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Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Happy Halloween everybody!  I hope you are having a fun and safe holiday.  I am waiting for trick-or-treaters and trying to convince Reeses that Halloween costumes are not chew toys.

I really enjoyed The Woman in White!  It’s been a while since I read anything Victorian, plus it is really suspenseful, so it was perfect for Halloween reading.  The Woman in White is sometimes described as one of the first mystery novels.  Personally, it reminded me less of a traditional mystery and more of a Hitchcock movie.  Instead of trying to figure out “whodunnit,” the building tension and suspense of the story had me physically leaning towards the book, anxious to find out what would happen next.

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins

There are quite a few characters in this book, all delightfully different.  The first narrator is Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who meets a mysterious woman dressed in white late at night on the road to London.  His two pupils are half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who happens to look almost exactly like the mysterious woman.  Together Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright discover that the mysterious woman is Anne Catherick, a woman whose past connects her both to the Fairlie family and Sir Percival Glyde, Laura Fairlie’s fiance.  In the second half of the book, we meet the Count and Countess Fosco.  Count Fosco is both melodramatic and menacing.  The variety of these characters makes the book a lot of fun.

If you’ve read a Victorian novel before, you might remember that they tend to be long.  Many of them were originally published chapter by chapter in magazines, and The Woman in White is no exception.  In my opinion, it’s one of the best examples of this genre I have read.  Sometimes these books can get a little repetitive, because the writer knew it had been awhile since the last chapter.  Because this novel is told from several viewpoints, it felt pretty fast paced to me.  I also was really impressed by the characters.  Although Count Fosco and Laura Fairlie in particular resemble familiar, melodramatic Victorian characters (think of Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities), they don’t take away from the drama of the story.  It is really very well-written.  I give this book four and a half stars, and I’ll be adding it to my list of great Halloween books!  ★★★★1/2

Little me and little Becca dressed up for Halloween

Little me and little Becca dressed up for Halloween

photo credit: Simon_K via photopin cc

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig

Hello everyone!  Today I’m continuing the Print and Prose Halloween series with a new Halloween book: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla.  It was originally on my summer reading list, but I decided to wait for October since it was a Halloween book.  (This required great restraint, since I have been a fan of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series for years.  In 2009, Becca actually mailed the latest book in the series to me in Europe so that I wouldn’t have to wait until the summer to catch up.)

Manzanilla (aka manchineel) tree

Manzanilla (aka manchineel) tree

The Pink Carnation series is set in the early 1800s, usually in England.  If you’ve ever read The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Orczy, these books are supposed to be about the spies who took over after the Scarlet Pimpernel’s retirement.  They are historical fiction with elements of adventure, mystery and romance.

In the latest book, Miss Sally Fitzhugh has gotten a little tired of life as a debutante in London.  Unimpressed by the latest society rumors that the Duke of Belliston is a vampire, she takes a dare to go into his gardens at midnight.  There, she unexpectedly meets the duke himself.  Lucien has recently returned to England to solve the mystery of his parents’ murder, which has haunted him since childhood.  It quickly becomes clear that someone doesn’t want him to find out what really happens.  When Lucien is framed for a murder, Sally tries to help, and begins to suspect the Black Tulip, a deadly French spy.

Readers of the series will happily recognize the reinforcements from the Pink Carnation’s league who arrive to help Sally and Lucien.  Sally is convinced to pose as Lucien’s fiancee so that an agent, posing as her chaperone, can investigate.  The duke’s relatives plan to celebrate the engagement with a masquerade ball on All Hallow’s Eve.  Can Sally and the duke solve his parents’ murder before the killer strikes again?  And what will happen to their pretended engagement if they do?

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I recommend this series to absolutely everyone, because I want to be Miss Gwen next Halloween.  🙂  I love this series, and if you like books that are smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining, please check out either this book or the first in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.  I particularly recommend them to students.  Remember that dull ache in your head that you get when you’ve spent all week (or more) studying for midterms?  When I was an undergrad, I found that these books are the perfect cure!  I’ve been a fan ever since.  I give both the book and the series five stars.  I can’t wait for the next one!  ★★★★★

-Elizabeth
photo credit: Jean & Nathalie via photopin cc

photo credit: gnuckx via photopin cc

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Hello everyone, and happy October! Here at Of Print and Prose, we’ll be getting ready to celebrate Halloween by posting a Halloween-themed book review every Sunday. We’re starting with an old classic: The Castle of Otranto, the original gothic novel by Horace Walpole.

Cathedral of Otranto

Cathedral of Otranto

I have seen The Castle of Otranto and other gothic novels referenced in books before, so I wanted to read one for myself. I had an opportunity this summer to read it with a friend from my old book club. It was interesting to finally read a book I have seen mentioned so many times.

The Castle of Otranto has some supernatural elements, but it isn’t particularly scary or suspenseful. The basic premise is that unexplained events start happening to a family who may not have rightfully inherited the title and lands of Otranto. Everyone suspects the mysterious occurrences may be signs of divine retribution against the descendants of the usurper. Several mysterious strangers arrive and are caught up in the drama as the current Prince of Otranto tries to escape an old prophecy about his family.

This is an older novel than what I usually read, so it was a little challenging. In the edition I read, the punctuation, mainly the lack of quotation marks in dialogues, made it a little difficult to understand. Of course, Walpole also introduces the novel as a much older manuscript that he had discovered and edited, so it was meant to sound old-fashioned even to eighteenth century readers.

I would recommend reading this book mainly because it is the first of its kind. The whole genre of gothic novels and many horror novels were influenced by this book, so if you like having some historical context when you read, this is a great option. Also, if (like me) you felt you missed a lot of inside jokes while reading Northanger Abbey, this is the perfect place to start. I give this book three stars-I’m glad I read it, but probably wouldn’t be interested in reading it a second time.  ★★★

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Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll be reviewing a much more modern book!

-Elizabeth

photo credit: Cinzia A. Rizzo / fataetoile via photopin cc

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In The Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Readers, would you agree that you stumble upon some really great books when they aren’t books you would choose for yourself?  It is hit or miss for me, but generally, when I read something I never would have picked up off the shelf of my own volition, I’m pretty impressed.  You can expect a lot more books like this since my happiness project involves a monthly goal to read or watch something I never would have considered otherwise.  This book, In The Time of Butterflies, I picked up in an effort to change up the 10th grade novel at our school (I also hoped to make our curriculum a little less old, rich, white guy centered).  While Alvarez’s novel won’t be used as our school-wide novel for 10th grade, it was an interesting read nonetheless.

Set during the reign of dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, In The Time of Butterflies is a fictionalized account of 4 revolutionary sisters, the Mirabels – 3 of whom were assassinated for their work as revolutionaries opposed to Trujillo’s rule.  Told through four differing viewpoints – from each sister at varying points of the revolution – Alvarez artfully captures both the revolutionary activity and every day activity of these famous sisters.  She develops the characters to seem very much like real people, which is quite an undertaking when writing characters out of historical figures who actually existed.  The reader gets to follow the very unique experience of each sister from their first days in school, through marriage and children, to the fear and imprisonment leading up to their murders.

The thing I liked most about this novel was that it sparked my curiosity about a period in history that I don’t know much about.  I remember vague murmurings of Fidel Castro in Cuba during my history classes, but similar dictatorships in the Dominican Republic were never mentioned, and I’m already interested in learning more.  Additionally, I loved how real the characters were.  Yes, they were iconic revolutionaries.  They were also women with families who experienced exactly what you might expect when their world as they knew it came crashing down around them.  Throughout, I had a very real understanding that though working for the revolutionary was worth it for the fictional versions of the Mirabal sisters, it wasn’t always easy.  In fact, it rarely was.

There were times that the book was hard to read.  Admittedly, at times it was because the narrative became very long-winded and I was waiting for something to actually happen.  This is one critique of the novel.  However, other times, through no fault of Alvarez or her writing, the story simply became very intense, and something I needed to read in smaller doses.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, I’d recommend this book.  The different accounts were well-written and the characters were multi-dimensional and real.  Additionally, it’s an area of history that is recent and occurred close to home – yet many of us don’t know much about this, and that should be changed!  I give In The Time of Butterflies 3 stars.  ★★★

– Becca

Horns by Joe Hill

My newest book club and I recently chose to read the book Horns by Joe Hill.  We have joked about how our club is really a books-that-became-movies club, and this is no exception – the movie adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe is hitting the big screen Halloween of this year!  Our book club gave Horns mixed reviews, but one thing I really enjoyed about this novel is that it is completely different from what I usually read.

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns follows main character Ignatius Parrish on what has to be the most bizarre downward spiral I have ever read.  The story begins when Ig awakens from a night of drinking in response to the anniversary of his girlfriend Merrin’s brutal rape and murder – but upon waking, a  few major changes have taken place.  First, Ig notices the horns that have sprouted from his head in the night.  Then, as he goes looking for help, he notices that everyone he encounters can’t seem to help sharing their deepest darkest secrets with Ig – and you’d be amazed at how dark some of these people’s secrets are.  The story vacillates between exploring Ig and Merrin’s relationship as it first developed, right up to Merrin’s tragic end, and Ig’s hunt for the truth of where the horns are coming from, how to get rid of them, and meanwhile, how to retaliate when he discovers the identity of Merrin’s killer.

I have to give props for the story seeming very original – it was.  And it was fun to explore the connections between this fairly bizarre work of fiction and the biblical stories I heard in church as a child.  What wasn’t fun was how unrelatable most of the story was.  For example, I have a really hard time believing that people (all people) are really as dark as they are portrayed in the story.  The relationship between Ig and his parents (who secretly believe he murdered Merrin) was especially disturbing to me, because it made family ties seem so much weaker than I’ve always known them to be.

My other complaint was all the symbolism in the book.  After reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, I was really excited to do some interpreting of the various things I was reading.  But Hill never gave the reader a chance – he very obviously spelled out every allusion, connection, and piece of symbolism for us, leaving absolutely no interpretation or heavy lifting for me!

I don’t think I’ll watch the movie, and I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book to our readers at Of Print and Prose.  I give it 1 star.  ★

Red Devil Cocktails - not my favorite alcoholic beverage, but drinks always make book club a little more interesting!

Red Devil Cocktails – not my favorite alcoholic beverage, but drinks always make book club a little more interesting!

… but on the bright side, the discussion at book club led to some delicious themed drinking!  In honor of Ig thinking he was turning into the devil throughout the book – we mixed and drank Red Devil cocktails, which was way too much fun!

When It Happens To You by Molly Ringwald

You can probably imagine my surprise when I learned at book club that Molly Ringwald (of Pretty In Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles fame) has added ‘author’ to her resume.  I grew up watching and have a nostalgic appreciation for her movies, but truthfully, I didn’t expect much from her writing.  While When It Happens To You was not my favorite book, I have to give credit where credit is due… it was a lot better than I was expecting and it led to a book club discussion that (I felt) brought people who were mostly strangers a lot closer than any of the other monthly discussions have.

The author (above center) in one of my favorite movies from high school, Sixteen Candles.

The author (above center) in one of my favorite movies from high school, Sixteen Candles.

When It Happens To You is a novel told through a series of vignettes from the perspective of different, but loosely connected, characters (a lot like the movie Love Actually).  This part worked really well for me, and I thought Ringwald did an excellent job of subtly including the characters’ connections to each other in a way that was realistic, believable, and interesting.  The stories are all told from a female character’s perspective and cover such topics as a spouse’s death, a transgender child, and a straying spouse.  This is where I was disappointed – while the writing itself was surprisingly sophisticated at points, the interconnected plots were incredibly stale and predictable.  The idea of a book with so many character narrators – all of whom are females – is so cool.  It really disappointed me that each woman’s biggest concern seemed to be the main male in her life – whether he be dead, cheating, or questioning a gender identity.  While the novel shed light on issues that are very real and present (the chapter on a transgender child was undoubtedly my favorite), it did so in a way that every other medium does, and I would have loved to see a fresher perspective.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate a book that can get a more real conversation out of a book club of people who don’t know each other very well.  For the first time, the book club I discovered via goodreads had a much more personal discussion of our own experiences, as opposed to our typical “I liked the part where _______ happened.” discussions.  For that, Ms. Ringwald must be given credit.  If you have someone to discuss the book with, or are a huge Breakfast Club fan, give When It Happens To You a try.  Otherwise, watch another hour of Lifetime to get your “overdone and overly dramatic” fix, and keep your eye out for something a bit more novel.  (Hah, see what I did there?)  I give When It Happens To You 2.5 stars. ★★ 1/2

– Becca

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The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Hello readers! As summer is drawing to a close, I wanted to share with you what may end up being my last completed book on my summer reading list – The Happiness Project. As many of you know, positive psychology has been a long-term interest of mine – I studied it in college, and wrote a master’s thesis on how to incorporate it into a classroom. That said, I don’t always use it in my own life as much as I would like to. And while the big thinkers (Seligman, Lyubomirsky, and the Dalai Lama) behind the happiness movement are brilliant… their prose often leaves a bit to be desired in a die-hard fiction fan such as myself.

Which is where The Happiness Project went so so right. The author, Gretchen Rubin, studied the scientific literature in depth, broke it down in an interesting, very read-able manner, and then shared her experiences applying the principles of happiness research to her own life. She focuses on three main questions: “What makes me feel good?” “What makes me feel bad?” and “What makes me feel right?” and uses them to make a list of concrete, attainable resolutions. Rubin then grouped the resolutions by months, and vowed to systematically make a nearly constant effort to reach them all – adding the previous months resolutions to the current one. She wrote about her journey and the thing I LOVED the most is, it was messy. She attests that she was happier in the end (and she wasn’t horrifically unhappy to begin with) but that happiness took real effort, and, as a result, wasn’t always fun. This was monumental for me, as self-improvement of any kind is rarely enjoyable, but usually (in my own experience) yields amazing results.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Reading The Happiness Project inspired me to start one of my own. I, like Gretchen Rubin, am not horrifically unhappy. However, I have struggled with depression and anxiety in the past and often feel so lucky to no longer be battling those diseases on a daily basis that I don’t work to make myself happier than my current state – I just work to make myself not sick again. Thus, there’s a lot I can do to be happier, and though Rubin’s book is more of a memoir than a game plan, her website (www.gretchenrubin.com) provides an outline of the steps she took and makes it really easy for readers to design their own happiness project.

Though I’ll warn you – designing it is the easy part. It is also the fun part… because I love markers. But the implementation, like Rubin writes in her book, is not nearly as easy as you might think. Still, I am confident it is worth it. I wouldn’t recommend the book to you if I didn’t think so, and I definitely wouldn’t be incorporating Rubin’s methods into my own hectic life if I didn’t truly believe they had value.

Things that make me happy - a well-organized binder to keep track of my progress... and these adorable new throw pillows from Etsy!

Things that make me happy – a well-organized binder to keep track of my progress… and these adorable new throw pillows from Etsy!

Briefly, here are some of the goals my personal happiness project includes:

  • Letters of gratitude – I know how great I feel when people take the time to affirm and appreciate me. I’m excited to start telling the great people in my life how important they are (and hopefully giving them and me a happiness boost in the process)
  • Hosting more events at home – I just moved into my own place for the first time. I can’t wait to care for the people I love by cooking them an incredible meal as they grace me with their fantastic company and help me to see how amazing my life and relationships are.
  • Engaging in more cultural experiences – Santa Barbara has an events calendar that is crazy full. Time to take advantage of those experiences and play tourist in my own town.
  • Travel – As I mentioned, I’m in my own place for the first time in my life… so I can’t afford much travel. But when the opportunity arises, I want to be spontaneous enough to take it. After all, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
  • Remember self-care – I have a real problem during the school year of forgetting to take care of myself. Sometimes I even forget meals. So I’m making a point to pay attention to my needs and then make meeting them a priority in my life. If that means I have to spend more time getting pedicures and massages… that is a sacrifice I’m willing to take!
  • Read books I never would have considered for myself – Having a wider perspective from which I view the world can only bring good things, am I right?
  • Give faith and spirituality a chance – I’m a huge cynic. Cynics generally aren’t the happiest people. So I want to get back to a place in my life where spirituality is central to my every day movements. Research shows, the happiest people are also the most spiritual.
  • Volunteer – I know, I know. I have no time. That’s what everyone says. I’ve benefited so much from the generous, loving, giving people around me. I need to give back. Selfishly – there’s also a major dopamine surge with altruism!

If you were designing your own happiness project, what would you add? Is there anything I’ve missed?

Wishing you all a happy, healthy start to the new school year (while giving The Happiness Project 3 stars ★★★),

Becca