Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Canon Classics | The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orzcy

Title: The Scarlet Pimpernel
Author: Emmuska Orczy
Publication Date: 1903
Source & Format: Owned; ebook
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Armed with only his wits and his cunning, one man recklessly defies the French revolutionaries and rescues scores of innocent men, women, and children from the deadly guillotine. His friends and foes know him only as the Scarlet Pimpernel. But the ruthless French agent Chauvelin is sworn to discover his identity and to hunt him down.

Over the years, I've read a lot of classics. Some are fun, easy to read, and some fall into the category of too intense/intimidating/overwhelming. For some reason I'd always put The Scarlet Pimpernel into the last category, but this novel was one of the most fun classics I've read in a long time. 

I knew that The Scarlet Pimpernel was one of Willig's inspirations for her Pink Carnation series, but I didn't expect the same fun mystery to emerge in Baroness Orczy's work. The rollicking adventurous atmosphere maintained an air of excitement and mystery that I found enchanting. Orczy's writing is simple and inviting, another aspect I didn't quite expect from a novel written in 1903. 

For me, the characters made the story. Sir Percy, the slightly dandy rich lord, his gorgeous, clever French wife, Marguerite, and the French agent Chauvelin all had secrets, different sides to their character, keeping the plot moving forward. Sir Percy, often called "inane" in the novel, is the original "hero with a secret". What better way to hide the identity of a clever spy then under the mask of a playboy?

He however, has one of the smallest character transformations: his wife, Marguerite, takes the prize in this category. Marguerite is always portrayed as smart, clever, but it's the touch of extra confidence and the love of her family that proves to be her downfall in the beginning of the story. She does something simple: she assumes she knows her husband's personality. Watching her grow and develop into a smart(er), careful woman was fascinating.

I loved the historical touches of the French Revolution. Orzcy obviously sympathizes with the aristocrats, and her portrayal of late 18th France and England will be great fun for any history buff. Her opening chapter, setting the scene of the French Revolution and unrest in Europe is possibly my favorite chapter in the book.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fairy Tale Reading Challenge | Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

The Daily Prophecy

Title: Bitter Greens
Author: Kate Forsyth {website
Publication Date: March 2012
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
The amazing power and truth of the Rapunzel fairy tale comes alive for the first time in this breathtaking tale of desire, black magic and the redemptive power of love

French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens...

After Margherita’s father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.

Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.

Award-winning author Kate Forsyth braids together the stories of Margherita, Selena, and Charlotte-Rose, the woman who penned Rapunzel as we now know it, to create what is a sumptuous historical novel, an enchanting fairy tale retelling, and a loving tribute to the imagination of one remarkable woman.

If you've been with me for a while, this should come as no surprise: I love fairy tales. When I found Bitter Greens on Mel's list of fairy tale retelling recommendations, I added it to my TBR immediately. Bitter Greens has been on my radar ever since it came out in March 2012, but I couldn't find a copy at the library. Still, I was a little hesitant; retellings can either be fantastic or horrible. This one was simply amazing.  

The true outstanding element of Bitter Greens is the multi-layered story: it immediately captivated me. From Charlotte-Rose's story in Louis XIV's court to Margherita, locked away in the tower, the plot's constant unraveling fascinated me. I loved the transitions from story to story, woman to woman. I especially loved the addition of the witch's story, a perspective often overlooked in fairy tales. 

The witch herself, Selena Leonelli, has a beautiful story that makes me understand (not quite sympathize, but understand) how she became the person she is. Forsyth took the time to explain her rich history, developing the character far beyond the crone/evil queen she is portrayed as in most fairy tales. Forsyth forces the reader to think of her villain in a totally different light, throwing the entire tale on it's head. 

She worked that same magic with each of her heroines: I fell in love with Charlotte-Rose and Margherita in the same way I did with Selena: the quality of their characters, the depths of their stories, made the famous fairy tale come alive.

The writing is simply fabulous. Forsyth yanks you into her world of 16th century Italy and 18th century France with such power that I half expected to look up from the book and see the gondolas floating by or the extravagant costumes of the French court in front of me. Her world was so intensely engaging that I couldn't put Bitter Greens down.

This is a book I would run out and buy (and I will, come payday). If you love fairy tale retellings, or simply a well-told story, you need to put this on your Amazon wishlist, request from your library, or just go buy from your local bookstore. Immediately. Seriously. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Good, the Bad, the DNF

Oh, I wanted so badly to love this book! The cover was so gorgeous, but I'm glad I listened to that little feeling in my stomach when I decided not to buy this (library, my friends!). There is so much potential in The Outcasts, from the atmospheric setting to the plot, but when it came to the execution, this book fell flat for me. I kept pushing through, hoping something would reignite my attention, but I found my mind wandering. A big disappointment.

Don't hate me for this one. 

I've tried LaFevers' wildly popular first book a few times now, but I can't get past a certain part when she lands on shore (if you've been with me for a while and have read this book, you probably know the one I mean). One day, I might pick this up again and just skip that part, but it made me so upset that this went back to the library the next day.

I've never been so upset with a book before. This first 150 pages of this book (how far I got) is absolutely ghastly. A family, destroyed first by a husband's wanderings, then his murder of his wife; a young girl, unwanted and left to the hands of the foster system to be constantly abused. When the girl was raped (again), I threw the book on the floor. There was no hint of hope, nothing for this girl (or I) to hold on to. I had absolutely no motivation to keep reading. Actually, I'd like to get this book out of my house as soon as possible. Looking at the cover irritates me. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Top Six Childhood Books & Series

Even as a kid, I loved books. I had piles in my room, insisted on a bedtime story every night, and would stay up into the wee hours of the night (10 p.m. to a seven-year-old), playing my cassette tape of Disney's Oliver and Company. I ate over them, bent the spines to make the pages stay open, dogeared my spot instead of using a bookmark. Since I started carrying a purse, there's always been a book inside it - before I just hefted it along with my Barbie dolls. Books have always been a part of my life, and these six books are the ones that stand out from my childhood. 

arranged in order from oldest memory to newest

Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish // Although written for young children, I still love the Amelia Bedelia series. Her sweet nature combined with her hapless lack of grace won me (and my parents) over instantly. 

Samantha's Story Collection | American Girl Dolls by Susan S. Adler // I loved Samantha's stories out of all of the American Girls. Life in 1904 New York seemed like a fantasy, but I loved this historical additions. Now, after studying that time period in college, I have a different view of the world around Samantha, but I'll always be enthralled by the culture. 

Fairy Tales from Around the World // I wish I could remember the title of this beautiful book. It has gorgeous illustrations and different versions of popular fairy tales (Cinderella is one), and many of their Asian counterparts. This book is at my parents' house. I will update this link when I find it! 

Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene // What little girl's world was complete without the hardback yellow volumes of Nancy Drew? I stayed up well into the night with Nancy, and credit this girl sleuth with my love of mystery and thrillers today!

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte // Okay, maybe not what you expected, but I picked this up when I was eleven or twelve at our local bookstore and asked my mom to buy it for me. Unlike me, she knew exactly what was in it (but I suspect didn't think I'd finish it), so we bought it. Bronte's Jane Eyre has since grown into one of my favorite heroines, and one I reread year after year. 

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling// Do I need to explain this one?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mini Monday | Love Lessons by Christine S. Feldman

Title: Love Lessons
Author: Christine S. Feldman {website}
Publication Date: November 2013
Publisher: Christine S. Feldman

Series: Heavenly Bites {Book 2}
Source & Format: Owned {author}; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Self-assured Nadia Normandy knows everything there is to know about men and dating, which seems to be why little old Mrs. Beasley maneuvers her into taking unsuspecting and bookish accountant Benji Garner under her wing. Her mission? Shape him up for the opposite sex, preferably in time for New Year’s Eve. 

A challenge? Sure, but Nadia discovers that Benji’s got a charm all his own, and she finds herself avoiding her usual social scene in favor of time spent with him—all in the name of mentoring him, of course. 

Except that after a while, it starts to feel less like mentoring and more like something else—which could present a problem, because just as Nadia begins to realize she didn’t know quite as much about men as she thought, other women are starting to notice her unlikely protégé. 

Much like Nadia is beginning to notice him in a whole new way herself… 

This book was a gift from the author; however, this in no way influenced my review and all opinions are my own.

One of my favorites things about reading Feldman's work is the vast amount of quality character she develops in each and every story. Most short stories/novellas don't grab me because there isn't enough time to create a full, rounded character, but Feldman's? They get me every time.

If we're going to be honest, I fell for Benji pretty much on the spot (as I suspect Nadia might have as well). He has that sweet, smart way about him, so properly dressed that Nadia (rightly) tells him it makes women want to muss him up. Nadia herself is the confident, take-no-prisoners, but still kind-hearted type of girl that you want on your sides at all times. I loved that Benji was never stuffy, and Nadia never arrogant. Both hit the perfect point on their character attributes that their personalities stood out, but were never overwhelming. 

Love Lessons is a great take on the classic romantic comedy. From day one, the sparks were there between Nadia and Benji, which immediately won me over. For those looking for a fun, well-written love story, Love Lessons is perfect.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Review | Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Publication Date: April 2014
Publisher: Broadway Books
Source & Format: Owned; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? 

Maybe it's just me, but I tend to get a little nervous when a book becomes as wildly popular as Flynn's Gone Girl has. I tried reading Gone Girl before, late last year, during the height of its popularity, but I couldn't get past the first page with Nick's weird focus on the time, his odd obsession with the shape of his wife's head, and the (at the time) strange flow of the narration. It was a library book, and (naturally) overdue, so I slipped it back into the return slot and moved on. When I got an Amazon gift card for Christmas, Gone Girl popped back into my mind, and I added it to my cart, forced myself past the (still) odd first page, and kept reading.

Holy moley. 

I still found the narration a bit strange in the beginning. The novel is written in first person, dividing between two narrators, but there's a heavy weight in Nick's voice, an intensity that foreshadows the chaos to come, that is eerie and uncanny. This type of narration continues throughout the chapters written in his point of view, lightening when he has something else to focus on, like the search or the police. It's when he's alone, focusing on his own thoughts, that Nick becomes one of the most unsettling narrators I've ever read.

The narration changes in chapters: some are written in Nick's perspective, others in his wife's. Amy's story is split into two: her past journal entries, which slowly merge into her present thoughts. While Nick is the more unsettling of the two, Amy's voice is the stuff that makes psychological critical analysis lovers (like me) cry in joy. I started keeping my old critical theory book from college nearby so I could page through every time her chapter came up. 

It would be impossible to compare these two characters, these two people who, on the surface, should have a perfect marriage. Underneath their fairly normal facades, there lies two extremely complex characters, people that simply fascinated me. Neither acted the way I expected, creating a tense, dark atmosphere. I can't go too far into detail about their characters because it would reveal the plot, and sorry, no spoilers!

I will say that, from beginning (maybe chapter two) to end, I was completely enthralled. I had to know what happened, why it happened, how on earth it happened. Gone Girl is the stuff that makes the mystery genre one of my favorites: it was terrifying, fascinating, and one of my favorite books of the year.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Review | Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

Title: Once Upon a Tower
Author: Elosia James {website}
Publication Date: May 2013

Publisher: Avon
Series: Fairy Tales {Book 5}
Source & Format: Library; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
To win her love...

As an extremely wealthy laird, Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, can have any of the maidens at the ball he attends. The only problem is they are all English and Gowan is not so certain they are suitable. He is accustomed to the hard-working lasses from his Highlands, not these dainty noblewomen who spend their days drinking tea or some other such nonsense. But then he makes the acquaintance of Lady Edith Gilchrist. Utterly bewitched by the emerald-eyed beauty with lush golden locks, he knows he must have her.

He must free her from her tower...

"Edie" had the misfortune of being dreadfully ill at her debut ball and barely remembers what Gowan looks like. Even worse, she accepted his proposal the following day. Edie's only true passion is playing music—until Gowan writes a scandalous letter and stirs the most irresistible desire. Yet when they marry, Edie realizes her husband needs a lesson and locks herself in a tower. Somehow Gowan must find a way to enter the tower and convince his new bride that she belongs in his arms.

When I picked up this beaten well-loved paperback off the library's romance shelves last week, I expected a Rapunzel story. The cover model's gorgeous hair, her tower, the title...all the signs were there. I expected James' Once Upon a Tower to be a fun, fluffy read. Boy, was I wrong.

Don't misunderstand me: there's plenty of fun and fluff (the good kind) between the covers of Once Upon a Tower. A kilt-wearing, possessive Scotsman, a beautiful musician caught up in the world of her music, her protective father, and a sudden marriage are all elements that many romance lovers would love, and I did. I admired Once Upon a Tower, however, for a completely different reason.

Just a warning: we're going to talk about sex (but if you've seen the Fifty Shades trailer, I'm not talking about anything you haven't already seen).
Oh, and there's also a few minor spoilers ahead.

In a world full of Fifty Shades of Grey romance, virgins are suddenly sex goddesses, men are jealous studs, and sex is always amazing... 

Ahem. Right. If you want to read my tangent on this subject, check this out. Back to the review...

Sure, a lot of romances have elements of the perfect love, amazing sex, but very few actually address the intimate relationship beyond marriage. Even fewer authors actually give their romantic couple a rocky sex life. The whirlwind courtship of Gowan and Edie was fabulous: I couldn't put their story down as their love-at-first-sight story evolved into a sudden marriage. It caught my attention was James had her couple married and off to Scotland fairly early in the novel, so I was intrigued by the plot twist that must be coming. 

Both Gowan and Edie are virgins when they marry and I like James for this twist. I admire her, however, for addressing issues that are still prevalent in romantic relationships today: lack of communicating, fear of sharing feelings, anger, dealing with hurt. Essentially Edie and Gowan of Once Upon a Tower are real, likable, and relatable, instead of sealed up in the fairy tower that I expected from the cover. 

The writing was overall fairly steady. It focused on the content, the themes in Edie and Gowan's relationship, instead of flowery writing. The more I think on it, the more I like Once Upon a Tower's focus on a real relationship instead of a unattainable fairy tale.