I received this book for free (hey, thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. I promise that this does NOT affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. For real.Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins
on September 6th 2016
(448 pages) • Goodreads • Amazon • Barnes & Noble
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’s The 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.
I’ve been yelling about this book for a while. The Canterbury Tales is one of my all-time favorite classics. I love the book’s setup, how each character told a story that was some kind of lesson about what was currently happening at the time. I was hoping that this book would be a close retelling and use many of the same elements in each individual story. Andi let me borrow her copy because she’s the best, and I didn’t waste much time before starting!
As I mentioned, this is a YA retelling and modernization of The Canterbury Tales. The teacher on the bus decides to make the kids tell fictional stories and whoever tells the best one gets an A in his class. Each student was pretty quick-thinking, which impressed me. I would have stood there like a moron with no story at all.
I was curious to see how closely the book would relate. Would the setup be the same, but not the individual stories? Or would the author modernize each individual story from the Tales and spread them around to the kids? Well, from what I could tell, it was the latter… and I loved that! The first few stories were obvious, direct correlations to the originals. Even the in-between segues, prologues, and interruptions were the same. After finishing the book and reading the Afterword, the author explained all of the tales and how each kid correlated to them. I wish I flipped to the back to see the cast beforehand because I think it would have helped! She also explained the changes she made, so I loved that too.
I loved how the author was able to update the stories. All of the kids on the bus are still dealing with the same ~types~ of problems (although, obviously, more modern) as the original people in the Tales.
Storytelling, Setting, and Feels
The story takes place over the course of a bus trip from Canterbury, CT (ha!) and Washington DC. Obviously I love the Connecticut “setting” even though it really doesn’t happen there. Road trip stories are always really fun and this was no exception. A bus full of kids? Man I can remember those days. Everyone was so rowdy and jazzed up for the field trip; I have no idea how parents and chaperones dealt with that.
Each tale had its own chapter, but there were bits where the narrator was talking in between, describing what was happening around him. I thought the order of the stories and the time spent out of the stories was pretty perfect. I was always eager to see everyone’s reactions to the tales, but also eager to hear the tales themselves. There were times I could not put this book down even if I wanted to sleep. Unfortunately there were also times where I didn’t have much desire to pick the book up and start reading. It was really a mood thing for me and doesn’t say anything bad about the book itself.
As I mentioned, the author did align each character with someone from the original tales. I loved that there were direct correlations. It became difficult to keep track of everyone though, because the cast was huge. It’s not really possible to get to know nearly 30 people in a regular-sized book. Just like Chaucer’s original tale, most of the characters were incredibly stereotypical; the author even notes this right away in her Afterword.
The main character and our narrator, Jeff, was a very interesting person. He was clearly suppressing himself and his feelings for his best friend, Pard, throughout the story. I loved hearing the descriptions for these characters because they’re not ~conventionally attractive~ and it made the story feel real. These two characters were the most fleshed out, for obvious reasons, so it was nice to get to know them. While I don’t think sexuality is a spoiler, there are some very spoilery things closely related to it? So I’m going to use a spoiler tag to not ruin something closely connected to it. View Spoiler »You can tell pretty early on that Jeff has feeling for Pard, who is openly gay. Jeff is denying that he’s gay throughout the majority of the story. Both Jeff and Pard bond over the fact that they have sisters who passed away. At the end of the story, we find out that Pard didn’t actually have a twin sister that died. He lied when Jeff saw a photo of a young Pard who was dressed like a girl. It is then revealed to Jeff that Pard is intersex. Jeff says some offensive things related to hermaphrodites and doesn’t really get told off for it. « Hide Spoiler Part of this segues nicely in to my negative thoughts…
I think a lot of the language around sexuality and feminism was frustrating. I know that teens aren’t perfect and they’re bound to use rude, offensive words from time to time. I just wish there was a BIT more of a lesson there? I think some loose ends could have been tied up, especially with how Jeff and Pard left things (regarding the comments in the spoiler tag above). I think it was a REAL depiction for how teens would react in those circumstances but I wish Pard told Jeff off about a few things. Along those same lines, I can’t stand the depiction of feminism. I know the author purposefully worked off of stereotypes, but there were a lot of “more than meets the eye” to a few other characters. Cece, the resident feminist, is the stereotypical depiction of an annoying, man-hating feminist. I hate that.
I also mentioned earlier that it was sometimes hard to pick it up and get into the story. I read this book on and off throughout the entire month of December because I kept prioritizing other books instead.
I liked the ending. It didn’t feel rushed or anything. I LOVE how the author tied in the whole story itself by View Spoiler »saying that Jeff was going to write a novel based on all the tales, and Pard mentioned there should be a love interest. Very meta! « Hide Spoiler Its weird because I JUST read a book with a similar ending, with the View Spoiler »main character claiming they’re going to write a novel that is actually the one you were reading, presumably. « Hide Spoiler Overall, a solid ending to a really interesting collection of stories. I could have used some more resolution with a few characters and plot points, but I was satisfied. I appreciated it even more after reading the Afterword.
I wish I reread The Canterbury Tales before reading this because I would have better remembered each story. In any case, I can tell how thoroughly researched this story was. The author did a fantastic job of connecting all the stories to the original source. I loved reading each person’s tale and seeing the glimpses of life on the school bus in between them. The romance hit me in the feels a little bit; I do love a good LGBT+ story. I wish there were a little more to the stereotypical characters but understand it can be difficult to fully characterize nearly 30 people. I would highly recommend this one if you enjoy the original!
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