Thursday, 27 August 2015

'The Blue Castle' by L.M. Montgomery (1926)

Synopsis: Valancy Stirling is 29 years old and lives in a small town called Deerwood in the Muskoka Lakes region of rural Ontario. Valancy has never married or been in love and is deeply lonely, insecure and depressed. Her family (especially her controlling mother and her older cousin) tyrannise her, constantly mock her for being a spinster, and see her as a burden and a failure. Valancy's only comforts in her miserable life are a series of poetic nature books by her favourite author John Foster and her vivid, romantic daydreams about her fantasy world. This is the "blue castle" - a beautiful place where all of her dreams and wishes come true and where she's loved by a dashing, young hero. But when Valancy makes a trip to the doctor about the strange pains that she's been having around her heart her life is then changed forever. She learns that she's suffering from an acute disease and that she'll be dead within a year. Although Valancy is naturally devastated by this it finally gives her the courage to go out and live her own life. To the shock and horror of her family, Valancy leaves home and becomes a housekeeper for the local drunk Roaring Abel and his fallen daughter Cissy, an old school-friend of Valancy's who is dying of consumption. During her time with Abel and Cissy, Valancy is transformed. She becomes much more self-confident and outspoken and finds happiness for the first time in her life. She also comes into frequent contact with the handsome town badboy Barney Snaith and finds herself falling in love with him... but what will happen when Valancy's year is up?

Oh my goodness how I loved this book! It's a pure Cinderella fairytale of the very highest quality and is easily one of the best books that I've read this year. Valancy Stirling is an extremely likeable heroine and the book itself contains some absolutely stunning descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. This book is also funny, romantic, gripping, moving, and utterly heart-warming. The Blue Castle happens to be my first L.M. Montgomery novel and it certainly won't be my last. And yep, you did read that last sentence correctly. I don't quite know how I managed it but I somehow made it to the age of 27 without reading a single one of Montgomery's books (gaaasp!) I'm sure many readers will feel that I've missed out by not getting to read any of them as a child and maybe I did. But having said that I think it's probably a good thing that I didn't manage to read this particular book up until now, because I believe The Blue Castle is one of only two books that Montgomery wrote with an adult audience in mind and there are some genuinely deep and meaningful themes in it - e.g. overcoming fears, embracing change, the idea of rebirth and new life - that I really don't think I'd have been able to fully appreciate as a child.

Some reviews of this book that I've read have pointed out that it's rather a predictable read, but the predictability of it in no way lessened the story for me and there was this one detail about the hero's past that I genuinely didn't see coming. In fact the only thing that I'd really criticise about this book would be the name of its hero! Because Barney Snaith has got to be one of the sexiest and most swoonworthy heroes that I've come across in years and yet I've never heard his name being mentioned in the pantheon of romantic literary heroes before. I'm convinced that it can only be because of his name because Barney is a pretty horrible name for the hero of a romance novel. Forgive me, Barneys of the world! 

The Blue Castle is such a lovely, happy, magical book and I would strongly recommend it to Jane Austen fans, especially those fans who particularly love Persuasion because The Blue Castle has some similar themes to that one. Now that I've read The Blue Castle I plan on moving on to Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books in the near future. I'd love for someone to make a film adaptation of this book some day too! I've put down Felicity Jones and Ryan Gosling as Valancy and Barney on my Pinterest dream cast board :)

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

'Scarlet' by Marissa Meyer (2013)

Synopsis: Scarlet is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale and is the second novel in The Lunar Chronicles. Scarlet Benoit is 18 years old and lives on her grandmother's farm near the town of Rieux in southern France. Scarlet's grandmother has been missing for the past couple of weeks and - much to Scarlet's rage and frustration - nobody in the town much cares and the police have now dismissed the case. They think that her grandmother has either left of her own accord or taken her own life. Scarlet is convinced that her grandmother has been abducted though and is determined to find her and solve the mystery of her disappearance, so when Scarlet then meets a mysterious street fighter called Wolf she persuades him to help her in her search. Although Scarlet doesn't entirely trust Wolf she feels drawn to him and figures that he's probably her best chance of finding her grandmother. The two of them then embark on a dangerous mission to Paris to rescue Scarlet's grandmother. Meanwhile, Emperor Kai is desperately trying to placate Queen Levana and Linh Cinder is now being held in the New Beijing prison before her imminent execution. However, Cinder is then able to escape from the prison with the aid of her newly-discovered Lunar powers and the gadgets that Dr Erland was able to smuggle into her cell. During her escape Cinder also teams up with a former American cadet called Captain Carswell Thorne who has managed to hide away a spaceship. Now on the run, the two of them go looking for Scarlet's grandmother themselves.

What a superb sequel! Although I found the first book in The Lunar Chronicles, Cinder, to be an engaging and enjoyable read I still had a few issues with that book. However, I found Scarlet to be a huge improvement and it actually managed to fix most of my issues with the first one! The story in this book is far less predictable and is even more action-packed, gripping and suspenseful than the first. Marissa Meyer's writing has also improved and she does a superb job at bringing Cinder and Scarlet's dual storylines together. I loved the new characters in this one and I happened to love the fact that some of this book takes place in the Paris Opera House. As a Phantom of the Opera fan this made me very happy! :D

Despite its title the book is actually split pretty evenly between Cinder and Scarlet's POVs so those fans who really loved the first book shouldn't worry about Cinder's character and storyline being neglected. I found Cinder herself really likeable in the first book and I appreciated her character even more in this book. Cinder gets some great character development in this one: she learns more about her past and grows in self-confidence and her dialogue with Iko and Thorne is often extremely amusing :) The new heroine Scarlet struck me as being quite similar to Cinder in some respects (as they're both brave, practical and resourceful) but is definitely the more outspoken, driven and confident of the two. She's much more reckless and quick-tempered than Cinder is as well. Overall I loved Scarlet just as much as Cinder and I really enjoyed the two new male characters in this book. I've noticed that most of the Lunar Chronicles fans seem to like Captain Thorne the best when it comes to the male characters but although I did find him funny and interesting in this book I wouldn't say that I'm at the stage where I love him just yet (hopefully that will happen when I read the third book?) Wolf on the other hand! Wolf is the most interesting character in the Lunar Chronicles so far in my opinion. Although he's brooding, mysterious, calculating and a ferocious fighter somehow he's also very shy, sweet, socially awkward and adorable! I loved his character and his relationship with Scarlet whereas in the Cinder book I found Kai a bit bland and I didn't feel all that much chemistry between him and Cinder.

Again, I enjoyed Scarlet far more than I did Cinder and if the next two books in The Lunar Chronicles can match its quality then I can definitely see this series becoming a favourite of mine. I would still have liked for the new settings of Rieux and Paris in this book to be more atmospheric and descriptive and I didn't find the few Kai chapters in it to be as interesting as the Cinder and Scarlet chapters - but overall this book is extremely well-done and I loved it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, 14 August 2015

'The Valley of Fear' by Arthur Conan Doyle (1914)

Synopsis: The Valley of Fear is the seventh book in the Sherlock Holmes series and its story takes place before the events of The Final Problem. At Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are sent a coded letter from one of Holmes' secret informants: a man called Porlock who is an agent of Moriarty's. When Holmes eventually manages to decipher Porlock's message he learns that a man called John Douglas is in great danger. But as soon as Holmes reads the message Inspector MacDonald from Scotland Yard turns up and announces that this very same man has already been killed by a shotgun blast to the face. Holmes and Watson then accompany MacDonald to Douglas's home Birlstone Manor to try to solve the mystery. John Douglas spent many years of his life in America and at the estate Holmes finds certain clues which suggest that the killer was an American. But there's also the added problem of the drawbridge - the manor is surrounded by a large moat and a working drawbridge which is raised every single night. How did the killer get inside? Not only that, a dumbbell has gone missing, Mrs Douglas is behaving very oddly, there's a strange tattoo on the victim's body, and a hidden bicycle is found on the grounds. Holmes gradually begins to work out Douglas's background and the story then flashes back 20 years earlier to an American coal-mining region called Vermissa Valley.

As much as I love the Sherlock Holmes stories in general I have to confess that I wasn't much looking forward to this particular book, as I'm not really the biggest fan of the A Study in Scarlet novel and The Valley of Fear sounded almost exactly like it. And I was right. The Valley of Fear is yet another Sherlock Holmes novel that's split into two different sections and with very little to connect them. The first half of the book is fairly fun and enjoyable (if the reader is willing to overlook the massive retcon that is Watson knowing about Moriarty and Sebastian Moran before the events of The Final Problem and The Empty House! :D ) There's some extremely funny bickering between Holmes and Watson in the opening chapter and there's a very clever resolution to the John Douglas mystery that I genuinely didn't see coming... although as soon as Holmes explained how he managed to work it out I felt I should have done. But then just like A Study in Scarlet the book is let down by its second half: we get another boring tale that's set in America and doesn't feature Holmes and Watson at all. Look Doyle, when I read one of your stories I want to be reading about Holmes and Watson! Is that really so much to ask?! I can tell that you were really interested in America but, instead of shortchanging your readers by only giving them 1/2 a Holmes story, why couldn't you have just had Holmes and Watson going off to America to solve a crime?! It would have been easy! In The Dancing Men you established that Holmes had a correspondent in the NYPD called Wilson Hargreave*. So why couldn't you have had Hargreave simply cable Holmes and ask him to come over to New York to help him solve a case? That would have been far more interesting and enjoyable!

I know I've said this before in some of my other reviews but overall I much prefer the Sherlock Holmes short stories over the novels.  I've read all of the four Sherlock Holmes novels now and the only one of those books that I've really, truly loved has been The Hound of the Baskervilles. The other novels haven't been without their enjoyable moments but The Hound of the Baskervilles has by far the most gripping story, has by far the most interesting secondary characters and it has by far the best atmosphere.

Rating: 3/5

* If the makers of CBS's Elementary had only included Wilson Hargreave in their show I would have been much less critical of it in that review I once wrote. I really mean it! Because if they had then that would have been so genuinely impressive and awesome!

Monday, 3 August 2015

'Star Wars: Heir to The Empire' by Timothy Zahn (1991)

Synopsis: Heir to the Empire is the first novel in the Thrawn Trilogy and is a part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The series takes place roughly five years after the Battle of Endor. The Rebel Alliance, now called the New Republic, is ruling over most of the galaxy and has established its base on the city-planet of Coruscant. Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa are now doing important political and diplomatic work for the new government and are also married and expecting twins. Leia's work has so far left her with very little time for her Jedi training (of which she has had some thanks to her twin brother Luke Skywalker). As far as Luke is aware he's still the only Jedi Knight in the galaxy and is now beginning to worry about it. What kind of training has he missed out on since he only spent such a short amount of time with Obi-Wan and Yoda? And how should a Jedi spend his days? Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the New Republic, Grand Admiral Thrawn has spent the past few years quietly building up the Empire's strength. Thrawn is a tactical genius and was the only nonhuman to achieve the rank of Grand Admiral under the notably prejudiced Emperor Palpatine. With the aid of his second-in-command Captain Pellaeon and an insane clone of an old Jedi Master, Thrawn intends to reconquer the galaxy and bring it back under Imperial control. Thrawn then makes an attempt to kidnap Luke and Leia but the attempt fails and the pair of them are separated: Leia then ends up being pursued by bounty hunters while Luke ends up stranded in deep space. It's then that Luke is picked up by a suave smuggler called Talon Karrde and his second-in-command Mara Jade. Luke is then shocked to find that Mara has an intense, burning hatred of him for some reason...

I've been a huge fan of Star Wars ever since I was 12 years old but when it was announced that Disney had bought the franchise and would be making new films my interest in the saga was... awakened ;) To bide the time until Episode VII I thought I'd finally try reading some of the Star Wars EU books so I did a bit of googling and soon discovered that the big fan favourite of the many EU titles is Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. But now that I've read Heir to the Empire I really can't help but wonder what all of the fuss is about. Of course I wasn't expecting this book to live up to the sheer magnificence of the original films but because it has so much hype I was expecting to be far more entertained by it than I was. Instead I was extremely disappointed. I found Zahn's prose decidedly mediocre and the story tremendously dull. There was none of the Jedi mysticism and rich spiritual themes that I've always felt a deep pull towards in the original films and there was an almost complete lack of the humour of the originals. But I think the biggest problem that I had with this book though were the characters. Although none of the original characters ever said or did anything that was completely and obviously out of character their "voices" still never felt quite right to me and they all came across as totally flat and lifeless. Luke, Leia, Han, Lando and even Chewie and the droids had absolutely none of the depth and charm of their film counterparts and the new characters in this book weren't all that much better.

I didn't think that this book was as bad as the Star Wars prequels as I do think that it had an intriguing premise and one or two interesting ideas, but overall I still found it extremely boring and overrated and I have no idea why so many fans seem to like it. I certainly don't feel the urge to seek out any more of the EU titles but then, maybe that's a good thing? It will definitely save me a considerable amount of money and time!

Rating: 1.5/5