problem putting my thoughts down. As it were, however, I Always Loved You was a novel that more often than not dragged, with the good parts being simply satisfactory. I follow GoodReads’s rating system, and according to them, a two star rating means a book was merely okay. And, when it comes down to it, that’s all this novel was. Okay. Passable. Decent. Ultimately forgettable. It was an effort on my part to finish (I spent nearly two weeks reading it!) and while there were intriguing chapters, at no point did I feel that calling to rush home from work/grocery shopping/what have you to jump back into the story.

I Always Loved You follows Mary Cassatt from her early days as a young American painter in Paris to old age. Along the way we’re introduced to numerous artists – Renoir, Monet, both Manet brothers – nearly all of whom have banded together to hold their own exhibitions after having paintings rejected by the famed Paris Salon. After an introduction to Degas (she had long admired his work and he had admired hers), she finds herself tangled in this misfit group. Reading about these painters was like watching a soap opera. Though many were married, their affections lay elsewhere and even the paternity of a child was called into question (though never in public of course!). With Mary spending more and more time with Degas rumors run rampant throughout Paris and neither really does anything to stop it.

Mary spends her days painting or caring for her ailing sister once her family makes the move from Philadelphia to Paris. On occasion Degas stops by the have dinner or present Mrs. Cassatt and Mary’s sister Lydia with gifts. Out of the blue, however, he’ll disappear and Mary won’t hear a word from him for a month or longer. Despite his gusto when it comes to taking on new projects, Degas always manages to leave the others hanging – multiple exhibitions are held only for the other artists to discover at the last minute, that Degas hadn’t painted a single piece. Years of productivity went down the drain after he abandoned a journal start up that many people – including Mary – had devoted time and money to.

While the book was largely devoted to Mary and Degas, there were multiple chapters that followed other artists and, honestly, I wound up getting many of them confused. Was it Édouard who was married to Suzanne yet in love with Berthe or was it his brother Eugène? Who was it again that had been rejected by the Salon this year? The year before? I got lost in the small details that made up I Always Loved You and the confusion made it difficult to become fully invested in the story.

I also had a hard time coming to care to Edgar and Mary’s relationship – if you choose to call it that. For decades these two were friends one day, had epically heated arguments the next, ignored one another for months, then rekindled their friendship. Rinse, repeat. They were in love with one another yet never admitted to their feelings. They were stubborn and bitter to the end and each died alone. The passionate romance I had been promised just wasn’t there. At one point Edgar carelessly blurted out a marriage proposal, to which Mary slammed the door in his face. I’m convinced there’s no way these two would have been able to tolerate a life together.

It’s such a shame that this novel was so disappointing. Despite my utter ignorance when it comes to the art world, I do love a good novel exploring it and have read many fantastic books on the subject. Add in the historical aspect plus Parisian setting and I Always Loved You was shaping up to be a book handcrafted for me. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Slow chapters (entire chapters comprised of only a single multi-page paragraph!), a large jumble of characters, and a frustrating romance led to me having a rather hard time getting through this book. Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of this one, I’ve heard wonderful things about Oliveira’s debut, My Name is Mary Sutter, and look forward to giving that novel a try.

mini review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

17910570 Title: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Pub. Date: January 28, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (thank you, Knopf Books!!)
Summary: Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn’t believe in anything that can’t be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia’s help.

As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy’s own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Rating:

After the recent loss of her mother, Ophelia travels with her sister and father to a museum where her father is working on a sword exhibit. While exploring the various floors one afternoon, Ophelia discovers a mysterious boy who’s locked behind a door. He tells her his name was taken from him three hundred years ago by a group of wizards and that he had been sent to defeat the Snow Queen. Being a child whose beliefs lie in science rather than tales, Ophelia initially shrugs him off – this boy doesn’t look a day older than she does yet he insists he’s 300? As she hears more of his stories, however, she comes to realize there might be something to them after all. Unfortunately time is running out and the pair only have three days to beat the evil Snow Queen before the world ends.

As much as I wanted to love this one, I just couldn’t get into it. I should know better than to automatically leap at comparisons, yet the first mention of Roald Dahl had me hooked. While the similarities were abundant and clear, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy would have needed something more for it to work.

Throughout the book, Boy’s own story is told and these chapters were my favorite. There was definitely a fairy tale-like quality to them that I loved and the giant owls, the wizards, the King – they were all so vivid and full of character. Back in the present, however, I couldn’t connect with Ophelia’s story. Numerous times her mother talks to her and even after reading I’m still unsure as to whether that was real or if it was all in Ophelia’s head (with this story both options are entirely plausible).

Toward the end I was skimming more than reading and the big fight scene was over in such a rush it felt completely pointless. I had high expectations for Ophelia and the Real Boy and, sadly, they fell flat. Despite my lackluster feelings, I do think this book will find its fans and I’m disappointed I was not one of them.

The Dirt Diary by Anna Staniszewski

Title: The Dirt Diary
Author Anna Staniszewski
Pub. Date: January 7, 2014
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (thank you, Sourcebooks!!)
Summary: WANTED: Maid for the most popular kids in 8th grade.

Cleaning up after the in-crowd gets Rachel all the best dirt.

Rachel can’t believe she has to give up her Saturdays to scrubbing other people’s toilets. So. Gross. But she kinda, sorta stole $287.22 from her college fund that she’s got to pay back ASAP or her mom will ground her for life. Which is even worse than working for her mother’s new cleaning business. Maybe. After all, becoming a maid is definitely not going to help her already loserish reputation.

But Rachel picks up more than smell socks on the job. As maid to some of the most popular kids in school, Rachel suddenly has all the dirt on the 8th grade in-crowd. Her formerly boring diary is now filled with juicy secrets. And when her crush offers to pay her to spy on his girlfriend, Rachel has to decide if she’s willing to get her hands dirty…
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary
Rating:

I’ll get this out of the way by saying I would have enjoyed The Dirt Diary so much more if it hasn’t been watered down with simple language more suited for a Kindergarten class. Writing a Middle Grade (or even Young Adult!) novel does not mean the language needs to be dumbed down. Some of the most thought-provoking and powerful novels I’ve ever read have been targeted toward children, authors!! The characters in The Dirt Diary are in 8th grade, gearing up for high school. Let that sink in. High. School. The way 14-year-olds speak and interact is far different than the interaction of a group of five-year-olds, yet it’s all the same to Ms. Staniszewski. Admittedly, there were two characters who said ‘hell,’ but the main character sticks to Helsinki and holy bean dip. Even ignoring the characters’ speech, The Dirt Diary‘s writing is extremely juvenile. The novel breaks the cardinal sin of literature over and over: it tells rather than shows.

As for the story itself…the summary is a bit misleading. It makes the story sound a bit Harriet the Spy-ish, which isn’t the case at all. Rachel’s parents recently split, her father moving to Florida to start up a scuba diving business. Her mother is now faced with having to take a second job – a cleaning business – and asks Rachel to tag along and help out. That money Rachel stole? She used it on a plane ticket. She concocted a plan to fly down to her father (all the while keeping it a secret from her mom) and somehow making him realize he needs to come home and be a family again.

Because the houses Rachel and her mother clean are in their neighborhood, many of the children go to Rachel’s school…and that’s not a good thing. It’s one thing picking up the dirty underwear of the twin boys in the grade below her, but it’s another thing entirely to scrub the toilets of her mortal enemy. Especially when there’s a cute brother involved (who refers to Rachel as Booger Crap). The more Rachel visits these houses, the more she uncovers about her fellow classmates’ lives and what she discovers could be dangerous.

The Dirty Diary is a super easy read; I finished the book in one sitting. The plots move along quickly enough, though they’re a bit disjointed and half-hearted. Mixed in with the divorce storyline and these secrets Rachel uncovers, there’s a story I wished had been explored further. Rachel’s passion is baking. She channels her emotions through cupcakes and brownies and keeps a notebook full of recipes (the majority being her own creations). The previous school year Rachel had entered a bake sale and wound up taking second place. This year she’s determined to take first. I loved this storyline and wanted to see it progress. The goodies Rachel bakes had my mouth watering the entire time (hello, banana nutella swirl brownies!), but it was spoiled with the hurried conclusion. The bake sale arc wrapped up so quickly I was caught off guard.

My largest problem with The Dirt Diary was how Rachel reacted upon discovering secrets (or, in some cases, what she misinterpreted). Her first reaction is to giggle and make fun of people. One of the resident Mean Girls is depressed and Rachel discovers it’s because her father recently passed away. Rather than comforting her, Rachel thinks about how this girl will no longer be popular – she’s wearing sweatpants to school! Upon discovering a package of adult diapers at her vice principal’s house, Rachel immediately thinks about how juicy this is and has to stop herself from laughing in his face the next time she sees him. That scene nearly pulled me out of the book completely. Rachel’s actions were awful and disgusting.

While the story itself was enjoyable, so many things about The Dirt Diary made me upset, and in some instances, positively livid. Initially this had been a three-star book, but the more I wrote and the more I thought back on this story, the angrier I got. I can see a younger crowd liking this book, but unfortunately, The Dirt Diary just wasn’t for me.

Relic by Heather Terrell

Title: Relic (Books of Eva #1)
Author: Heather Terrell
Pub. Date: October 29, 2013
Source: finished copy via publisher
Summary: When Eva’s twin brother, Eamon, falls to his death just a few months before he is due to participate in The Testing, no one expects Eva to take his place. She’s a Maiden, slated for embroidery classes, curtseys, and soon a prestigious marriage befitting the daughter of an Aerie ruler. But Eva insists on honoring her brother by becoming a Testor. After all, she wouldn’t be the first Maiden to Test, just the first in 150 years.

Eva knows the Testing is no dance class. Gallant Testors train for their entire lives to search icy wastelands for Relics: artifacts of the corrupt civilization that existed before The Healing drowned the world. Out in the Boundary Lands, Eva must rely on every moment of the lightning-quick training she received from Lukas—her servant, a Boundary native, and her closest friend now that Eamon is gone.

But there are threats in The Testing beyond what Lukas could have prepared her for. And no one could have imagined the danger Eva unleashes when she discovers a Relic that shakes the Aerie to its core.
Genre: YA, Dystopia
Rating:

These days it seems as though every book is The Next Harry Potter or The Next 50 Shades. Relic is pitched as not only for fans of The Hunger Games but also as a new take on Game of Thrones. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill and unfortunately, Relic doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.

Eva lives in the barren, ice-covered New North. Two centuries earlier the gods deemed the world corrupt and wiped out nearly all of civilization. Those who survived the Healing relocated and began rebuilding their lives. The native inhabitants were relegated to servants and assistants, looked down upon for not being among the Chosen. A new form of government was created – a Triad – and every year a new group of 18-year-olds risk their lives in an attempt to win a seat.

The Lex, Aerie’s holy book, dictates a code of conduct for its citizens. Boys and girls (here known as Gallants and Maidens) are never to be alone together without a trusted chaperone. Apart from the hands and face, all skin must be covered. Maidens have very little say – if any at all – when it comes to their Betrothal and seem to only exist as objects for the Keepers, Stewards, and Guards to protect. Also mentioned in The Lex are the evils of the pre-Healing world: the Tylenols and MasterCards that ruled the people and the false god Apple.

Each year Testors are sent out onto the plains to search for Relics, evidence of the destructive ways of the pre-Healing world. Chief among these Relics are any Apple products and discovering one all but guarantees the Archon Laurels – one of the highest positions of power. Eva’s brother Eamon had been testing when he mysteriously fell to his death. In a move that rocked her family to the core Eva made the decision to Test in Eamon’s place. With only three short months to train Eva knows she doesn’t stand a chance against the other Testors – including her Betrothed Jasper. These Gallants have been training their entire lives and aren’t planning on going easy on a Maiden. Out on the ice everyone’s equal.

I’m not quite sure who Relic was written for, but it certainly wasn’t the Game of Thrones crowd. I honestly can’t see how that comparison was made at all other than GoT is wildly popular right now and the publisher wanted to latch onto that particular market. Terrell’s writing is competent, if not a little bland and downright confusing. There are numerous words and phrases (masak, nunassiaq, upernagdlit, etc) that were used in everyday conversation and never explained. I was able to figure out a few through the context, but a glossary or translation would have been extremely helpful. Also frustrating was how sheltered Eva had been yet she knew what ballet was – even the Mariinsky Theatre and technical terms – and the terms girlfriend/boyfriend. That one especially threw me off. In Eva’s world there are only prearranged marriages. There’s no dating and if you wind up betrothed to someone you come to love you’re one of the lucky few.

During the Testing Eva easily kills a massive Musk Ox and doesn’t seem to have a hard time surviving at all. Just a reminder: a Testor spends his entire life preparing for this one week. Eva had only three months to train with Lukas, one of the Boundary (Inuit) people, and she breezed through it. With any main character you expect them to win the game or find the treasure, but there’s also that element of tension. I didn’t get that from Relic. Eva’s told she won the Archon Laurels and that’s that. There’s no build up, no fear or danger involved.

Part of the Testing is a glorified archaeological dig. For the past 150 years Testors have been digging in the same spot and each year something huge is discovered. This didn’t feel plausible to me at all. This Testing guns and Apple Relics were unearthed and Eva found not only a skeleton, but also many Apple products – including a computer. This computer had been buried in the ice for nearly two hundred years, but the second Lukas sees it – apparently the Boundary folk are well aware of the forbidden Tech – it starts right up. Remember when I mentioned how sheltered Eva has been all her life? Within minutes she’s able to not only grasp the concept of computers and Internet, but she readily accepts it and decides that technology isn’t so bad after all – despite being told her entire life The Lex knows best.

There’s a chapter at the very end of the book – an epilogue of sorts – that is an extract from The Lex. It goes over the government and what each of the three positions stand for. Even after reading that I couldn’t tell you what the Archon does or what the Basilikon means. I also didn’t understand how the Testing works in relation to the positions. The Testing happens every year. The three members of the Triad holds the position for ten years. Eva’s father is the current Chief Archon, the position Eva has just won. If he has the position for a decade will she be added to a waiting list of the previous winners? Terrell was playing fast and loose with her government and none of it made sense.

Because this is a Young Adult novel, naturally there’s a love triangle and – surprise, surprise – that confused me as well. Jasper is Eva’s Betrothed. His uncle is Chief Lexor (whatever that means) and a union between the two families would only bring good things. Then there’s Lukas. Lukas in one of the Boundary folk – the native Inuits who are considered second-rate citizens. There isn’t much interaction between Eva and these two boys Gallants – at least not enough for me to believe in a potential love triangle. Again, not much build up, and feelings are awkwardly revealed in the middle of a completely unrelated conversation with a quick “Can’t you see how I feel about you?” Don’t feel bad, Eva – I certainly didn’t see it! As for Eva, she doesn’t seem to have feelings either way for these Gallants. The book is told through her eyes – there was never a moment where she discussed having feelings for Jasper or Lukas.

With so many things going against it it’s a bit of a surprise that I found myself enjoying Relic. The pacing was EXTREMELY quick and that definitely helped me get through an otherwise lackluster story. I’ll keep an eye out for the second book, if only to sooth my curiosity – and hopefully find some answers to my numerous questions! Relic is not the smart, new take on the Dystopian genre that it claims to be, but it was a quick and entertaining read.

…the Ladies, Gentlewomen, and Maidens of the Aerie will also have a special, sacred role. They will be responsible for keeping the hearth and home. They will ensure the adherence to the Gods’ rules within that domain. The manner in which they do so – as well as the ways in which their Marital Union will be selected and their children borne, for those too are consecrated duties and our race too precious to leave to chance – will be detailed in The Lex.

Long story short: if a society like this enrages you, pass on Relic.