[ARC Review]Sometimes We Tell the Truth – By Kim Zarins


Hardcover:  448 pages
Expected publication: September 6th 2016
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Note: I won an ARC of this book via yareads giveaways.
Buy Links:
 Kindle              Hardcover


In this contemporary retelling of The Canterbury Tales, a group of teens on a bus ride to Washington, DC, each tell a story—some fantastical, some realistic, some downright scandalous—in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a perfect score.

Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind:
-Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
-He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.
-He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey.
-And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.

But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class.

But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind—can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.

In her debut novel, Kim Zarins breathes new life into Chaucer’sThe Canterbury Tales in a fresh and contemporary retelling that explores the dark realities of high school, and the subtle moments that bring us all together.

My Review:

This is probably the third retelling I have read this year and for the first time I wished I was more familiar with the original work. As much as I liked the book, I feel like there were some things I would have appreciated more if I knew how to spot the references to the plots from the original tales. Nevertheless, the book stands tall in its own right and is effortless in telling a story about high schoolers on a six hour bus ride.  Effortless because it addresses so many issues, from embracing your sexuality, to adoption, parent struggling with depression, parents’ abandonment, sibling suffering from PTSD, and then dealing with everything else that comes with the territory of being in high school and just counting off the remaining days left to get into the college you have applied for. Yet, it never felt like there was some deliberate attempt to tick off a diversity checkbox.

The book starts off with listing and describing the cast of characters, and this fondly reminded me of some of the books I used to read in middle-school, like the Perry Masons and Poirot stories. Most of the chapters begins with and is named after the tale narrated by one of the teens. Some tales are completely fictional and used by sparring students to settle scores by casting the others as unsavory characters in their tales. Some other stories are heavily inspired by something from their life. Others pitch ideas and beliefs that they feel strongly about. Since there were so many stories, I guess it was bound to be a bit of a hit-and-miss?  I mean, I really liked some of them, and I do understand that the stories were meant to have takeaways that were morally ambiguous to generate discussion amongst the teenagers, but sometimes I wished that they weren’t that vague. Then, there was this whole running theme of one of the girls, Cece, seeing an opportunity to attack anti-feminism everywhere. I wasn’t really sure whether the heavy-handed approach taken to raise this topic was to seriously espouse the cause or criticize those who were giving it a bad name because, for most part, that’s how Cece was coming across; although she did redeem herself slightly with her lovely tale.

Another person who stood out, both due to her personality and her tale was Alison. Actually, she was one of the few who prefixed the tale with a real-life snippet from when she was twelve. Without giving away much, all I will say is that both her real story and made up one was a bit disturbing and as a reader, it did make me sit up and think about her current emotional head-space. Some of my other, (unexpected) favorites by the end of the book were Reeve and Cannon because for most part of the book they come across as a killjoy (Reeve) and a casual opportunist (Cannon). But then you learn a little bit more about them and end up understanding their actions better (if not sympathizing).

Through this motley collection of tales and people, the book’s primary story features the changing dynamics between ex best friends Jeff and Pard. As the book progresses, we are given bits and pieces of details about what transpired between them over the past couple of years. There is also an allusion to an eventful party and a high-school prank gone wrong.  While the party does indeed end up turning significant to the current Jeff and Pard equation, I am not exactly sure what the entire deal about the high-school prank was. There is a lot of noise made about it with accusations and suspicions flying around amongst everyone in the school bus, but I found the entire sub-plot unnecessary. Then, there is another guy called Mace who was friends with Pard once upon a time, but they now avoid each other. I felt like there was a lot more to the history between Pard and Mace which didn’t make it to the book. All that we end up with is Mace’s acne problems.

Jeff and Pard are alike in the sense that both fall in the peripheries of all the established high-school cool cliques. But, that’s probably where the similarity ends. Jeff is passive when it comes to really sticking your neck out and be a friend, and well in his own words, his signature move in tough situations is to – “do nothing”.  Pard, despite all his faults (well, no matter how you spin it, drawing naked images of your friends without permission is creepy), exudes quiet strength and self-assuredness.

By the end of the book, nothing much changes for the group as a whole; they are just back to hanging out with their own coteries; so any illusion that this bus ride made a dent in the inherent high-school social structure is quickly dispelled. Jeff wasn’t magically given a ticket to be accepted into the cool crowds.  But what did happen is this – Jeff found the courage to look in the mirror and accept himself, warts n’ all. Well, as Alison says:

“When people want to love you, let them. When people open a door like that, never close it, not even to hide”


[ARC Review] Vinegar Girl – By Anne Tyler


Note : I received this ARC from the publishers via the Reading Room (https://www.thereadingroom.com/) giveaway program. Thank you Penguin Random House!

Buy Links:

Audio CD

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Pulitzer Prize winner and American master Anne Tyler brings us an inspired, witty and irresistible contemporary take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies

Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

My review:

Well, I am only vaguely familiar with Taming of the Shrew, so though I am not in a position to compare or debate upon the finer points of distinction between both the versions, I did get the sense that this is probably more of a “watered down” version of the original. And maybe that it isn’t such a bad thing, given all the flak the original has got for being misogynistic. I think Anne Tyler did a fine job adapting it to the present day. To be honest, I think somewhere between all the deluge of  bad-ass female leads from fantasy, paranormal and dystopian books that has found its way to my Read and To Be Read pile, it just felt nice to sit down and read about someone who isn’t cursed, doesn’t have super-powers, or isn’t trying to save the world.

Kate was probably one of the most relatable female characters I have come across in my recent few months of reading. See her from afar, and she is probably not the most “likeable” person in the sense that she doesn’t make any extra effort to befriend people.  Some people are just naturally charming, effortless in complementing others and making them feel good. Kate is none of it, and in a touching moment of self-reflection, she realizes she doesn’t have a single close friend left, all of them having moved on with their lives, with jobs, marriage and kids. Kate, who dropped out of college in her final year, has spent nearly a decade as a teaching assistant in kindergarten. Her daily routine is packing meat-mash lunches for her dad and sister, watching over four-year olds and gardening.  When her father starts cajoling her to get married to his lab assistant Pyotr, she is hurt that he is as usual placing his work and his research over Kate’s desires. But when Kate does agree to play along, she is faced with some interesting dilemmas and questions. Just what does she exactly want in her life? Or what kind of a life does she want to lead? With or without someone? And will that someone just like her for who she is? Just what does it mean to change or compromise in a marriage?

The book is primarily about four characters – Kate, her dad, her sister Bunny and Pyotr. Put them all together and it is a whole lot of fun watching their dynamics change as the story proceeds. The Kate and Pyotr interactions were really sweet, and I loved how some of the things Kate found irritating about Pyotr, (such as him not being in sync with all the English idioms and slangs) was what she found cute and charming about him later on. So it is actually quite fitting that the book derives its title from one of these conversations. Speaking of conversations, my favorite was probably one between Kate and her dad. I think it came at a point when it was much needed for Kate to hear from someone – someone who is family – that she is not indispensable. And then there is Bunny – She is all chirpy and cool with Pyotr until she comes to know he and Kate are going to get married. She is further irritable when she realizes Kate is slowly getting “used” to the idea of getting married to him. All this leads to a final heated argument between Bunny and Kate in the end. Without giving away much, let’s just say that I personally didn’t find the dialogues during the confrontation that compelling or relevant to what was being addressed. I think there could have been a better buildup leading to this scene throughout the book. I really would have liked more of the “real Bunny” moments where she isn’t being her put-on “I-want-attention” self. We did get a hint from Kate about how she felt closer to her sister when she was younger. It would have been nice to see a bit of that later on in the book. I mean, Bunny clearly struggled with mixed feeling about the Kate-Pyotr impending wedding, and an honest conversation (even if it is an awkward one) between the sisters before the wedding would have probably made some of the later events work better for me.

Nonetheless, I really liked the book and would definitely check out more titles from the Hogarth Shakespeare Project.

The Ugly Stepsister (Unfinished Fairy Tales #1) by Aya Ling


Kat is seventeen and raised by a single, working mom. Her typical day comprises of going to school, writing for the school newspaper, focussing on landing college scholarships and taking care of her kid sister in the evenings. She is a bit of a klutz, both in the “tripping over my own feet” way and “tripping over my tongue while talking to hot guys” way. She is also a huge book nerd.

The thing with people who discover their book nerd-iness very early on is that they buy dozens of books pretty much soon after they have figured out how to read. Then they move onto books for “grownups” but the first book haul remains in attics or the highest bookshelves and collects dust till one day your mom calls you and tells you that the books must LEAVE because there are too many and all it does is eats up space. That’s pretty much what happens to Kat when her mom asks her to haul the books downstairs so that they can give it to the yard sale.

So when she sits down and goes through her books, she comes across an old battered copy of Cinderella. When she accidentally drops it, the pages fall apart. As she gets up and climbs down the stairs, she trips and becomes unconscious. When she gets up, she finds herself in strange, but familiar surroundings. She can’t quite point out what is familiar, till a levitating, ghost-like goblin Krev appears and informs her that the Cinderella copy was actually created by his goblin king, and as a punishment for the book falling apart, the king has cursed her to inhabit the Cinderella tale as one of the stepsisters. Her only chance of escaping the Story World is finishing the story, by finding Cinderella, and getting her married to the Prince with the wedding bells ringing in the background. But how? Where is the fairy godmother to transform a pumpkin into a coach and mice into coachmen? How is she going to stop her insufferable but gorgeous Story sister from courting the Prince? And most importantly, how is she going to make the Prince and Cinderella fall in love with each other?

The best thing about connecting with bloggers is having book recommendations fill your reader or twitter timeline. I saw this book mentioned quite a few times but the review that really got me interested was the one in Cheryl’s blog here. I had vaguely heard about fairy retellings but to be honest I seriously had no idea it was a genre by itself. I am quite glad I picked up this book as my first fairy retelling read. It was fun, quite creative, and magical without relying too much on literal magic. Kat had this feisty, stubborn streak which I think everyone do have to some extent. Just that it stays latent until you are pushed to a corner and then have no option but to be gutsy and not think of consequences. And that is what happens with Kat. If she wants to see her real mom and sister again, she has to adapt to the world she has accidentally entered into.

Nothing goes right for Kat in the Story World. As the Story progresses, she finds it hard to make things happen as she remembers from the book she has read. She slowly starts noticing the “not so fairytale-like” aspects of the world, such as kids as young as five years old working 14 hour shifts in factories and girls expected to attract wealthy men in soirees and parties before they turn twenty-one. For a book-within-a-book that is supposed to be a well-known magical fairytale, there is actually very little “magic” as such. (And well, Cinderella wasn’t really about sorcerers waving wands throughout the tale, so…). The tale is more reminiscent of historical fiction – a world where there are estates owned by Earls, and Princes throwing ballroom parties to announce their brides. I enjoyed reading about and grew fond of everyone, even if half of them are your generic clichés such as rich, spoilt girls who are look like born supermodels, handsome wealthy aristocrats, callous employers and good-hearted poor maids. In a weird way, it kind of just fit, and didn’t seem like something negative. Maybe it is because it is supposed to be a Story World of a very well-known children’s tale.  And plus, I liked that the author sort of even acknowledged that she is using well-known tropes through quotes like this:

“Honestly, we’ve met coincidentally so many times that it feels like I’m in a badly written novel. Oh, wait, I actually am”

There are more such quotes sprinkled throughout the book which made even some done-to-death scenarios interesting to read. And all the book and movie references that Kat makes in her head (probably to keep herself from going insane), Harry Potter, LoTR, Narnia, Inception .. did make me smile. Harry Potter was a bit overdone though. The book has everything in phases, a lot of carefree moments, tinge of sadness, couples falling in love, couples with unfinished love stories, divide between rich and poor, some good men and women, and some others who are never going to change.  I also liked how “living through” the story made Kat more self-assured and confident about certain things.

There were a few things that I felt could have been presented better. I just thought that the magic bit was too conveniently and suddenly introduced to make things fall in place for Kat in the end. It would have been easier to “believe” it if the magic was actually established and dwelled upon with more details. I guess what I mean to say is, that bit was never really fleshed out well. In fact, the main reason for Kat “falling into” this world itself was sort of flimsy – dropping an old book. Another thing that I found hard to fathom is when Kat, owing to certain circumstances, has to reveal her secret to some people as the Story progresses. And the characters easily believe that they are not “real” but a part of a book. A more normal reaction would have been to think Kat is off her rocker. And it is funny how you view something differently if you are in someone else’s shoes. I mean, for the Story world people, their world is the “real” one and Kat feels otherworldly.

I hope this long review didn’t end up being too spoiler-y. If you want to try a fairy retelling, this is a really good book to start with. It is light-hearted without being frivolous and has a sprightly protagonist to root for.

Buy links:

The Ugly Stepsister – Kindle
The Ugly Stepsister – Paperback