Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
Title: A Tale of Two Castles
Author: Gail Carson Levine
At first glance, this new young adult fantasy novel by Newbury Honor author Gail
Carson Levine reminded me of the Count Piro fairy tale ("How the Beggar Boy
turned into Count Piro"). In hindsight, there are too many differences to be able to
call A Tale of Two Castles a retelling. Yes, there is an ogre who lives in a castle,
and that ogre calls himself Count Jonty Um, but that's about where the similarities
end. There is not (that I have found so far) one singular tale that includes a
shapeshifting, castle-owning ogre AND an aspiring actress, a philosophical dragon,
a mysterious murderer, and a band of mischievous cats with magical powers.
Elodie or "Lodie" is the actress in question, a young girl who leaves her small town
to apprentice herself to the Mansioner Guild and ultimately seek her fortune on the
stage. But the memo that apprenticeships are no longer free does not reach Elodie
until she is already aboard the ship on the way to the town of Two Castles. With
suddenly no prospects, Elodie has her last copper stolen by one of Two Castles
many stray cats. Distraught and alone, Elodie finds an unlikely "mastress" in the
sexually-ambiguous dragon Meenore (referred to in the text as IT).
Meenore hires Elodie to not only be ITs assistant, but to also spy for IT at the
castle of Count Jonty Um. It appears that someone has stolen Jonty Um's favorite
hound . . . the same someone that is pitting the cats against him and brushing up on
their poisoning skills by practicing on the royal family. Elodie uses her many
talents, along with what she learns about this strange, unique society, to solve the
mystery and save the ogre. And the characters that surround Elodie are so
incredibly vibrant, melodramatic, and larger than life - A Tale of Two Castles plays
out almost as if it's being performed on stage, and Elodie is the star.
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As complex as this plot and its elements may seem, I found that A Tale of Two
Castles had a fairly simple storyline and not-so-much of a mystery, which
disappointed me. I felt like I had visited another world, but only for an afternoon,
and an afternoon is not long enough for the atmosphere to sink deep into your skin.
I felt a little empty too, as if I'd forgotten to buy a souvenir.
I'd definitely put this title firmly on the "young" side of "young adult." Such
strong concepts and well-established world-building, coupled with the gravitas of
Gail Carson Levine's memorable works to date, left me really wanting more.
Reading this book was like taking a big juicy bite of some incredibly delicious
It's very possible that my own expectations of this book were too high - if you are
a fan of Ms. Levine's, I would certainly not stop you from reading. I would merely
caution you to set your bar a little lower before you proceed. And have a young
family member or friend in mind to pass it along to when you're finished.
Title: The Peach Keeper
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
I often equate romance novels to marshmallows and magical realism to marzipan:
that refreshing, palate-cleanser of sweets, if you will. It's just the sort of thing I
look for in a summer beach read (unfortunately, sans beach). Light and sweet -
best with a hint of citrus - that leaves your mouth smiling and your outlook
optimistic. This is why I love Sarah Addison Allen, and why I thoroughly enjoyed
her recent, aptly named novel, The Peach Keeper.
While there are romantic elements at the heart of all Sarah Addison Allen's novels,
the true souls of the stories themselves are women who, for one reason or another,
need to discover something about themselves and embrace it. Of course, no one
can do that in a vacuum, on the page or in real life. And so Sarah Addison Allen's
supporting characters fill the canvas with colors of the rainbow and flavors to
match. For instance, Rachel Edney, who helps our main character Willa Jackson at
her nature-oriented store in Walls of Water, North Carolina, is introduced in one
brilliant line: "She had short, dark hair and, in her capris and port tank, looked like
she was ready to climb a large rock." Rachel's charismatic nature is absolutely true
to this line, as are her interesting theories that how you take your coffee gives
psychological insight into your life.
These little things, the details between the lines that so many authors overlook, are
what make Sarah Addison Allen's writing so very special. The memory of the
crispy brown sugar crust on a pineapple upside-down cake made in a cast iron
frying pan - these are the things that stick with the reader long after the book has
been returned to the shelf. Unlike so many other authors who forget the five senses,
Allen always makes sure her reader connects with smell - the sense that has the
capability of bringing back the most vivid memories. The next time you catch a
whiff of fresh grass, doughnuts, or . . . well, peaches . . . you'll think of The Peach
Keeper and smile. I can't think of a better gift for an author to give.
Allen even brings back a beloved character from one of her other books for a
cameo appearance - though I almost wish she hadn't. I liked the thought of this
being a self-contained, perfect little novel, and that threw the plot for a little detour
if you weren't familiar with the ins and outs of this particular woman's talents. But
I won't deny, it did bring a smile to my face.
In the first chapter, Rachel helps advise Willa on how to respond to the invitation
she's just received to the 75th anniversary celebration of the Women's Society Club
that her grandmother helped co-found back in 1936. The other founder was the
grandmother of Paxton Osgood, the goody-two-shoes town princess who has very
little in common with Willa besides this tenuous connection. Which means that life
has should throw them together at every opportunity, don't you think? So did I.
Great dialogue, great details, and an unlikely friendship make up Sarah Addison
Allen's recipe for the sweet confection that is The Peach Keeper. Just in case I
haven't convinced you to read it yet, I will leave you with my favorite quote (and
words of wisdom): "Happiness is a risk. If you're not a little scared, you're not
doing it right."
Read more by Alethea Kontis