Book Reviews: La Belle Creole, So You Want To Work In Fashion, & Train Your Way To Financial Fitness

Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Hello everyone,

curious to know what I've been reading lately? Read on:

La Belle Creole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris by Alina Garcia-La Puerta
Before stumbling upon this book, I had never heard of Mar a de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, later knows as Comtesse Merlin, but boy, what a fascinating woman she was! Born in an aristocratic Cuban family, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, who adored and spoiled her, while her parents left for Europe. She would meet her father again only years later, when she was 8, and had to wait even longer, and move to Spain, to be reunited with her mother. Life in Europe was far from peaceful and quiet, though. Mercedes lived there during the time of the Napoleonic invasion, became friends with Joseph Bonaparte, the new king imposed on the country by Napoleon, and then married a French military officer in the emperor's army. When Napoleon lost his throne, Mercedes and her family had to hastily leave the country and start again in France. Here, she hosted a popular musical salon where she entertained and charmed with her grace, colourful personality, and beautiful singing voice, the likes of Rossini and Liszt. But her main contribution to history are her books. She penned several memoirs and accounts of life in Cuba, which charmed European audiences with their exotic descriptions but also made them think by discussing serious issues like slavery.
Mercedes was an emotional and generous woman with a somewhat disobedient streak (she once escaped from a convent to go back to her beloved grandma) but who never let any of the many adversities she faced get her down. Instead, she always made the most of what she had. Garcia-La Puerta draws on her embellished memoirs, letters, and contemporary accounts to bring her back to life once again. She tells her story in an informative yet engaging manner that hooks you from the beginning. You won't be able to put it down.
I highly recommend this biography to all fans of Cuban history, the Napoleonic Wars in Spain, travel, and strong women.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

So, You Want to Work in Fashion?: How to Break into the World of Fashion and Design by Patricia Wooster
Thinking of starting a career in the fashion world? Whether you'd like to become a designer, model, photographer, writer, PR, cutter or colourist, this book has you covered. It features an overview of the many different professions needed in the fashion industry, along with tips on how to get started and interviews from young people, including teenagers, who are making their dreams come true. While the book has a positive tone, the many paths it presents to get an education and start a career in fashion are also realistic. There are several roads you can take, depending on what you want to do and what your current situation is, but they all demand a lot of commitment and hard work.
Although the book is quite short, it is very informative and engaging. It features cool quizzes and activities you can do to learn the basic and prepare yourself for a career in the industry. My only disappointment? The model section doesn't mention the dark side of working as a model, such as the risks of developing an eating disorders or sexual abuse, or the tendency of agencies to separate young girls from their families and making them navigate this sometimes dangerous world on their own when they're still too naive and inexperienced. That doesn't mean you shouldn't follow your dream, but it would have been nice if the book had offered tips on how to deal with these issues.
Overall, this is a honest but supportive read that offers many practical tips on how to get started in fashion, even if you're still at school.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Train Your Way to Financial Fitness by Shannon McLay
I loved the concept of this book, but its execution didn't fully satisfy me. McLay acts as a financial trainer who promises to help you achieve a healthy financial life. The book starts with a quiz to determine your level of financial fitness. There are three: fat, skinny, and fit. The latter's your aim, although financially fit people can have issues with money that needs to be addressed too. Once you've figured out in what category you are, you should read only the section dedicated to it. Each section helps you figure out what your problems with money are and offers advice on how to fix them. You don't have to do all the exercises, though. Just like you would do a lot of squats if you wanted a firmer behind, you should only do the financial exercises that remove the obstacles that keep you from being financially fit.
Of course, the worse your starting point, the more advice you need. Therefore, the financially fit section is very short, while the financially fat one is the longest. As your situation starts to get better, there is no need for you to read the other sections as well. The financially fat section, for instance, provides all the tips you'll find in the other two, only slightly tailored to you. While I appreciate the intention, this tailoring is so minimal to be almost useless. To me, it just makes the book unnecessarily repetitive. Of course, I've read it all so that I could review it. You would only read the section that applies to your financial personality, avoiding repetition. Even so, I'd rather the author had discussed the problems affecting each type more in-depth and then advised you to read the next section as your financial fitness level improved.
Each section is also very short. I read the book in 3 hours or so, so if you were to read only your section, it'd take a lot less time! Don't let this fool you though. This book may be a quick read, but doing the exercises and improving your financial fitness level takes a lot of time and dedication. Yet, to me the book felt rushed. Others will argue that it is simply straight-to-the-point. And it is. If you want a book that tells you clearly and briefly what you need to do, and in a emphatic and non-judgemental way too, then you'll love this book. As for me, I felt that a lot of the tips were simply common sense that I was already implementing, so I didn't find much value in this book.
Despite its faults, Train Your Way to Financial Fitness is a nice introduction to the topics of money management and budgeting that I would recommend to those who are seriously struggling with their finances and are looking for a clear and concise guide to help them get back on track.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 3/5

What have you been reading lately? And will pick up any of these books?

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

My Top 5 Literary Crushes

Monday, 20 October 2014
If, like me, you're an avid reader, you've fallen in love with your fair share of literary heroes. Some of these crushes are enduring, while others disappoint us as we grow older and make us go, "woah, I can't believe I ever was into you!". I think I'll probably feel like that about a couple of men in this list but for now, here are my top 5 current literary crushes:

1. Mr Darcy (Pride And Prejudice)

Which girl doesn't have a crush on Mr Darcy? He may be a bit of a snob (ok, he was insufferably snobblish and rude at first), but that doesn't prevent him from ignoring both his aunt's wishes and her family's faults and marrying Elizabeth. And he has a heart of gold. His loyalty to his friends and family is unflinching and admirable. He's always willing to help those he loves, and doesn't even want praise or recognition for it. The way he protected Elizabeth's family from ruin without asking for anything in return, not even telling her what he'd done, is something very few would do and made me fall in love with him even more. Oh, and being rich and handsome doesn't hurt, either.

2. Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre)

He's not the nicest chap. He's quite cynical and does attempt to commit bigamy. But at least he didn't lock up his wife in an asylum. He cared for her the best he could given her condition, and only tries to marry again when he truly falls in love with another woman. A woman that's neither beautiful nor rich, but is strong, determined, and true to herself, unwilling to compromise her values, and who challenges him. Only strong men fall in love with women like that. Anyway, he's punished for his sin. The fire ravaged his body, but cleansed his heart. He learned to value kindness and compassion. And remains faithful to Jane throughout it at all.

3. Eric Northman (The Southern Vampire Mysteries)

The Sookie Stackhouse books are more raunchy and violent than I usually read, but they got me hooked. Especially Eric, magnificently brought to life in the TV series by Alexander SkarsgÄrd. A 1000 years old vampire, Eric is cold, arrogant, cunning, and ruthless yet, for the few people/vampires he loves, he is willing to do absolutely everything. Rather than evil, he has his own code of honour and doesn't break it for any reason. He also has a zest for life and a great sense of humour. Of course, if he really existed and I were to meet him, I'd run in the opposite direction as fast as my legs could carry me!

4. Noah Calhoun (The Notebook)

No one does romance quite like Noah Calhoun. A hard worker, he's been in love with the same woman for all his life and raised a family with her. Yet, despite his busy schedule and life adversities, he always found the time to surprise his wife, to write poetry, to take her on a romantic trip to a lagoon, or just to dance with her in the kitchen. And when she becomes ill with Alzheimer's disease and starts to forget everything, he stands by her side, telling her their story over and over and over again. Awww.

5. Mr. George Knightley (Emma)

Mr Knightly is the practical friend you can always count on. He's cute, honourable, always willing to help others or tell them the truth, even when they don't want to hear it. In his gentle, quiet manner, he encourages Emma to be the best person she can be. And that's what true love is all about.

What are your literary crushes?

Movie Review: Moulin Rouge (1952)

Friday, 17 October 2014

Baz Luhrmann's dazzling musical extravaganza, Moulin Rouge, is one of my all-time favourite movies. But I recently discovered another film of the same name, shot ion 1952, that brings the Moulin Rouge to life in a much more realistic way. This Moulin Rouge tells the story of Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, the scion of an ancient aristocratic family who, crippled at a young age, turns his back on his family and the shallow and disappearing world they inhabit, to make it as a street artist in Paris.

Convinced he will never find love because  he's a cripple, Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) finds solace in his art, drinking, and the company of the Moulin Rouge crew who, being outcasts themselves, treat him like one of their own. One day, he meets Marie (Cloette Marchand), a streetwalker he falls in love with. But Marie isn't capable of loving anyone and just ends up breaking the artist's heart. This just makes Henri even more cynical and bitter, to the point that he sabotages every future chance at romantic happiness. Even when the right woman comes along, he's unable, or unwilling, to let her into his heart, and pushes her away instead. Only in his art, he never loses faith, but even that won't be enough to save him in the end.

Jose Ferrer's portrayal is both witty and haughty. He perfectly captures and conveys Toulouse-Lautrec's need to be loved and appreciated for who he really is, but at the same time his cynicism and bitterness give him an air of remoteness and indifference that never allows the viewer to feel much sympathy for him. Henri both amused and annoyed me, but never moved me. I felt a lot more sorry for Marie, the girl who broke his heart, because, despite all her faults, she was more real.

The movie portrays both the glitz and glamour and the dark side and squallor of Bohemian Paris, as well as both the triumphs and failures of Toulouse-Lautrec's life and career. And yet, like most Hollywood movies of the time (and of today, as some can argue), it is highly sanitized. Henri visited brothels quite frequently and caught syphilis which (together with his heavy drinking) caused his death. Yet, there’s no sign of that in the movie. Even his relationship with streetwalker Marie is romanticized, putting the emphasis on Henri's feelings for her rather than on her profession.

The movie is a feast for the eyes. It won two Academy Awards, one for Best Art Direction – Set Direction (Color) and Best Costume Design (Color). It's not surprising as bright colours are a big part of the movie. Together with the extravagant costumes, beautiful music, and colourful characters, it splendidly brings to life the excitement and joie de vivre of Paris and the Moulin Rouge, and of a long ago vanished era. It drags on a bit, but overall, it still makes for a compelling watch.

Why Write A Novel About The Man Who Killed Anne Boleyn?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Many novels have been written about Anne Boleyn, but what of the executioner who took her life? C.C. Humphreys made him the protagonist of his novel, The French Executioner. Here, he explains why:


Where do the ideas for novels come from?

I remember exactly what I was doing when the idea for The French Executioner hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was working out.

I was living in Vancouver at the time. Making my living as an actor. I’d written a couple of plays. But my dream from childhood had always been to write historical fiction.

I wasn’t thinking of any of that, on that day in a gym in 1993. I was thinking about shoulder presses. Checking my form in the mirror.

This is what happened. (It also shows you the rather strange associations in my brain!)

I lift the weight bar.
Me, in my head. ‘God, I’ve got a long neck.’
Lower bar.
‘If I was ever executed,’ - Raise bar - ‘it would be a really easy shot for the ax.’
Lower bar.
‘Or the sword. Because, of course, Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword.’
Raise bar. Stop half way.
‘Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand.’

Flash! Boom! Put down bar before I drop it. It came together in my head, as one thing: the executioner, brought from France to do the deed, (I remembered that from school). Not just taking her head. Taking her hand as well, that infamous hand – and then the question all writers have to ask: what happened next?

I scurried to the library. Took out books. I knew it had to be a novel. I did some research, sketched a few ideas. But the problem was, I wasn’t a novelist. A play had seemed like a hill. A novel – well, it was a mountain, and I wasn’t ready to climb it. So I dreamed a while, then quietly put all my research, sketches, notes away.

But I never stopped thinking about it. The story kept coming and whenever I was in a second hand bookstore I’d study the history shelves and think: if ever I write that novel – which I probably never will – I’ll want… a battle at sea between slave galleys. So I’d buy a book on that subject, read it. Buy another, read it.

November 1999. Six years after being struck by lightning. I’m living back in England and I find a book on sixteenth century mercenaries - and I knew the novel I was never going to write would have mercenaries. Twenty pages in, I turn to my wife and say: “You know, I think I’m going to write that book.” And she replies, “It’s about bloody time.”

I wrote. The story, all that research, had stewed in my head for so long, it just poured out. Ten months and I was done. I wondered if it was any good. I sent it to an agent. She took me on and had it sold three months later.

I was a novelist after all.


The most notorious executioner of his time, Jean Rombaud is brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead the condemned Queen of England, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution, Rombaud is coaxed into a promise by the ill-fated queen to bury her six-fingered hand at a sacred crossroads.

Yet in a religious war-torn Europe, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is such a powerful relic that many will kill for it...And so from a battle between slave galleys, to a black mass in a dungeon, to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Rombaud must travel to honor his vow.

The French Executioner can be purchased at Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Barnes & Noble.

The Lecture By William Hogarth

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

In 1736, Hogarth created a satirical print in which he ridiculed the university of Oxford. Its students were accused to be ignorant and lazy, more interested in having fun that studying. Doesn't sound much different from today, does it?

Here's how John Trusler, in his The Works of William Hogarth, describes this satirical print:

"No wonder that science, and learning profound,
In Oxford and Cambridge so greatly abound,
When so many take thither a little each day,
And we see very few who bring any away."

The scene is laid at Oxford, and the person reading, universally admitted to be a Mr. Fisher, of Jesus College, registrat of the university, with whose consent this portrait was taken, and who lived until the 18th of March, 1761. [...] His eye is bent on vacancy: it is evidently directed to the moon-faced idiot that crowns the pyramid, at whose round head, contrasted by a cornered cap, he with difficulty suppresses a laugh. Three fellows on the right hand of this fat, contented "first-born transmitter of a foolish face," have most degraded characters, and are much fitter for the stable than the college.

A figure in the left-hand corner has shut his eyes to think; and having, in his attempt to separate a syllogism, placed the forefinger of his right hand upon his forehead, has fallen asleep. The professor, a little above the book, endeavours by a projection of his under lip to assume importance; such characters are not uncommon: they are more solicitous to look wise, than to be so.

Thomas Clerk adds:

We are here presented with a motley assemblage of graduates and under-graduates of one of the universities, profoundly attending to a philosophical lecture, the subject of which is a vacuum, (or space unoccupied by matter). Dulness and stupidity seem to characterize the drowsy audience. The portrait of the person reading the lecture is said to be that of the late Mr. Fisher, of Jesus College, Oxford, of which university he was registrar. He sat to the artist for this purpose.

Book Reviews: Better Than Perfect, The New Puberty, & A Winner's Guide To Negotiating

Tuesday, 14 October 2014
Hello everyone,

are you a perfectionist? Or do you have trouble negotiating? Or is your daughter going through early puberty? If you've answered yes to one of these questions, these books will help you:

Better than Perfect: Free Yourself from Impossible Standards So You Can Live a Happier, Healthier Life by Elizabeth Lombardo
Hello, my name is Gio and I am a perfectionist. I set unachievable goals for myself and then beat myself up when I don't achieve them. I think in all or nothing terms. I have strict rules about how I and other people should behave and judge me and them harshly when we break them. Needless to say, these behaviours have seriously, and negatively, impacted any aspect of my life, from work to relationships. It's only in the past year that I've finally realised how destructive perfectionism can be and have started taking step to overcome it. One of these steps was picking up Better Than Perfect by Dr Elizabeth Lombardo.
A perfectionist herself, Dr Lombardo knows well how perfectionism prevents not only positivity and happiness, but also our productivity. After explaining what perfectionism is, she shares 7 techniques to help you silence your inner critic and create a more fulfilling, happier life. Her exercises and suggestions for behavioural changes are practical and helpful. They include choosing passion rather than fear (perfectionists are usually motivated by fear of failure rather than passion for whatever it is they are doing) and stopping comparing yourself to others in an attempt to feel better about yourself. It just has the opposite effect. Although the tips are simple, putting them in practice is not easy, especially for perfectionists, who feel frustrated if they can't do something perfectly well on their very first try. Just stick with it, or recruit a friend to hold you accountable if you must. The tips work, they just take time.
The book is a fast, easy, and accessible read. Lombardo shares many stories from her personal life as well as case studies of her clients, highlighting how much their lives changed for the better when they put these techniques into practice. This allows readers to better relate to Lombardo and her message, and encourages them to try her advice and stick with it.
Unfortunately, perfectionists don't really think they need any help, so I doubt many of them will pick up this book. I highly encourage you to do so, though, even if you only have some perfectionist tendencies. And if you know a perfectionist, pick up a copy of this book as a Christmas gift for them. If they read it and put its tips in practice, they'll improve their lives... and yours too.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls by Louise Greenspan, Julianna Deardorff
There have always been girls who matured earlier, but this phenomenon has become more and more common in recent years. Puberty, and the many changes it brings with it, are a challenging time for every girl, but that's even more true when the process starts when you're 8 years old or younger. Without proper support, these girls can become at risk depression, eating disorders, dangerous sexual behaviours, pregnancy, and even cancer.
How can parents, doctors, and teachers help girls who are maturing too soon? The first step is to understand what causes this process to start sooner, so you can avoid potential triggers. And they're not just the usual culprits. The toxins in our environment and the unhealthy food most of us eat can definitely contribute to early puberty onset, but so can psychological factors, such as a distressing and stressful situations at home, lack of a father figure, and sexual abuse. Then, the authors explain what you can do to prevent early puberty or, if your daughter, is experiencing it, how to support her during this critical stage of her life. I especially love the chapter about "the talk". After reassuring parents that developing earlier than usual doesn't necessarily mean that your young girls will have sexual desires just yet, it stresses the importance of not just having one big talk with her when she starts puberty (or right before it), but to have lots of smaller conversations about sexuality, starting at a young age (of course, you should only reveal what's age appropriate). There is also a chapter about how you can figure out whether your daughter is really starting puberty or if any changes in her body may be due to other factors.
The book is written by two experts for the laymen (and laywomen). It's written in a clear and straightforward style that both reassures and informs you, setting the record straight on early puberty and placating any fear you may have about it. However, I didn't find all their sources reliable. In particular, the authors encourage you to follow the recommendations of the Environmental Working Group. While their aim (protecting the population from harmful chemicals) is laudable, their scary reports about the latest dangerous ingredients are almost always refuted by serious scientists. The studies the EWG uses to determine the safety (or lack of it) of ingredients are usually flawed or misinterpreted. For instance, they use studies showing that a substance gives cancer to rats when ingested in huge doses to "prove" that it is dangerous even when applied topically on human skin in a minuscule amount. It just doesn't work that way. While I understand that if your daughter is maturing too soon, you may want to avoid even potential hazards, no matter how insignificant the risk really is, following the recommendations of the EWG may make you become too paranoid and waste money on products that are more expensive but not safer.
Despite its recommendation of one unreliable source, I found the rest of the book informative, insightful and accurate. If you have a daughter, I highly recommend you pick up a copy.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 3.5/5

A Winner's Guide to Negotiating: How Conversation Gets Deals Done by Molly Fletcher
Think you don't need to learn how to negotiate because you're not an agent, a businessman, or a lawyer? Think again. We all negotiate in our daily life, both at work and at home, with our parents, children, colleagues, and even friends. And yet, we don't do it enough. Molly Fletcher, a successful sport agent, routinely uses the negotiating skills she learnt on her job to negotiate better deals when purchasing something from her family or to get her favourite dish on a plane flight. And, by following her tips, you can do the same.
By sharing her many experiences in negotiating deals for sport stars and family members, Fletcher explains what techniques are effective at getting exactly what you want. Her system is easy and, in the book, she breaks it down into workable segments. They include how to ask with confidence, and how to embrace the pause, that awkward moment in the conversation where silence falls and we go into panic mode, thinking all our efforts have been in vain. Learning how to use it effectively has the opposite effect and helps you close the deal in a satisfactory manner. But not all negations are successful. Fletcher has, like everyone else, made some mistakes in her career. She is very candid and open about them. But rather than beat herself up for her failures, she has learned from them and used that feedback to further improve her skills.
Understanding the psychology behind decision-making is critical too. Every human being is different, and negotiating with every one of them becomes easier when you discover their story, what they want, and why. There is also a chapter about the role gender play in negotiation, and why women especially are finding this activity particularly hard.
Written in an easy, accessible style, this informative and entertaining book is a must read for everyone who wants to become a better negotiator.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

What do you think of these books?

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Marie Antoinette's A Doll

Monday, 13 October 2014

AmyGaines, $6.00

Darvahlous, $4.00

Marie Antoinette Barbie® Doll, no longer available

Which of these dolls is your favourite? I love the knitted one, it's so adorable!

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