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Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
May 2011

Title: A Tale of Two Castles
Author: Gail Carson Levine
EAN: 9780061229657

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 foam.

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
EAN: 9780553807226

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

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