Archive for June, 2010

This is the second book in the Cornelius Quaint series, and the events follow straight on from where the first book ends (there is a brief recap of the events in The Equivoque Principle – the first book – for anybody who has not read it).

Cornelius has left most of his beloved circus family behind, to travel to Egypt accompanied only by Madame Destine, the circus fortune teller and faithful friend of Quaint.  In Egypt, Quaint has to stop a plan masterminded by the Hades Consortium to poison the River Nile and cause death to countless Egyptians.  Along the way, he encounters desert thieves, has to deal people who are determined to kill him by any means necessary, and deal with long buried secrets which resurface.

Just as in The Equivoque Principle, this is an enjoyable romp, full of surprising twists and turns – a situation could turn on it’s head very rapidly! –  and like Quaint himself, the reader is never entirely sure who can be trusted.  Our hero is again full of witty quips and smart asides, and I found myself rooting for him all the way through.  He and Madame Destine actually find themselves separated for a large portion of the story, and the opportunity is taken for both characters to be explored further.  (This was particularly welcome to me in the case of Destine, as she was the one character I found hard to warm to in The Equivoque Principle; I liked her a lot more when reading this book).

Initially I did think that I would miss some of the characters from Quaint’s circus troupe, who he takes his leave of in the first few chapters.  I especially hoped that his valet Butter might go to Egypt with him, but he was tasked with running the circus in Quaint’s absence.  However, I actually realised about halfway through the book that I was not missing these characters at all, due to the new characters that were introduced in this book.

The plot is outlandish at times, but I think this must have been entirely intentional – as with the previous book, the book does not take itself too seriously and I don’t think the reader should either. It is simply a rip-roaring and highly enjoyable adventure story, which made me smile.  A wonderful bit of escapism – go enjoy:)

(I would like to thank the author for arranging for this book to be sent to me for review.  Darren Craske’s website can be found here.)

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Anne Hathaway plays Andrea (‘Andy’) Sachs, a young woman who hopes to become a journalist and gets a job working at the globally successful Runway fashion magazine, as second assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep). Initially the other staff feel that she doesn’t fit in, because she does not believe that fashion is the be all and end all, and because she is a size 6 (equivalent to a UK size 10) which is considered fat – and she doesn’t even diet!!  Andy does find herself fitting in, after a little help from fashion designer on the magazine, Nigel, but she discovers that working for the famed and feared Miranda Priestley means that you are not allowed to have a personal life.  Andy is expected to be ready to bow to Miranda’s often totally unreasonable will at any time of day or night, and finds herself struggling to maintain her relationship and her friendships.  She also notes that Miranda herself sacrifices much in the way of family life for her job – and Andy will eventually have to choose what is most important to her…

I enjoyed this film – but not as much as I expected to.  Anne Hathaway was sweet and perfectly cast, and Meryl Streep was superb as the ruthless Miranda. Mention should also be made of Emily Blunt, who played first assistant to Miranda, and Stanley Tucci who played Nigel, a designer on the magazine.  Both of these actors were terrific in their roles.

Possibly the reason why the film underwhelmed me was also to do with the whole message it was making.  I found the obsession with the fashion industry which is depicted in this movie, to be very shallow – but that’s kind of the point! And I totally understand that in such circumstances as this film is set, Andy’s perfectly gorgeous and healthy size 6 frame would be scorned (and that people would be scandalised that she would dare to do something so shocking as EAT CARBS!!), but it was an attitude that I can’t relate to.

Andy is basically a decent person, but she realises that in the industry in which she is working, people will step all over each other to get what they want, and she herself behaves in ways which she is not proud of.

Now – I know this is what the film is basically trying to say…fashion is nice, but is it worth sacrificing your personal life for?  And is it ever worth treating your friends and family badly for?  But despite a great cast, this movie just didn’t really do it for me.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s not awful, it’s just not really all that great.

One final word – I was expecting this to be a very funny film…it isn’t.  Some of the things that happen are funny, but only because they are so superficial.  But overall it left me somewhat dissatisfied.

Year of release: 2006

Director: David Frankel

Writers: Lauren Weisberger (book), Aline Brosh McKenna

Main cast: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci

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Costas Mandylor and Lauren Holly star in this romantic comedy.  Mandylor plays Marco Poloni, an Italian baker at The Poloni Brothers bakery in The Bronx.  All the local businesses in his area are closing down due to lack of money and it looks as though the bakery is going to go the same way.  Marco then learns about a baking competition which, if he wins, would earn him the money to save the business, but he needs a partner  to enter.  He enlists the help of Grace Carpenter, an uptight Chef from Manhattan who dreams of opening her own restaurant, but can’t find the funding to do it.  Despite appearing mismatched in personality, an attraction rapidly develops, but there are obstacles to overcome, including a former friend of Marco’s who is determined to sabotage their chances in the competition.

It’s hard for me to fairly review this film.  It’s a rom-com, and probably not a particularly great one.  Some of the acting is hammy, and the ending is predictable from about 20 minutes into the film.  But despite this, it has a real charm, and I absolutely adored it!  Costas Mandylor is as yummy as some of the gorgeous desserts he creates and Grace is endearing.  The desserts themselves are mouthwatering and made me crave a gooey slice of cake!

It’s an undemanding film, but very enjoyable.  I did root for the characters to get the ending they deserved, although as I said above, it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen.  So there are no real surprises here, but plenty of moments to make a viewer smile…this is a sweet (in more ways than one) film, and I would definitely watch it again.

Year of release: 2004

Director: Kevin Connor

Writer: Joseph Tropiano

Main cast: Costas Mandylor, Lauren Holly, Andrew Lauer, David Proval

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Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a formerly successful country singer, now reduced to playing gigs in bowling alleys and seedy bars, and being the opening act for his former protegee, whose star has now eclipsed Bad.  An alcoholic with with four broken marriages behind him, the only thing that appears to be waiting for Bad is an early grave caused by too much drinking and an unhealthy lifestyle.  His manager wants him to write more music, but Blake can’t really be bothered with it anymore.

When he meets Jane (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young reporter with a four year old son and a history of choosing the wrong men, it seems that there may be another shot at happiness for both of them.  But Bad has to conquer the demons of his past before he can look forward to any kind of future.  And Jane knows that he could easily be just another in a line of men who are no good for her…

Anyone who knows me knows that Jeff Bridges is my all time favourite actor, and has been for many years.  He finally got his long overdue Oscar for his performance in this movie, and it was well deserved.  In this film, as in all of his others, he makes the viewer forget that they are watching Jeff Bridges the actor, and become immersed in the character.  Played by a different actor, Bad could have been far more unlikeable, but Bridges produces a character whose flaws are evident, but who its possible to still care about and root for.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is also excellent as Jane (she received an Oscar nomination for this performance), bringing a sense of vulnerability to this character who has had a rough deal in life, and who is determined to do the best for her young boy.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell play smaller supporting roles – Duvall as a bartending friend who wants to help Bad get his life back on track, and Farrell as country singer Tommy Sweet who was given his first big break by Bad Blake, and who has now become a huge star.

It’s also worth noting that there is a great soundtrack to this film, consisting of many original country songs – several of which are sung by Jeff Bridges – and although it’s never been a favourite genre of mine, the songs are easy to listen to and enjoyable.  It is not necessary to be a fan of country music to enjoy the film.

This film is happy, sad, funny and ultimately redemptive – I would definitely recommend it.

Year of release: 2009

Director: Scott Cooper

Writers: Thomas Cobb (book), Scott Cooper

Main cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell

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A wife and four daughters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – are left behind when their father follows his calling as an Army Chaplain during the American Civil War.  A formerly affluent family, they have fallen on hard times, but despite this, they find ways to amuse themselves, and always strive to be better people.  They take their lonely neighbour Laurie under their wing, and he becomes practically another member of the family. 

This book was written for young adults, and I first read it as a teenager. However, upon revisiting it now some years later, I think I actually preferred it second time around. Due to the time it was written, some of the values contained within are somewhat outdated, and there are a few religious overtones which will probably be less relevant to most readers today, but despite this, it remains an endearing and thoroughly enjoyable book. 

I grew to care about all of the characters.  Each of the four girls is distinctive from the others and each of their personalities shine through.  Eldest daughter Meg is the elegant young girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, second daughter  Jo is a quick witted tomboy who cares little for fashion and decorum, third daughter Beth is gentle and thoughtful, always thinking of others, and the youngest child Amy is sometimes selfish and vain, but very caring and funny. Laurie is also a terrific character, by turns insolent and mischievous.  

Although the book is written in the third person, I felt that the character whose point of view was most closely shown was Jo.  This is unsurprising, as Jo was apparently based on the author herself.  Indeed, Jo seemed somewhat ahead of her time, with her passion for writing, and her desire to stand on her own two feet.

There is comedy and tragedy in this book, and while one chapter would have me smiling, I actually found myself crying at another chapter.

Some books are called classics with good reason – this is one of them.  Highly recommended.

(Note: The next book in the series about the March family is called Good Wives, and is often called volume 2 of Little Women.  This review relates only to Little Women, i.e. volume 1 of the story.)

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Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) is a young doctor, so dedicated to her work that she has barely any social life at all.  She agrees to go on a blind date that her sister has set up for her, but as she’s driving there, she loses concentration for a second and when she looks up, a huge truck is headed straight for her car…

Three months later, David Abbot (Mark Ruffalo) – depressed at end of his marriage, and drinking too much – is looking for an apartment in San Francisco. After looking at several unsuitable ones, he finds one that seems perfect and moves in.  But he hasn’t been there long when a young woman named Elizabeth appears claiming that the apartment is hers.  She turns up with increasing frequency – but she has a habit of disappearing before his eyes…and why is David the only one that can see her?…

I thought this was a charming and amusing film.  The two leads are both wonderful and cute-as-a-button in their roles and there is real chemistry between them.  Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon raised the movie above ‘made for daytime tv’ status and I ended up caring about their characters and what happened to them.  There are also some very amusing scenes (including a few laugh out loud moments).  There was plenty of scope for visual comedy, and Ruffalo played these scenes to perfection.

This is basically just a feel great romantic comedy with a bit of a twist…able support is provided by rest of the cast, especially John Heder, as a young man who is able to sense ghosts and whose help David seeks, but this is really David and Elizabeth’s story.  I’d call it a ‘comfort movie’ – the sort of film that you’d put on when you need something to smile at.  It’s definitely one which I will watch again.  Definitely recommended to fans of comedy and rom-coms.

Year of release: 2005

Director: Mark Waters

Writers: Marc Levy (book), Peter Tolan, Leslie Dixon

Main cast: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder

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Its 1853 and something nasty is in the air in Crawditch, London.  A series of grisly murders coincides with the arrival of Dr Marvello’s Traveling Circus, which is the business run own by Cornelius Quaint, ringmaster and conjuror extraordinaire. Suspicious immediately falls upon the circus performers, and their strongman Prometheus finds himself wrongly incarcerated for the crimes. Quaint, with the help of a number of his performers and the guidance of his good friend Madame Destine sets out to clear Prometheus’s name – but before long he realises that the murders are just the tip of the iceberg concerning some very dodgy dealings occurring in the criminal fraternity.  And as the mystery unfolds, it becomes clear that the events are related to Cornelius’s own history.  Will he be able to prove his friend’s innocence…and will he manage to escape with his own life?

This is a rip-roaring adventure story, populated with an eccentric cast of characters. Cornelius is a great main character, who has plenty of cunning, an acute sense of humour and a quick intelligence – all of which he needs to employ to navigate his way through several deadly situations.

More of an adventure story than a mystery, the tale twists and turns, so that the reader is often caught unaware by the events that take place.  The main characters are well drawn, so that I did feel that I got to know them.  Some of the villains are a little cartoony, but that’s fine and all adds to the atmosphere of fun and excitement.  My favourite character was probably Cornelius’s loyal valet, Butter, and I would have liked to have learned more about him.  I also particularly liked one of the police officers investigating the murders – Horace Berry, who was perhaps the most conventional character in the whole story.

This is the first story in a series (of three books, apparently), and I hope that the further instalments of Quaint’s life and adventures are as much fun to read as this one.  It’s not completely accurate on some historical details (occasionally using descriptive words and terms that were not around at the time that the book is set), but that hardly matters – after all, this is a romp, not a study of the period.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I don’t think the reader is expected to do so either.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this book – it left me with a smile on my face.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This film tells the story of the early days of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (although, it should be noted that there are a number of historical inaccuracies). Starting from when Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is imprisoned by her older sister Mary, Queen of England, the film depicts Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne upon Mary’s death.  When she is made Queen, Elizabeth’s reign is shaky with a lot of opposition to her Protestant religion, and there are traitors in her midst. Her advisor William Cecil urges her to marry and have a child, in order to secure her position as Queen, and there are suitors from the French and Spanish aristocracies (indeed, the King of Spain offers his hand to Elizabeth).  However, she continues an affair with her childhood sweetheart Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), which she later breaks off when she discovers that he is already married (in the true version of events, Elizabeth was well aware that Robert was married, and she actually attended his wedding; neither did he betray her in real life, as he did in the movie by committing treason against her.  He remained a loyal servant throughout his life).  Eventually she turns down all offers of marriage and declares herself married only to England.  She is shown cutting off all her hair and adopting the persona of the Virgin Queen (in real life, she did not cut her hair, although she did wear a wig later in life, due to her hair thinning after a bout of smallpox).

Despite the historical inaccuracies – many of which are clearly in place because they make the film more watchable and dramatic than the true version of events – this is a very compelling film and I found that I did not want to stop watching at all.

Cate Blanchett is of course excellent as Queen Elizabeth, initially showing the sense of fun which the queen had as a young girl.  However, disappointments and betrayals by those she trusts cause her to lose her somewhat carefree nature and harden her heart.  This is all shown very well, as is Elizabeth’s determination and inner strength, at a time when women were not considered to be worthy of having an opinion.  Vincent Cassel is also worthy of note as Henry III of France, one of the potential suitors.  He provides some moments of comic relief throughout the film, as he is depicted as fun loving, flamboyant and rather outrageous.  Joseph Fiennes is fine as Robert Dudley, but the best supporting actor is surely Christopher Eccleston, as the queen’s traitorous cousin, the Duke of Norfolk, who considers Elizabeth to be a heretic.  There were some unusual casting choices however; I was most surprised to see Eric Cantona playing a French Ambassador.  Maybe because he is such a well known face, I found him hard to believe in in this role.  I also believe that Kathy Burke (who is a superb actress) was miscast as Queen Mary.  Again however, this may be because people are so used to seeing her in completely different roles.

Overall however, this was a fascinating and engrossing film, and I look forward to watching the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Years, very soon.

Year of release: 1998

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Writer: Michael Hirst

Main cast: Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston

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Danny Delaney is a 13 year old boy whose life changes beyond comprehension one day, when his mother knocks down a little boy, who ends up in a coma. She struggles to cope with the guilt and Danny feels confused and isolated. His father tries desperately to keep the family together, but it looks as though things are about to fall apart.

This book is one of the ‘Quick Reads’ series (I read it within a couple of hours), and at only 101 pages of large print, it manages to pack quite a lot of story in! It is narrated by Danny himself, and I do think that the author managed to get into the mind of an adolescent very well.

Obviously, due to the length of the book, there is not a lot of time for character development , but this is a story which is plot driven, rather than character driven. The disintegration of normal family life is easy to imagine and well portrayed from the point of view of the youngest son. The writing flowed very easily, and I was never bored. I’ve read The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, but I think I actually preferred this book. It certainly would encourage me to look out for more work by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Rock star Judas ‘Jude’ Coyne has an unusual collection of macabre and grotesque items – such as a cannibal’s cookbook and a letter from a condemned witch in the Salem with trials from the 17th century.  So when Jude’s assistant Danny discovers a ghost for sale on the internet, Jude knows he has to have it.  A few days later, he receives a heart shaped box containing the suit which the dead man’s ghost is supposed to inhabit.  However it soon becomes clear that this is a very malevolent ghost, with one goal – to kill Jude and anyone he cares about.  A terrifying cat-and-mouse tale ensues, with Jude realising that he has to get to the bottom of just why this ghost has a grudge against him.  But what he discovers will mean that he will never be the same again.

Horror is not usually a favourite genre of mine, but this book was enjoyable.  The writing flowed easily and the story moved on at a rapid pace, never becoming boring, and never lingering for very long at any stage.  It is quite disturbing in parts, but never repulsively so.

Jude and his girlfriend Georgia were well portrayed – the story is told almost entirely from their point of view (although the narration is in the third person), so I did feel as if they became well known to the reader.  The only other characters who were really fully fleshed out were a prior girlfriend of Jude’s named Anna – who is significant in this story – and Jude’s two dogs Angus and Bon (and while they may be dogs, they certainly deserve to be remembered as important characters in this story).

The first two thirds of the book were probably my favourite parts – where Jude and Georgia come to realise the danger they are in, and wonder what they can do to make the danger stop.  The story did tend to sway slightly to the ridiculous in the final third of the book – Jude in particular seemed to reach conclusions and take courses of action that had no rhyme or reason to them.  However, the ending itself is very satisfying and makes up for any little niggles I may have had prior to it.  

Joe Hill certainly has a vivid imagination and I would certainly consider reading more work by him.  Recommended, especially to fans of the horror genre.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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