The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman Book Review

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Review:

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, by Louise Plummer, is one of my favorite YA romance novels. It’s an extremely witty and tongue-in-cheek read, in large part because of the great use of first-person narration. Kate is a very intelligent and charismatic heroine and she narrates as if writing a romance novel based on her own life, complete with frequent consultation of The Romance Writer’s Phrasebook and hilarious commentary on the bodice ripping descriptions she finds there. She is also (speaking as a fellow tall, plain-ish nerd with bad eyes) extremely relatable, so I’m sure there was some wish fulfillment involved in my enjoyment of this book when I first read it as a never-been-kissed teenager. However, I’ve found it equally enjoyable as an adult.

Another thing I liked and found relatable was the portrayal of Kate’s family. As someone who really didn’t have a rebellious teenage phase and whose relationship with my parents ranged from pretty good to great even at the height of my puberty-induced hormonal moodiness, I really enjoyed the depiction of a loving and mutually respectful parent-teen relationship. (There’s also a great depiction of female-female friendship, in keeping with the book’s feminist themes.) The novel is set over Christmas break in Minnesota, and Kate’s (mostly) happy family life and Swedish Christmas traditions add to the cozy, comforting atmosphere, making it an especially good read for the holiday season or the sorts of days when you don’t feel like doing anything but curling up with a blanket, some tea, and a good book.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Book Review

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Review:

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, is one of my favorite classic adventure novels. It gets off to a rather slow start, but ratchets up the tension beautifully as the story progresses until it’s practically impossible to put down. I also like that Marguerite, while forced into the role of damsel-in-distress at several points, is nevertheless allowed to be quite clever and resourceful in her own right. For a novel originally published in 1905, she’s an unusually spunky and likable heroine!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

It seems like a book that would make a fantastic movie, but I’ve been disappointed with the attempts so far. The 1934 version with Leslie Howard was just awful. I liked the 1982 film with Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan a lot more, but still feel like it could be done better. Here’s the trailer for that version:

The Broadway musical soundtrack is enjoyable, but I’ve never seen it on stage.

The Hundred-Foot Journey Movie Review

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Review:

This film doesn’t have a lot of depth or originality, but it’s a charming, feel-good story about an Indian family who opens a restaurant in rural France and it’s helped substantially by good performances, particularly by Helen Mirren, in a role reminiscent of her Oscar-nominated performance as Mrs. Wilson in Gosford Park, and veteran Indian actor Om Puri. The cinematography is also top-notch, with many beautiful shots of the French countryside and mouth-watering shots of various dishes and ingredients, French and Indian alike. Don’t watch this movie if you’re hungry!

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India Movie Review

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Review:

I’ve seen a few Westernized Indian movies, like Bride and Prejudice and Monsoon Wedding, but Lagaan was my first experience with a real Bollywood film. I think it was a pretty lucky first choice.

The main plot of Lagaan revolves around a poor farming village in 19th century India, which is stricken by a horrific drought and unable to pay the taxes (lagaan) it owes to the British Raj. The hero, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), makes a bet with the arrogant and cruel officer in charge of collecting the tax that if the villagers can beat the British in a game of cricket, their debt will be forgiven. But if they lose, their tax will be increased by three times.

What follows is good old-fashioned, feel-good fun. Although I’m not much of a sports fan and know almost nothing about cricket, I found it easy to get swept up in the film’s story, and it rarely lagged despite clocking in at nearly 4 hours of running time.

You always hear about Bollywood’s fantastic music and dance numbers, and several of the dances in Lagaan blew me away with how good they were. My favorite was Radha Kaise Na Jale:

Since there’s no subtitles in this copy of the clip, here’s what’s going on: Gauri (Gracy Singh) is in love with Bhuvan but fears he is falling in love with a British woman who has taken pity on the villagers and is coaching them at cricket. During a religious celebration in their village, Bhuvan and Gauri re-enact a ceremonial dance for the villagers (and the British woman) about a goddess (Radha) jealous of her flirtatious lover (Krishna), while Krishna tries to reassure her that his heart belongs only to her. Of course, there’s a double meaning in every line and gesture.

Great film! I highly recommend it.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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The Borgia Chronicles Review

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Review:

I’m still upset about The Borgias being cancelled, so after stumbling across The Serpent and the Pearl, by Kate Quinn, the first book in The Borgia Chronicles, at the library, I decided to give it a shot to see if it could ease my withdrawal a bit.

The Borgia Chronicles, which include The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose, are told from the perspective of Giulia Farnese, the celebrated Italian beauty and mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), and two fictional servants: Giulia’s cook Carmelina and her bodyguard Leonello, a dwarf who reminded me of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones thanks to his sharp wit and love of books. Quinn’s Giulia starts out as a young and naive girl, but matures over the course of the series into a kind and caring young woman. She is an entirely different creature than the elegant Giulia of The Borgias or the energetic Giulia of Borgia: Faith and Fear, but I have to say, I like all three. So little is known of the real Giulia Farnese that any one (or none) of the three portrayals could be accurate.

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The Borgia family comes across fairly accurately, based on my understanding of their real life personalities, with one glaring exception related to the portrayal of Cesare in the first book that was resolved somewhat more satisfactorily in the second.

Quinn has a very pleasant and absorbing writing style that’s rich in period detail and sensory descriptions that bring the era to life. I repeatedly found myself reading much more in a sitting than I’d intended! I especially enjoyed her mouthwatering descriptions of Carmelina’s cooking, which are based on actual recipes from cooks of the period such as Bartolomeo Scappi (who is also a character in the books).

My biggest issue with the series was Quinn’s tendency to force me to suspend my disbelief over certain plot choices, which kept tossing me out of what were otherwise a pair of very enjoyable novels. I’ve already mentioned the issue with Cesare’s portrayal, which greatly marred my enjoyment of the first book, but though that eventually got resolved in a somewhat more probable manner, the second book went and did it again with an ending that seemed overly pat and tidy, not to mention improbable.

SPOILERS [click to view]

Despite having spent a third of the series reading Leonello’s thoughts, I never had the slightest suspicion that he was in love with Giulia, and I usually have a sharp nose for that sort of thing, so that seemed completely out of the blue to me. I could buy Giulia returning his feelings more easily, but despite the convenient sham marriage to the gay lord, I had trouble accepting that a noblewoman of Giulia’s era would just be allowed to shack up with a common dwarf for the rest of her life. Nor could I buy that Cesare would just take Leonello’s word that he’d killed Carmelina, given their history (however antagonistic it sometimes was). My romantic side was all fluttery and overjoyed that everybody ended up happy and free of their dangerous entanglement with the Borgia family, but my skeptical side was not so easily convinced.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

A Royal Affair Movie Review

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Review:

Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” A Royal Affair is the sort of movie that reminds you how right he was.

As frustrating as democracy can sometimes be, imagine what it might be like to try and enact any sort of meaningful reform or change in a country ruled by a king who is weak-willed, unstable, and quite possibly insane. Add in entrenched conservative interests such as a powerful Church and aristocracy, and an uneducated and superstitious populace, and you have the unenviable task taken on by Johann Struensee, an ambitious but idealistic commoner who rose to become the de facto regent of Denmark after becoming the personal physician of King Christian VII. Along the way, Struensee also become the lover of Christian’s queen, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (sister of the hapless King George III, who had his own share of mental problems later in life), which proved the catalyst for his ultimate downfall.

Speaking of helpful reminders, this film is also a pretty good reminder of how much life sucked for the average princess, historically. Caroline is shipped off to a foreign country at the age of 15, her friends and family taken from her, even her beloved books sent back to England due to Denmark’s harsh censorship laws. Married to the aforementioned unstable and possibly insane king, she is all but raped on her wedding night, gives birth at the age of 16, and is left neglected and bored in the palace while he goes off for tours of Europe and wild nights with prostitutes. One can hardly blame her for seeking solace in Struensee’s arms, but the laws of her own time were not so forgiving.

The story of their doomed romance and efforts at reform is beautifully shot, sumptuously costumed (especially given the film’s relatively small budget), and very well acted. Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda have good chemistry together and really make you feel for both characters. I was also impressed by the performance of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the unstable but well-meaning Christian. Christian and Struensee’s relationship lacked the UST of Caroline and Struensee’s, but was more complex and ultimately more interesting. It was as sad to watch their friendship fall apart as the more dramatic and involuntary severing of Caroline and Struensee’s relationship.

One minor disappointment – if Wikipedia is to be believed, the real Caroline had a penchant for wearing men’s clothes in public, which scandalized the nation as much as, if not more than, her affair with Streunsee. Although Struensee encourages the film Caroline to ride astride, rather than sidesaddle, there’s no other indication of her cross-dressing habit, which is a pity, really. The real Christian was also notable for affairs with young men, though his most long-lasting and famous extramarital liaison was with a female prostitute.

Despite these and some other emissions and changes, the film overall seems unusually historically accurate for a movie (readers with more extensive knowledge of Danish history are welcome to correct me if this impression is incorrect), yet its accuracy comes without sacrificing good storytelling. Highly recommended.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Phantom, by Susan Kay Book Review

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Review:

Don’t be mislead by the terrible cover!

Gaston Leroux’s classic horror novel The Phantom of the Opera has received many adaptations in many different forms, the most famous of which include the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney and the Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. There have also been many literary adaptations, including retellings, “sequels,” and more. Phantom, by Susan Kay, is by far the best of these.

Leroux gave his readers some tantalizing hints of Erik’s life before he took up residence in the basement of the Paris opera house and became the dreaded “Opera Ghost,” but his novel covered only the last few months leading up to Erik’s death. Kay’s novel takes those scant hints and spins them into a rich backstory full of adventure and tragedy alike. She makes good use of several different narrators, including Erik’s mother, the Persian, Raoul, Christine, and Erik himself, to flesh out his story and bring it to life from birth til death, and beyond. Though I’m a diehard Erik/Christine shipper, my favorite aspect of the book may have been the relationship between Erik and the Persian (here named Nadir). It was wonderful to see it fleshed out and their interactions produced some of the book’s best moments and lines of dialogue.

Phantom is beautifully written and intensely emotional. I’m admittedly soft-hearted, but I cried multiple times reading this novel and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Most phans will adore Phantom, and it’s also an excellent introduction to the story for non-fans and casual fans, as it’s written in a more modern style than the original novel.

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My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Captive Prince and Prince’s Gambit Book Review

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Note: I read both Captive Prince and its sequel, Prince’s Gambit, in barely 24 hours, so I’m going to save myself the trouble of splitting them back into two parts in my head and just review them together.

Review:

Captive Prince is a male-male romance trilogy that was originally published on LiveJournal. It was later self-published by the author on Amazon but recently purchased by Penguin, which plans to re-release the first two books in trade paperback and will release the third in paperback and as an ebook. (The release date for book three has not been announced as of the time this review was published.)

A lot of people whose taste I trust have recommended this series to me but I’ve been avoiding it under the misapprehension that it involved a lot of BDSM, non-con, and other things that are not my cup of tea. I know a lot of people who love Kushiel’s Legacy, too, but I couldn’t stomach it and gave up less than halfway into the first book.

Despite some outward similarities (Vere, like Terre d’Ange, is clearly modeled after pre-Revolutionary France), Captive Prince was much more enjoyable for me, as it had all the scheming courtiers and much less of the kinky sex. (For others, of course, this will be a drawback.) The story follows Prince Damianos (aka Damen) of Akielos after he is sold into slavery following a coup by his half-brother and sent as a gift to Laurent, the prince of the nearby kingdom of Vere.

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In the first book, I particularly enjoyed the sense of being thrown, like Damen, head-first into an unfamiliar world and having to unravel the complicated relationships and history of the place clue by clue. (Unlike Damen, I have the advantage of not getting flogged for getting something wrong.) 

Things really picked up in the second book, on multiple fronts. Damen, who spends most of the first book in over his head at court, gets to come into his own. The UST, which was sporadic in the first book, takes on a life of its own, to the point that it’s practically a separate character. The plot thickens in spectacular fashion. (The wait for book #3 is going to kill me.) In a book where female characters are few and far between, I also appreciated the introduction of the rather badass Halvik.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Strictly Ballroom Movie Review

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Review:

Strictly Ballroom has some of the same problems with over-the-top caricatures instead of characters that mar Buz Luhrmann’s other films, but at heart it’s a charming and feel good boy-meets-ugly-duckling romance with lots of outstanding dancing.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights Movie Review

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Review:

This movie is a bit of a mess, but it scrapes by on the charisma of its two young leads. The plot tries mostly unsuccessfully to combine a fluffy, feel-good story about a girl gaining self-confidence through dance with the more serious backdrop of political and social revolution in Cuba, and relies too heavily on formula with both plots.Additionally, the dialogue is mediocre to outright cringe-inducing.

However, Romola Garai and Diego Luna are charming and manage to sell the partnership and budding romance of their characters. Patrick Swayze also makes a brief but enjoyable appearance as a dance instructor. The dance scenes are enjoyable to watch, although some of the extras have noticeably more skill than Luna and Garai.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

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