Audiobook Review: Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Tantalize Audiobook With Headphones and Wine Glass

About the Book

Audiobook cover for Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich SmithTitle: Tantalize
Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith
Read By:
Kim Mai Guest
Synopsis:

Are you predator or prey?

CLASSIFIED ADS: RESTAURANTS
SANGUINI’S: A VERY RARE RESTAURANT IS HIRING A CHEF DE CUISINE. DINNERS ONLY.
APPLY IN PERSON BETWEEN 2:00 AND 4:00 PM.

Quincie Morris has never felt more alone. Her parents are dead, and her hybrid-werewolf first love is threatening to embark on a rite of passage that will separate them forever. Then, as she and her uncle are about to unveil their hot vampire-themed restaurant, a brutal murder leaves them scrambling for a chef. Can Quincie transform their new hire into a culinary Dark Lord before opening night? Can he wow the crowd in his fake fangs, cheap cape, and red contact lenses or is there more to this earnest face than meets the eye? As human and preternatural forces clash, a deadly love triangle forms, and the line between predator and prey begins to blur. Who’s playing whom? And how long can Quincie play along before she loses everything? Tantalize marks Cynthia Leitich Smith’s delicious debut as a preeminent author of dark fantasy.

Review

1-star rating

Well, that was a mess.

I picked out this audiobook completely on a whim. I’m constantly in search of new books to listen to, as I have upwards of 10 commuting hours a week that need to be filled with audiobooks so I don’t go mad from boredom and/or road rage. Although I knew almost nothing about Tantalize, I liked its cover and title and decided to give it a whirl.

Not my greatest decision. I’m pretty sure Tantalize GAVE me road rage instead of preventing it.

I usually enjoy YA vampire stories (I will love the Twilight series until the day I die, terrible movies be damned), but the ridiculousness and stupidity of Tantalize grated on my nerves. If I had to describe my feelings towards this book in one word, I think “scathing” would be the most accurate choice.

Tantalize’s main character is Quincie Morris, an orphaned teenager being raised by her uncle in Texas. Quincie has inherited her parents’ Italian restaurant, and although it’s her pride and joy, it’s not flourishing as it should. So, how do Quincie and her Uncle Davidson decide to turn things around? By transforming their family restaurant into a theatrical, exclusive, vampire-themed restaurant, of course! You see, vampires and werewolves are real in the world of Tantalize, and even though most people are afraid of them, they apparently also want the thrill of dining in a restaurant that glorifies vampires and has staff pretend to be vampires.

Unfortunately for Quincie and her Uncle Davidson, someone brutally murders their chef shortly before their restaurant’s grand reopening. They scramble to find a replacement and end up with 20-something Henry, who Quincie is tasked with prepping for his spectacular debut as executive chef/master of ceremonies/lord of the night. This involves doing everything from finding Henry the perfect vampire duds to helping him create a darkly exotic new menu.

This brings me to my first problem with Tantalize: Quincie and her uncle’s efforts to convert their restaurant into a vampire fantasyland don’t make any sense. It’s not so much the theme itself that seems bizarre – I’ll be the first to admit I love attending Renaissance Faires, murder mystery dinners, and any event that involves costumes and playacting – but the way the Morrises go about their plans for the restaurant seem random at times and over-the-top at others. For example, why is the chef sashaying around the restaurant every night reciting monologues in full vampire attire? Shouldn’t he be spending his time, oh, I don’t know…cooking? And why does it take days upon days for Quincie and Henry to select just the right clothing for Henry’s costumes, and to select the “perfect” name for Henry’s vampire alter ego? And speaking of which, what makes anyone think that perfect name is BRADLEY, of all the options they could possibly have chosen from?!

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in this book, to be honest, like the many seemingly pointless scenes that don’t do anything to move the story along. I also found myself questioning nearly all of Quincie’s reactions and decisions:

– Why, when your family friend has been murdered, do you immediately and automatically suspect your CLOSEST FRIEND, who’s always had your back, of being the murdered? Instead of, hmm…just about any other, far more likely culprit?

– Why, when you’re a 17-year-old girl, do you think it’s normal to be spending all of your time one-on-one with an older guy you barely know, even if he is your uncle’s new employee? Why do you not care that it’s super weird and inappropriate for him to come on to you, and especially for your own uncle to insinuate that there’s something between the two of you to the point of nearly encouraging it?

– Why don’t you think it’s weird that two grown men, including your legal guardian, are suddenly plying you with alcohol at every opportunity, even in the morning? Especially when your uncle apparently never let you underage-drink before the creepy new chef started? Hmm, maybe that’s a sign that something weird is gong on!!!!

In short, Quincie, you’re as dumb as a rock and I have no idea how you’ve survived for 17 years.

Kim Mai Guest, the narrator for this audiobook, didn’t help matters. Her “Quincie” voice was way too cutesy, almost babyish, and was the aural equivalent of a cheese grater to the face. While Guest’s voices for Henry and Uncle Davidson weren’t bad, her portrayal of Quincie’s male friends was awful. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out which cartoon or movie character the guys sounded like, and I finally realized it was Babe the Pig.

I do suspect I might’ve been able to tolerate Tantalize a little better if I’d read it in print as opposed to listening to the audiobook. Sure, Quincie would’ve still been infuriating, and the story would’ve still been ridiculous, but maybe it would’ve seemed a teensy bit less ridiculous if I’d been able to reread certain parts and try to make more sense of them. Then again, maybe not. At the very least, I wouldn’t have had to put up with the narrator’s piping, saccharine take on Quincie’s voice for hours on end. I’m pretty sure that voice is what pushed me over the edge and drove me to be completely and utterly annoyed by every aspect of the book by its conclusion.

Halloween Thrills and Chills, Part II

OCTOBER IS FINALLY HERE!!!!

Yes, I realize that seems like a belated statement since it’s already October 9th, but work has been so busy that today’s the first chance I’ve had to acknowledge and celebrate the arrival of my favorite month. I can finally break out my pumpkin roll and pumpkin whoopie pie recipes, try (and fail) to carve overly ambitious designs for Jack-o-Lanterns, and start queuing up eerie, atmospheric playlists on my iPhone (here’s looking at you, MS MR). Best of all, I can reintroduce one of my favorite themes I’ve featured on my blog so far: Halloween Thrills and Chills.

Halloween Thrills and Chills

In the coming weeks, I’ll be dishing up a series of Halloween-themed posts featuring everything from curses and changelings to haunted hotels and secret societies. There’ll be something for everyone, whether you prefer reading about creepy little towns, goblins and ghouls, or murder and mayhem. On Oct. 17 I’ll also be taking part in Fortnight of Fright for the third year in a row, hosted by The Book Addict’s Guide, Books Take You Places, and Tripping Over Books.

Check in tomorrow for the first Halloween Thrills and Chills post, a review and giveaway for The Uncrossing by Melissa Eastlake. Until then, stay spooky, friends!

Click here to view all posts associated with Halloween Thrills and Chills.

Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall Book Cover The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Katie Alender

In this asylum, your mind plays tricks on you all the time…

Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females—an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself.

But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia gets trapped.

And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the halls in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia finds that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, as well, harbors shocking truths within its walls—truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free.

But she’ll need to act quickly, before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves.

From master of suspense Katie Alender comes a riveting tale of twisted memories and betrayals, and the meaning of madness.

Review:

Even though I’m a gigantic wimp, I’ve always had a fascination with old abandoned buildings. There’s something mournful and nostalgic about the faded glory of a deserted old hotel or once-stately mansion, especially when the house holds reminders of the lives previously lived there: dishes still set on a dining room table, toys scattered on a nursery floor, paperwork strewn across a desk in a study. I love the weighty sense of history and anticipation, as if the long-dead inhabitants could stroll through the parlor at any moment.

It’s no surprise, then, that The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall is right up my alley, as the action takes place in the king of all abandoned buildings: an old mental hospital.

Delia Piven and her family arrive at The Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females after Delia inherits the property from her great-great-aunt. It doesn’t take long for Delia to get the sense that the old sanatorium isn’t just eerie – it’s haunted. This suspicion is confirmed when a dark force in the house murders Delia and she returns as a ghost, joining a bevy of other spirits trapped in the asylum.

What I Liked:

The Perspective: I wasn’t expecting The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall to be written from a ghost’s point of view, but this tactic worked quite well. I was engrossed by Delia’s struggle to cope with the bitterness and grief of losing her life and all the people in it, since they can no longer see, hear, or even sense her. Delia goes from having an entire world at her fingertips to being trapped within the confines of the Piven Institute, as well as by the limits of her ghostly abilities.

Speaking of these abilities, I really enjoyed the insider look at the ghost experience. Delia must learn the trick of walking through walls and manifesting enough to grasp onto objects. She also learns that ghosts aren’t invulnerable and can be disfigured and torn apart by other spirits and phantoms, which means Delia must exercise caution even in death. Another interesting tidbit is that Delia experiences weird time slips. There’s one creepy yet poignant scene in the book where Delia sits gazing forlornly out the window while turning the crank of a music box. She turns and turns and turns the crank, losing herself in the melody, and when a noise finally rouses her from her trance she finds two and a half years have passed.

The Atmosphere: The Piven Institute is exactly the kind of creepy place that gets me wriggling with excitement. I found myself both terrified by the asylum and wishing I could explore it. In broad daylight, that is. With an army of priests and exorcists by my side.

All the spooky accoutrements are accounted for: padded rooms, patient wards with worn leather restraints on the beds, a therapy room furnished with an electroshock chair, and a processing hall still littered with the suitcases and former belongings of the girls who checked in and never checked out. There are desperate messages scratched into the floorboards, eerie melodies played by a ghostly music box, and a multitude of spirits lurking in the rooms where they died, often in terrible ways.

The Piven Sisters: Delia’s attitude, spunk, and modern turns of phrase are a refreshing and amusing contrast to the dark parts of this book. She talks to the living people who occasionally wander into the sanatorium, even though they can’t hear her. For example, there’s a point when one character is about to go down into the super-scary basement, and Delia chides, “Oh, come on[…]. Don’t go down there! Have you never seen a horror movie?”

Another great character is Janie, Delia’s little sister. She starts the novel as a pesky pre-teen, but by the end she’s grown into a strong, brave young woman who I really admired.

What I Didn’t Like:

All Characters Besides Delia and Janie: I was disappointed by how flat and one-dimensional many of the characters are in The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, and I was even more disappointed that Alender didn’t introduce a wider assortment of ghosts. I was rabid with curiosity about the spirits with whom Delia shared the asylum: Who were they? What did they look like? How did they die? I got a little of this, but not nearly enough. It was a big missed opportunity on Alender’s part.

The Plot: I like the pieces that make up this novel but think the book could have used a stronger center for those pieces to revolve around. The premise is that there’s some dark power at work in the house, and until Delia uncovers and defeats this power, it’s going to keep preying on troubled girls. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot arc, though. A lot of the book involves Delia just hanging around being ghostly and biding her time until she’s forced into action. Even the ending, where the source of the dark power is revealed, felt a little anticlimactic.

Despite my criticisms, I had a good time reading The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall. The setting alone is worth giving this book a go, and Janie and Delia’s characters simply add to the story. I recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of a scare this Halloween.

Review: The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause

The Silver Kiss Book Cover The Silver Kiss
Annette Curtis Klause

Zoe is wary when, in the dead of night, the beautiful yet frightening Simon comes to her house. Simon seems to understand the pain of loneliness and death and Zoe's brooding thoughts of her dying mother.

Simon is one of the undead, a vampire, seeking revenge for the gruesome death of his mother three hundred years before. Does Simon dare ask Zoe to help free him from this lifeless chase and its insufferable loneliness?

Review:

Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t write off The Silver Kiss as a paranormal romance. The cover and synopsis make this book seem like a vampire love story, and while there’s nothing wrong with such novels – I personally am a big Twilight fan – this isn’t an accurate reflection of what The Silver Kiss is about. There is desire between Simon and Zoe, and vampires do play a huge part in this book, but this story is NOT about a vampire and human falling in love.

In a way, The Silver Kiss reminds me a lot of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls in that it uses supernatural beings as a lens to examine death, grief, and loss. Zoe, the protagonist, is a 16-year-old whose mother is dying of cancer. Zoe’s best friend doesn’t know how to deal with Zoe’s grief, and her father is forever at the hospital, leaving Zoe to provide for her own needs, both practical and emotional. On the rare occasions when Zoe is permitted to visit her mother it’s only for a short time, and she’s limited to exchanging pleasantries and small talk, unable to confide in her mother for fear of upsetting her. In short, at a time when Zoe desperately needs someone to lean on, she is left completely alone.

When walking in the park one night, Zoe stumbles upon Simon, a vampire who has spent the past several centuries lonely and adrift. Although he flees from the park before they can speak, Simon can’t help but be entranced by Zoe’s misery. Her aura of desolation and fear is like a beacon, calling to him like nothing else has for centuries. Simon is just as isolated as Zoe, albeit in a different way. Everyone he’s ever loved is dead and gone, and he’s cut off from the living, doomed to forever wander the earth alone:

“Like a shadow he could only live on the edge of people’s lives, never touched or touching except to bring a cold shiver like a cloud over the sun, like a shroud over the corpse. The only time he touched, it was death, yet that was the only thing that proved he existed at all.”

Simon is clearly not human, clearly other, and – as he himself laments – unnatural:

“‘I am at odds with nature […] and the whole natural world tries to remind me of this. The sun burns me; and when I cross running water, I can feel it trying to heave me off the face of the earth. It makes me sick to my stomach.’”

Zoe’s despair makes her the first kindred spirit Simon’s come upon in ages, and he soon becomes obsessed with her. He begins following her, watching her, and at one point even marks his territory by urinating near her house:

“He went to her helplessly, drawn by her fear. He couldn’t help but touch her to taste it.”

This sounds a little creepy…because it is. After 300 years of existence, Simon is so far from the human being he used to be that he doesn’t recognize his behavior as disturbing. He’s a provocative character, chilling while also beguiling, haunting yet poetic, savage as well as vulnerable. The fact that Simon is so unbalanced fits with the theme of this book: the inevitability of death. Simon has cheated death for centuries, but at great cost to his sanity. The irony of eternal life is that such an existence isn’t actually life at all.

Simon’s circumstance is compelling in juxtaposition with Zoe’s, who must find a way to come to terms with her mother’s illness and inevitable death. The relationship between Simon and Zoe is wonderfully allegorical, and this makes it a little easier to accept some of the strangeness of their interactions. For example, one of the things that originally bothered me for much of The Silver Kiss was how easily Zoe’s initial fear and skepticism towards Simon were overridden. Her mother’s dying, her life is falling apart, yet she starts keeping company with a deadly, unhinged 300-year-old vampire? It struck me as a little crazy. Once I reached the end of the book, though, I saw that Zoe and Simon’s situation was symbolic. Because of my appreciation for the message that was being conveyed through this symbol, I was able to overlook some of the blips in the delivery. Klause’s elegant writing style helped with this as well – I luxuriated in every word:

You could rush into your death unknowing, inviting, enjoying the ecstasy of it, burned up in bright light like a moth.”

“Motionless, yet taut with energy, he was like a dancer a breath before movement.”

Even if you’re not typically a fan of vampire novels, I strongly suggest you give The Silver Kiss a chance. It’s got so many layers of hidden meaning, gorgeous prose, and an ending that is powerful, moving, and right. I loved it, and I suspect that you will too.

Review: The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy

The Creeping Book Cover The Creeping
Alexandra Sirowy

Eleven years ago, Stella and Jeanie disappeared. Stella came back. Jeanie never did.

Now all she wants is a summer full of cove days, friends, and her gorgeous crush—until a fresh corpse leads Stella down a path of ancient evil and secrets.

Stella believes remembering what happened to Jeanie will save her. It won’t.

She used to know better than to believe in what slinks through the shadows. Not anymore.

Review:

I find myself in a bit of a quandary – I’m not entirely sure how to review this book. The most critical thing I need to talk about is the way the ending completely changed my appreciation of the story, but I can’t truly do so without sharing major spoilers.

For the first 9/10ths of the book, I was planning to award The Creeping a single star. The plot plodded, the characters irritated me, and I wasn’t the least bit scared. Once I reached the ending, though…wow. I was completely unprepared, and that doesn’t happen often. I finally saw what Sirowy had been setting up for the entirety of the book, and she blew me away.

The storyline follows Stella Cambren, who’s something of a local celebrity in her hometown of Savage, Minnesota. At the age of 6, Stella and her best friend Jeanie disappeared from Jeanie’s front yard. Stella came back unharmed. Jeanie was never seen again.

Stella, apparently traumatized, retains no memory of what happened the day Jeanie vanished. In fact, she barely has any memories of Jeanie at all, just vague recollections of what she was like based on the stories of others. In the years following the disappearance, Stella does her best to put the past behind her and live a normal life. She does a decent job of it…at least until the body of another little girl is discovered the summer before Stella’s senior year. A little girl with hair that’s red like Jeanie’s was, and whose corpse just happens to show up on the anniversary of Jeanie’s disappearance.

This incident triggers something inside of Stella, and she begins to experience little flickers, flashing back to images of Jeanie on the day she disappeared. It’s not enough to completely restore Stella’s memory, but it is enough to freak her the hell out and inspire her to get to the bottom of the disappearance before any more people are victimized.

In order to solve the mystery, Stella is forced to rekindle her relationship with Sam Worth, her childhood sweetheart and another former companion of Jeanie’s. Together Sam and Stella struggle to piece together a picture of what really happened the day Jeanie vanished, poring over photographs from their childhood, delving into old newspaper clippings, and interviewing Jeanie’s creepy old neighbors.

The investigation leads Stella and Sam to some disturbing discoveries: animal sacrifices, tales of an ancient monster living in the Minnesota woods, unsolved cases of other little redheads disappearing from their homes. As spooky as this sounds, though, I actually wasn’t all that scared for the majority of the book. Probably because I spent most of my time either bored or annoyed. The pace is incredibly slow, which made it challenging to stay focused; I almost didn’t finish this book. The scraps of information Stella and Sam retrieve during their search for answers are so spread out, so hard to come by, that there were times it felt like nothing was happening. I suppose that’s not entirely true – there was romantic stuff developing between Stella and Sam – but I wasn’t really interested in that. Sam is great – sweet, nerdy, loyal, supportive – but he just didn’t light my fire, if you know what I mean.

Another thing that had me ready to give this book a 1-star rating was that I didn’t care much for Stella or her friends. They’re your typical high school dream team, popular and judgmental and mean. I especially loathed Stella’s best friend Zoey. I spent the entire book wanting to smack her across the face for being such a hateful, self-centered bitch. I wanted to smack Stella, too, for putting up with it and letting Zoey dictate her life.

But then…the ENDING! It changed everything for me. Though I may not have been scared for the majority of the book, I was definitely shaken up by the conclusion. The more I think back over the course of The Creeping, the more freaked out I get. Even as I write this review, all of the lights in my house are blazing, and I find myself jumping at the slightest noise.

[START SPOILER]

Caleb and Daniel turning out to be the culprits behind Jeanie’s death was FAR more terrifying than a monster ever could have been. It was totally unexpected but totally believable, which was part of the horror; looking back, everything made sense, and you could easily see how the events of that fateful day had spun out of control. One line really stood out to me and gave me chills: “Jeanie wasn’t afraid of the things that tap at your window at night. She was afraid of the boy who lived in the bedroom down the hall.” And that’s a sad truth, isn’t it? We don’t need to dream up monsters. Human beings are frightening enough on their own.

[END SPOILER]

Thank you, Alexandra Sirowy, for writing the first book in ages that has been able to catch me unaware AND scare the pants off of me. This story is going to stick with me for a long time, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be a while before I’m able to fall asleep without a nightlight again.