Review: This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavor Book Cover This Dark Endeavor
Kenneth Oppel

The purest intentions can stir up the darkest obsessions.

In this prequel to Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, Frankenstein, 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins a dark journey that will change his life forever. Victor’s twin, Konrad, has fallen ill, and no doctor is able to cure him. Unwilling to give up on his brother, Victor enlists his beautiful cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry on a treacherous search for the ingredients to create the forbidden Elixir of Life. Impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn.

Victor knows he must not fail. But his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science, and love—and how much he is willing to sacrifice.

Review:

Prior to reading This Dark Endeavor, my only knowledge of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came from watching Frankenweenie and Young Frankenstein. I knew the bare minimum of the plot – a mad “scientist” creates a monster out of spare body parts and uses electricity to bring said monster to life with disastrous results – but that was it. I didn’t really have a desire to learn any more, either, and I never had any real interest in reading Shelley’s iconic work for myself.

All of that changed after I read This Dark Endeavor, a prequel to Frankenstein that shows Viktor Frankenstein taking the first steps on his path to knowledge and power. Even I, knowing as little as I did about the original story, was captivated by Kenneth Oppel’s teenage Frankenstein. Young Viktor is an incendiary combination of inquisitiveness, pride, jealousy, and brilliance, and it was fascinating to see the first sparks of wonder and desperation that would eventually set his world aflame.

Viktor Frankenstein is a memorable character if ever there was one. He’s dramatic, theatrical, and mercurial, with an excitable imagination and a hunger for adventure and renown. He loves his family and friends with all his heart, but darkness and jealously lurk beneath his surface. He simultaneously adores and envies his twin brother Konrad, who is Viktor’s dearest friend as well as his greatest rival.

When Konrad falls ill, Viktor determines to do whatever it takes to keep his brother alive, no matter the cost. Aided by his childhood companions Elizabeth and Henry, Viktor embarks on a dark quest for a cure, a quest that ignites Viktor’s curiosity and lays the groundwork for the events of Shelley’s novel.

This Dark Endeavor has a deliciously gothic feel that made me shiver and grin while reading it. Viktor and his accomplices discover secret passageways, explore hidden libraries housing forbidden tomes, and creep through dank cellars. There are portentous dreams, sleepwalking maidens, and beakers full of organs and fluids. The pages burst with alchemy, magic, and elixirs whose ingredients must be gathered in darkness. It’s not a frightening book, but it is an atmospheric one, and I enjoyed this very much.

Something else that I loved, though it may seem silly, was the precise, specific language in the book. How often does one get to read about characters who use words like “scoundrel,” “apparatus,” “ghoulish,” and “phantasmagorical?” Rather than coming across as tedious and contrived, Oppel’s diction feels authentic and right, and it pleased me greatly.

I may not have had any desire to read Frankenstein previously, but after finishing This Dark Endeavor the first thing I did was high-tail it to Google to search for anything about Frankenstein that I could get my hands on. I applaud Oppel for interesting me in Shelley’s classic at last and can’t wait to find out what I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Review: Jane by April Lindner

Jane Book Cover Jane
April Lindner

Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance.

But there's a mystery at Thornfield, and Jane's much-envied relationship with Nico is soon tested by an agonizing secret from his past. Torn between her feelings for Nico and his fateful secret, Jane must decide: Does being true to herself mean giving up on true love?

An irresistible romance interwoven with a darkly engrossing mystery, this contemporary retelling of the beloved classic Jane Eyre promises to enchant a new generation of readers.

Review:

This is probably going to send my high school English teachers into convulsions, but I actually liked April Lindner’s Jane more than Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

If you’re not familiar with the story of Jane Eyre, it’s about a young woman – Jane, of course – who comes to work as a governess to the child of a wealthy man, Mr. Rochester. Over time Jane falls in love with Rochester, but because she’s plain, quiet, and modest she holds no hope that he’ll ever return her affections. Jane’s spirit and goodness do eventually captivate Rochester, but just as the two reach the brink of happiness a dark secret is revealed that puts their relationship at risk.

I read Jane Eyre in high school and again for one of my literature classes in college, and I liked it both times. It wasn’t until I read Jane, though, that I felt like I truly connected with the story. Lindner is faithful to Brontë’s masterpiece but freshens it up, making the story more interesting and polishing Brontë’s characters until they shine. All the parts that I found unlikely or boring in the original are changed or gone completely in this retelling, like the tedious opening scene in the Red Room, Jane’s time at school with Helen Burnley, etc. What remains is the heart of the novel: an unlikely romance between a dowdy young girl and her wealthy employer, a love story about being true to yourself no matter what.

Here are just a few of the things I loved about this book:

Mr. Rochester is a rock star. Literally. In Lindner’s adaptation, Mr. Rochester is replaced by Nico Rathburn, a famous musician with a history of drug abuse, trashed hotel rooms, and a string of volatile relationships. Although some die-hard Brontë fans might faint dead away at the thought of a rock star Mr. Rochester, I assure you it works surprisingly well. For one thing, it provides the necessary context for fitting Jane Eyre into the modern world. Nico’s fame explains why he’s so wealthy and sought after, as well as why it’s unexpected for him to be seen with unremarkable, unworldly Jane. The rock star lifestyle also adds all sorts of interesting complications, like paparazzi, groupies, world tours, band mates, and gossiping maids who want to sleep with their boss. And let’s be real – what book doesn’t get more exciting with the addition of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll?

Jane is the epitome of quiet strength. At the beginning of the book, Jane seems like a bit of a weirdo. She rarely smiles, doesn’t approve of swearing, and is completely out of touch with popular culture. She’s never had a boyfriend, is serious and reserved to the point of being somber, and would rather spend her free time listening to classical music than socializing. If you happened to be seated next to her at a dinner party, never having met her, you’d probably be bored to tears within the first five minutes.

And yet…once you get to know her, you realize there’s much more to Jane than meets the eye. She may be odd and quiet and subdued, but her plain exterior hides a strong, passionate spirit. Anything Jane feels, she feels deeply, and she wants to be desired and loved just like anyone else. Jane may not be outgoing and flashy, but Lindner imbues her with a quiet courage and resolve that I really admire and respect.

There’s a strong message about being true to yourself. As already mentioned, Jane is nothing to look at. I don’t mean she just thinks she’s ugly but in reality is just unconventionally beautiful; no, Jane is legitimately not attractive. Many girls would try to change this, spending a ton of money, time, and effort on hair care regimens and beauty products; not Jane. There’s one scene where two of Nico’s band mates’ girlfriends take Jane under their wing and give her a makeover. Jane is amazed at how gorgeous she looks, yet she washes the makeup off before Nico ever sees her. She knows in her heart that the glamorous girl in the mirror isn’t her, and she won’t compromise herself, even if it means missing a chance to impress Nico.

Does it hurt Jane’s feelings when people tease her because she’s plain? Absolutely. Does she wish she were beautiful? Hell, yeah. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to change who she is. This isn’t a novel about a geeky girl who gets a makeover and then gets the guy. It’s a novel about a girl who gets the guy because she DOESN’T get the makeover. Jane’s refusal to be anyone but her herself – plain face and all – is a huge part of what makes her stand out and shine.

Jane and Nico actually build a real relationship. I had no complaints about the romance in Jane Eyre, but it wasn’t until Jane that I really saw why Jane and Rochester, or in this case Jane and Nico, fall for one another. In Brontë’s novel, Jane and Rochester don’t really do much together besides talk and occasionally take a stroll. In Jane, Nico and Jane actually spend time hanging out and establishing a rapport. They go for walks, paint, spend time with Nico’s daughter, and go out for seafood. Nico teaches Jane to swim. They tease one another and bring out each other’s best qualities. For example, Jane has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that only comes out when Nico’s around:

“I’m not even sure I have a bathing suit,” I told him[…].

“What?” He was frowning at me now. “No bathing suit? Are you sure you’re not a nun?”

“Some nuns swim,” I said.

I’m grateful to April Lindner for taking a classic that I liked and retelling it in a way that made me appreciate it even more. It won’t be for all Jane Eyre fans, but it definitely worked for me, and I know I’ll be reading Lindner’s other retelling, a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Review: The Trouble With Flirting by Claire LaZebnik

The Trouble with Flirting Book Cover The Trouble with Flirting
Claire LaZebnik

Franny's supposed to be working this summer, not flirting. But you can't blame her when guys like Alex and Harry are around. . . .

Franny Pearson never dreamed she'd be attending the prestigious Mansfield Summer Theater Program. And she's not, exactly. She's working for her aunt, the resident costume designer. But sewing her fingers to the bone does give her an opportunity to spend time with her crush, Alex Braverman. If only he were as taken with the girl hemming his trousers as he is with his new leading lady.

When Harry Cartwright, a notorious flirt, shows more than a friendly interest in Franny, she figures it can't hurt to have a little fun. But as their breezy romance grows more complicated, can Franny keep pretending that Harry is just a carefree fling? And why is Alex suddenly giving her those deep, meaningful looks? In this charming tale of mixed messages and romantic near-misses, one thing is clear: Flirting might be more trouble than Franny ever expected.

Review: 

It’s no surprise that I enjoyed The Trouble With Flirting – after all, it’s a retelling of Mansfield Park, my favorite Jane Austen novel. What did come as a shock was just how MUCH I enjoyed it. I love, love, LOVE this book, and I want you to love it too. 

Here are the things you need to know about The Trouble With Flirting:

It’s set at a summer theater camp for high school students. Franny Pearson, our protagonist, is suckered into spending her summer with her stodgy aunt working in Mansfield College’s costume department. As you might imagine, a theater program full of aspiring teen actors has no shortage of colorful characters. The zany kids and the melodrama that they bring are part of what makes this book so much fun; LaZebnik’s portrayal of the theater world is so spot-on that it’s almost comical. There’s the drama of people not getting their coveted roles, or wanting to have a say in their costume design, or being upset that their crush is running lines with their rival. It brought back memories of my own theater days and kept me smiling throughout.

Franny is an utter delight. Hilarious, smart, and entertaining as hell, I couldn’t have asked for a better heroine than Franny Pearson. She’s one of those characters who’s always up for meeting new people and trying new things, which allows her to be drawn into interesting scenarios and relationships. She’s easygoing and fun, and even when she isn’t thrilled about a situation she takes it in stride and tries to make the best of it. She approaches all things with humor and directness and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She’s also flawed, like all great characters, which adds to her believability.

There are great romantic twists and turns. I was positively giddy over the romance in this book. There’s a love triangle with two guys who are each appealing and multi-dimensional; relationships peppered with humor, banter, and actual conversations; and dates that are fun, sweet, and sexy. Best of all, the relationships aren’t predictable. The title, cover, and synopsis may make The Trouble With Flirting sound like light-hearted fluff, but there’s more to this book than summer flings and casual romance. LaZebnik is able to flout clichés and take the plot and characters down unexpected paths, making the romance that much more rewarding.

It’s gut-bustingly funny. Franny has a wicked sense of humor, as does Harry, and in scenes where they play off each other LaZebnik had me laughing so hard I was close to tears. I was so charmed by their exchanges that I couldn’t stop smiling. The little quips, observations, and tongue-in-cheek comments kept me laughing almost constantly; I’m talking giggles, snickers, and even outright guffaws. Here are just a couple of quotes to highlight this point:

“I want to ask the guy up front if he has any antique books about the care and feeding of dogs. My mother collects them.”

“Really?” Isabella says. “My mother collects diamond bracelets.”

“My mother collects headache medications,” I say.

And:

“I’m fairly hopeful you’ll survive this injury, Franny.”

“Unless gangrene sets in.”

“Gangrene always sets in,” he says darkly.

“What are you talking about?” asks Julia as they all gather around us again. “No one gets gangrene anymore.”

“They do in old books. If Franny were a Hemingway heroine or something, gangrene would set in and she’d lose her leg. Or her life.”

“But I’d be very attractive on my deathbed,” I add.

LaZebnik is a master of writing teenage relationships. She excels at capturing the camaraderie of a bunch of theater kids thrown together for the summer. Every scene involving Franny and her friends feels organic and right, whether they’re taking a trip to the beach, eating lunch, or simply hanging out in the student lounge. It’s the little details that make the relationships ring true – the playful nudges, the bickering and teasing, the way Franny’s friends crowd together and sprawl on top of each other on the common room couch.

It’s impossible not to have a great time reading The Trouble With Flirting. I was charmed, delighted, and surprised by this Mansfield Park retelling, and it will be a while before I stop grinning whenever I think about it.

Review: Second Star by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Second Star Book Cover Second Star
Alyssa B. Sheinmel

A twisty story about love, loss, and lies, this contemporary oceanside adventure is tinged with a touch of dark magic as it follows seventeen-year-old Wendy Darling on a search for her missing surfer brothers. Wendy’s journey leads her to a mysterious hidden cove inhabited by a tribe of young renegade surfers, most of them runaways like her brothers. Wendy is instantly drawn to the cove’s charismatic leader, Pete, but her search also points her toward Pete's nemesis, the drug-dealing Jas. Enigmatic, dangerous, and handsome, Jas pulls Wendy in even as she's falling hard for Pete. A radical reinvention of a classic, Second Star is an irresistible summer romance about two young men who have yet to grow up--and the troubled beauty trapped between them.

Review:

If Second Star weren’t a retelling of Peter Pan, my rating of it would be entirely different. There are some pretty big detractors – frustrating romance, a second half that feels entirely off the rails – that would result in a low rating if this were your average book. Luckily for Sheinmel, her creative reimagining of Peter Pan enchanted me enough to appease the part of me that was irritated by the questionable parts of this story.

Wendy Darling is on a mission to find her brothers, 16-year-old surfers who ran away from home to chase the waves. Nine months later, they still haven’t returned, and the police and Wendy’s parents have given up the search, convinced that the boys have perished in a surfing accident. Wendy isn’t so sure, and as soon as she graduates she takes off in pursuit of her brothers, determined to find them and bring them home.

Wendy’s hunt leads her to Kensington Beach, where she meets a scruffy band of surfers – our Lost Boys in this retelling – who live in an abandoned mansion and spend their days on the water. Wendy finds herself enticed by the boys’ carefree lifestyle, drawn into their little world of salt and sun and sand. She’s especially beguiled by the group’s leader, Pete, who teaches her to surf and whose kisses make her feel like someone new, someone whose family and world haven’t fallen apart.

As delighted as I was by the Lost Boys, I was even more impressed by Sheinmel’s clever reimagining of Captain Hook. The role of the villain is played by Jas, a drug dealer who rules the opposite side of Pete’s beach. (What happens to people who take drugs? They get hooked. Get it? Huh? Like I said, clever!!) Wendy’s investigation reveals that Jas may have a hand in her brothers’ disappearance, and when she goes to confront him she soon realizes he’s an enticing as he is dangerous.

Jas is both a positive and a negative of this book for me. On the plus side, he has this dark pull that really appealed to me. He’s smooth and sexy and magnetic, and even though he’s a “bad guy” he’s charming and educated and polite, which adds great complexity.

The downside is that all this sex appeal makes Wendy fall for him, which I didn’t think was believable. It’s one thing to be attracted to him – I certainly was – and to accept his help in finding her brothers. It’s another thing entirely to trust him and fall in love with him. He is a drug dealer, Wendy! He ruins people’s lives and is fully aware of this fact! The stuff he does is unconscionable, and he shows no signs of changing his behavior! Yet you’re into him? Please.

Something else that detracted from the book’s appeal is the question of whether Wendy’s liaisons with Pete, Jas, and the like are real or a fantasy. I was so invested in the world of Kensington that I resented being distracted with questions like, “Is this a hallucination? Does anyone else remember ever seeing Pete? Or Jas?” It seemed out of nowhere and was the number one reason I didn’t award Second Star a higher rating.

Despite these qualms, I still really liked the parallels to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories. I enjoyed seeing how Sheinmel wove elements from the book into her adaptation. A lot of the references were subtle, such as Jas stopping at a bar called The Jolly Roger, a description comparing Pete’s laugh to the crow of a bird, and Pete encouraging Wendy to think of something happy to help distract her while she’s trying to surf (which she says makes her feel like she’s flying). It’s a very smart and unique retelling.

YA Wednesdays Book Blitz: Kissing Frogs by Alisha Sevigny

Book blitz banner for Kissing Frogs by April Sevigny

Welcome to this week’s Swoon Romance YA Wednesday! This week features Kissing Frogs by April Sevigny. Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

About Kissing Frogs

Book cover for Kissing Frogs by Alisha Sevigny

Popular party girl and high school senior Jessica Scott has a secret: she used to be a nerd — a big one; a goody two-shoes, grade-skipping, all-state spelling bee champ. But she lost the braces, put on some contacts, and applied all her academic genius to studying and imitating the social elite. Now she rules the school from the upper echelon of the high school realm. With her cool new friends and hottest-guy-in-school boyfriend, life’s a beach — and that’s where she’s headed for Spring Break. That is, until her teacher breaks the bad news that she’s failing Biology — and her only chance to make up the grade is to throw away the culminating trip of her hard-earned popularity and join the Conservation Club in Panama to save the Golden Frog.

Unable to let go of her faded college dreams, Jess finds herself in a foreign country with a new social crew, and one handsome face that stands out as a blast from the past, threatening to ruin her queen bee reputation. Travis Henley may have grown up, but he still likes to play childish games and as payment for retrieving Jess’ lost ring from the bottom of a jungle pool, he wants three dates. While Jess does battle with spiders, snakes, wildfires and smart mean girls, she desperately tries to hang on to the last vestiges of her popular existence like the Golden Frog from its webbed toe. But as she starts to care about something more than tanning and texting – a species on the verge of disappearing forever – she may realize the worth of her inner nerd, and the one frog in particular that could be her prince in disguise.

Set in the lush and tropical El Valle de Anton, this modern fairytale re-imagining of “The Frog Prince” is toe-curling contemporary romance with an environmentalist heartbeat, in the tradition of Stephanie Perkins.

Review

Four-star rating
A free copy of this book was provided by Month9Books and Swoon Romance in exchange for an honest review.

Kissing Frogs is like a pina colada on a hot summer day – light, fun, and refreshing. It’s the story of Jess Scott, a nerd-turned-member-of-the-high-school-elite who finds herself sentenced to a Spring Break field trip saving frogs in a foreign country. While all of her friends are getting drunk and tan on a beach in Florida, Jess is spending her time cleaning out aquariums, taking nature walks, and writing a research paper in Panama.

If you’re thinking that a trip to sunny Panama doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend a school break, you’re right. In between learning about the endangered species the Conservation Club has been sent to help, Jess and the rest of the kids get to hit the beach, go horseback riding, shop at local markets, and more. It’s actually a pretty cool “punishment,” and it’s not long before Jess begins to realize that the opportunity is one she should take advantage of.

This is one of the great things about Kissing Frogs – the protagonist is smart enough to know a good thing when she sees it. Although she’s upset about missing out on a vacation with her friends, is wary of touching frogs, and initially doesn’t recognize the importance of conversation, Jess tries to make the best of her situation. She’s a smart girl and an overall good person. It’s a nice change from the books where popular characters are either stuck-up, ditzy, or bitchy.

There are a few ways in which Jess is a little cliché – she’s got dyed platinum blond hair, lets her popular boyfriend walk all over her, and is addicted to her phone and makeup – but these things are pretty minor compared to her good qualities. Jess has a great sense of humor, makes an effort to make friends on her trip, and embraces the chance to learn new things.

It’s great watching Jess’ transformation throughout the book. As I already stated, she isn’t a bad person at the beginning of the novel, just a person with a limited view. The trip broadens her awareness of the world and wakes her up to a host of environmental issues. It was so pleasing to see her ditch her apathy and begin to take an active role in making the world a better place.

The conservation theme really differentiates Kissing Frogs from all the other cute, bubbly romances out there. I have to give Alisha Sevigny credit for raising awareness about the plight of endangered species in general and Panama’s Golden Frog in particular. She made me care about the animals and want to make a difference without ever making me feel pressured or guilty.

So far I haven’t mentioned much about the romance in this book. As the synopsis mentions, the love story is loosely based on the fairy tale The Frog Prince, and it’s everything I could have hoped for: sweet, natural, and lighthearted, with little to no drama. Some parts are fairly predictable – for example, there are a couple of occasions when Jess trips and literally falls into Travis’s arms – but the book is so adorable and fun that the predictable parts don’t really matter.

If you’re already planning your summer vacation and are looking for a book to take along to the beach, you can’t go wrong with Kissing Frogs. You’ll smile, you’ll laugh, and you’ll certainly want to save some endangered species.

Add to Goodreads Button Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Alisha Sevigny

Author photo for April SevignyAlisha Sevigny holds a degree in Sociology and Professional Writing from the University of Victoria, is a film school graduate, former literary agent and current Social Media and Communications Director for an award-winning English school. A shameless romantic, Alisha and her husband have travelled the world together. On a recent trip to Panama with their new daughter, Alisha fell in love with the country, culture, and their national emblem, the Golden Frog. She was inspired to write her first Young Adult novel, Kissing Frogs. Born and raised in Kitimat, British Columbia, Alisha has always had a strong connection to the environment and conservationist spirit. She now lives in Toronto with her family.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Giveaway

Swoon Romance is sponsoring a great giveaway: one reader will win two previously published Swoon Romance e-books of their choice! To enter the giveaway, fill out the Rafflecopter below. The contest is open internationally. A winner will be selected on April 8, 2015.

a Rafflecopter giveaway