Saturday, December 31, 2011

War Horse

War Horse was one of my most anticipated films of the holiday season. Much like the noble animal from which the film takes its name, this movie has a flawless and impressive pedigree -- based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, directed by Steven Spielberg, packed with well known British acting talent, this story of a boy and his horse set against the backdrop of a world at war is guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings. And for the most part, it works. The one glaring factor working against this film is its length. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, the film is at least a half hour too long. Told in a mostly episodic style, the length, combined with the narrative "chapters," results in a meandering movie that misfires when it strays too far from the core conceit of the story -- the extraordinary bond between Joey the horse and his boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine -- after seeing Irvine in this film, I'm really looking forward to his turn as Pip in Mike Newell's big-screen adaptation of Great Expectations). That's not to say the movie is a wash -- far from it. But Spielberg's reluctance to tighten the on-screen storytelling does the movie no favors.

But let's talk about what works. At a livestock auction Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a poor, hard-drinking Devonshire farmer with a gimpy leg -- a souvenir of his service in the Boer War -- sinks his family's precious savings into the purchase of a thoroughbred colt, all in order to pique his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). Unknown to Ted, his son Albert had been eyeing the horse from afar and is thrilled with his father's purchase, promising to train the animal himself and christening him Joey. And so the groundwork is laid for an extraordinary friendship -- these two become everything to each other, and that faith and trust in each other is what enables the pair to conquer mountains (or, as is the case in the film, plow a rock-strewn field). But when the crop fails, the only way to save the family farm is to sell Joey to the army, now preparing to head across the channel to Europe thanks to the recent declaration of war.

Before I touch on Joey's wartime experiences, I have to say that I think what interests me most about this film, and what works best, is the relationship between Ted and Albert. THIS is something that I wish had been explored in greater depth. It's obvious that Albert is devoted to his family, but Irvine shades his performance with jus the right touch of youthful frustration and shame. Frustrated with his father's drinking, with his constant struggles to provide for his family, Albert like so many of us at one point or another just doesn't get his father, sure he can do better. It isn't until his mother Rose (Emily Watson) reveals the cost of Ted's war service that we get an inkling of what made the dreamer the drinker he is today. Ted, for his part, wants to do better, wants to be more, but he's spent so long repressing his Boer experiences he doesn't know how, I think, to come out of that protective shell. Mullan's performance is really quite powerful in its restraint.

Through Joey's wartime experiences we witness the best and worst of humanity, all the more starkly drawn because our guide, the constant throughout each vignette, is an innocent animal. In my opinion the best aspect of this "second act" of the film are the war scenes the bookend Joey's experiences -- the beginning, when he's trained as a cavalry horse, one of a noble company full of honor and ideas about how this war will be fought, little realizing the crushing blow to come that will strip away those ideals and along with them, so very many lives. And the end of the war, full-blow trench warfare when Joey, and the men around him fighting are thrust, quite literally, into the middle of hell on earth. I am sure some will disagree with me, but I could've done without Joey's brief respite at the French Grandfather's (Niels Arestrup) farm with the horse-loving granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens). The forward-moving narrative slowed to a crawl during this scene, and the grandfather's later appearance, solely in order to throw a convenient wrench into Albert's attempts to buy back Joey, felt a little too contrived and unnecessary.

The advent of the war brings several familiar faces to the screen, namely Benedict Cumberbatch as the ill-fated Major Jamie Stewart and Tom Hiddleston as Joey's first soldier-owner, Captain Nicholls. While I love Cumberbatch (thank you for Sherlock), this sequence was all about Hiddleston (my appreciation for him has been well documented on this blog). He is ADORABLE. I loved how seriously Nicholls took his promise to Albert to watch over Joey, and it broke my heart when he was killed in the group's first charge. The concluding scenes of the war also featured several familiar faces, from Liam Cunningham as the Army doctor who treats Joey's wounded leg, to Pip Torrens as Major Tompkins, in charge of overseeing transport back to England after the Armistice, to Eddie Marsan as the hard-nosed Sgt. Fry, whose bluster hides a heart of gold.

As is the usual with Spielberg's period films, the attention to period detail is astounding. Every frame of film is a miniature work of art, from the sun-drenched, idyllic Devon countryside to horrifically realized trench scenes. There's a great deal of restraint in the war scenes -- this is not on an R-rated Saving Private Ryan level -- but nevertheless those sequences chilled me. I couldn't help but think of my father's stories about one of his uncles, who was a machine gunner during World War II, and who, much like Albert's father, could never talk about his wartime experiences. This was a war that changed everything, how the world fought and viewed combat, and was in many respects a great equalizer between the aristocratic officers and the "commoners" they commanded. I loved how the latter is realized in the understanding Albert reaches with David Lyons (Robert Emms), the previously insufferable son of his family's landlord, after saving his life in the trenches -- it was an extraordinarily well-done moment.

As the film ended, I found I wasn't focusing on Joey specifically as much as what Albert's homecoming would mean to his parents. Joey, Ted Narracott's one-time folly, the horse he purchased in a fit of pique -- that folly brings his son home -- and that may have been the film's most powerful moment for me. Because while so much had remained unspoken between those two characters, Albert's survival signals the possibility of a healing and a deeper understanding and appreciation between father and son. Whether or not the novel suggests that, whether or not that was intended I don't know -- but that to me is one of War Horse's most powerful moments. A father's folly brings his son home -- "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). Though overly long, War Horse is a beautifully rendered film with many powerful moments -- definitely a worthwhile big-screen experience. (And film score fans -- John Williams has delivered yet another stunner with his work on this film -- that man is amazing.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Retrospective

As I mentioned in my retrospective post last year, I'm not really one for "best of" lists, because for that to work the completist in me would need to review everything on the blog, and that just hasn't happened. *wink* I want to once again take the opportunity to look back on the year as I experienced it in books and film. The following lists are not comprehensive or ranked, but rather the books, films, and television shows that left the most lasting impression on me this past year whether through a hard-hitting emotional read or sheer FUN. Inclusion on this list just means that I read or viewed or finally talked about the item in question during 2011, not that it was necessarily released this past year.

Ten Books
Click the cover to be taken to the review.






Six Movies
Click the poster to be taken to the review.




Six Television Shows
Click the image to be taken to a review.



A few notes -

Books: Honorable mention goes to The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner, Baby, It's Cold Outside by Susan May Warren, and The Bridegrooms by Allison Pittman (click the title to be taken to my review). 

Movies: This year was clearly the year of Michael Fassbender. :) In addition to the above listed films, there were several movies I saw in theaters that I never got around to blogging about (I can hear the shocked gasps! *wink* Maybe some of those will make the 2012 list...), such as The Eagle, The Help, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two. Honorable mention of films seen that made it to the blog include Water for Elephants, Cowboys & AliensCaptain America: The First Avenger, and The Three Musketeers (click the title to be taken to my review).  

Television: Honorable mention goes to Doctor Who, which I rarely blog about (namely because once I start I'd NEVER STOP) and White Collar. This year was most remarkable for being the year that American TV really stepped up and delivered shows that I liked so much I couldn't resist blogging about them (Grimm, Once Upon a Time, and Pan Am).

Looking forward, I'd like to resurrect my All Things Jane series of blog posts -- yes, there is still plenty of Jane Eyre-related books and films to talk about. :) I'd also like to host a few more book giveaways, so keep an eye out for those! And I'd like to do a better job blogging about classic film, since that is one of my passions.

I realize I'm posting this a few days early, so any books or films I post about between now and January 1st will have to content themselves with honorable mention status if the situation warrants it. :)

I'd love to hear some of your 2011 favorites, so please chime in with your take in the comments section, or a link to your own blog post if you've blogged about your favorites already. :)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: Within My Heart by Tamera Alexander

Within My Heart (Timber Ridge Reflections #3)
By: Tamera Alexander
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-0391-6

About the book:

Sometimes the greatest step of faith is taken neck-deep in fear.

Determined to fulfill her late husband's dream, Rachel Boyd struggles to keep her ranch afloat with the help of her two young sons. But some days it feels as though her every effort is sabotaged. When faced with a loss she cannot afford, she's forced to trust Rand Brookston, the one man in Timber Ridge she wishes to avoid. And with good reason. He's a physician, just like her father, which tells her everything she needs to know about him. Or so she thinks....

Dr. Rand Brookston ventured west with the dream of bringing modern medicine to the wilds of the Colorado Rockies, but the townspeople have been slow to trust him. Just as slow in coming is Rand's dream to build the town a proper clinic. When a patient's life is threatened, Rand makes a choice—one that sends ripples through the town of Timber Ridge. And through Rachel Boyd's stubborn heart.


Following the tragic death of her husband in a hunting accident, Rachel Boyd struggles to keep the family ranch afloat, determined to make her late husband's dreams for their sons a reality. here is little time and less desire for her dreams or love, in spite of the persistent, hopeful attentions of the handsome town doctor Rand Brookston. Much like her self-proclaimed mission to see her late husband's dreams realized, Rachel determines that loving a doctor is not an option, since all members of the profession must be like her harsh father, harsh and driven. But when a typhoid outbreak threatens Timber Ridge, and the chronic illness of a dear friend requires all of Rand's skill, Rachel is forced to re-evaluate her dearly held assumptions and realize they may be proved a lie. Faced with a choice -- the relative safety of the emotional walls she's built and the iron-clad views she holds close, or risking her heart and family's future on the possibility of love, Rachel must decide once and for all if vulnerability, trust, and love are worth the risk of faith.

Going into this novel the knowledge that Rachel was the heroine was a hard sell -- I'd spent the previous two books in the series disliking her immensely. her animosity towards Daniel, the hero of From a Distance, was borderline irrational. And her seemingly complete inability to graciously accept (or decline) aid, coupled with a persistent distrust of Rand (based on memories of her father), made Rachel an extraordinarily prickly centerpiece for the conclusion to Alexander's Timber Ridge trilogy. While Rachel had legitimate, heart-breaking reasons for her issues, her consistently antagonistic attitude made for a challenging reading experience.

Thankfully, halfway through the novel Rachel turns a corner, and Alexander's trademark ability to tug at the heartstrings is given free rein to shine. As she shares in her author's note, Within My Heart was crafted during a particularly difficult time, involving her mother's illness, and the result of that experience is a master author laying her heart bare on the page -- a beautifully rendered, poignant reminder of the hope believers share in a heavenly promise, making goodbyes on this earth only a temporary heartache. Beloved store owner Ben's illness and the grace and raw honesty with which he and his wife face his mortality are poignant reminders of the precious gift of life, and the power of a life well-lived.

An on-going theme in this loosely connected series is facing fear, and Rand's journey is perhaps my favorite yet. If faith is believing in the unseen provision of an all-knowing God, then Rand's arc is the surest illustration yet of the joy and release found in surrendering, safe in the faith that God's love is the only surety to see one through their darkest hour. Alexander is at her best when crafting characters who make you feel, gloriously real, messy individuals, and Within My Heart is no exception. I love that through Rand's experiences she revisits the horrific toll of the Civil War on its survivors. And her gritty, authentic portrayal of the challenges of frontier medicine add a dose of realism and authenticity to the storyline. At its heart the conclusion to Alexander's Timber Ridge series is a beautifully rendered story of grace and faith, leaving me eager for Alexander's next offering!

Review: Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

Uncommon Criminals (Heist Society #2)
By: Ally Carter
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
ISBN: 978-142314795-4

About the book:

Katarina Bishop has worn a lot of labels in her short life: Friend. Niece. Daughter. Thief. But for the last two months she's simply been known as the girl who ran the crew that robbed the greatest museum in the world. That's why Kat isn't surprised when she's asked to steal the infamous Cleopatra Emerald so it can be returned to its rightful owners.

There are only three problems. First, the gem hasn't been seen in public in thirty years. Second, since the fall of the Egyptian empire and the suicide of Cleopatra, no one who holds the emerald keeps it for long -- and in Kat's world, history almost always repeats itself. But it's the third problem that makes Kat's crew the most nervous, and that is...the emerald is cursed.

Kat might be in way over her head, but she's not going down without a fight. After all, she has her best friend -- the gorgeous Hale -- and the rest of her crew with her as they chase the Cleopatra around the globe, dodging curses and realizing that the same tricks and cons her family has used for centuries are useless this time.

Which means, this, Katarina Bishop is making up her own rules.


After the resounding success of her first major heist, where she led the teenage crew that robbed the most secure museum in the world, Kat Bishop, to the consternation of her family and friends, has transformed herself into a most unusual thief. Instead of stealing because that's the family business, Kat specializes in recovery -- returning priceless art to its original owners or their heirs, righting the wrongs of wars long past. When an old woman approaches her with a tantalizing story -- her parents discovered and were robbed of the fabled Cleopatra Emerald, a priceless gem unseen for over forty years, Kat can't resist the challenge. Against the advice of her friends, and sure she can succeed, Kat stages a brilliant heist and delivers the jewel. High on the con's success, Kat's world is rocked when she discovers that she's been the victim of a carefully staged con, decades in the making. In order to right a terrible wrong Kat must travel halfway around the world and take on the best in the business, and along the way must decide where she fits in her quirky family, and if a girl raised on the con can make herself vulnerable enough to trust those who want to love her most.

To put it simply, Uncommon Criminals rocks. Taking place a mere two months after Heist Society, Carter's second outing featuring Kat & Crew is every bit as fun as the first. Only this time around, the cons are bigger and the stakes are higher, making Uncommon Criminals every bit as entertaining and compulsively readable as its predecessor and then some. Whether sixteen or thirty-one (like yours truly), Kat's glamorous, danger-tinged lifestyle and budding romance with the ever-loyal Hale is sure to appeal to anyone craving a wickedly funny and clever slice of escapist fantasy. Thanks to her rather unorthodox upbringing, Kat has the savvy and smarts of a seasoned pro, but Carter tempers this gloss of maturity with a smattering of realistic teenage angst -- and it is this unlikely combination of jet-setting know-how and winsome, occasionally clueless, good intentions that make Kat such a winning heroine.

One of my favorite aspects of this story is how Carter chose to reveal tantalizing glimpses about Kat's family history, hints that suggest how she became the budding master thief and con artist that she is today. I loved the revelations about the enigmatic and all-knowing Uncle Eddie, and how his past heartbreak and the choices he made as a reaction to that proved to be a powerful illustration of the power of their familial bond. His actions help free Kat to become the best version of herself, allowing her to embrace her history instead of running from it. The supporting cast of characters that make up Kat's "crew" is likewise well-drawn and compelling. Carter continues to flesh out the group dynamic, whose banter and camaraderie are the equal of the best ensembles in heist films, with an energy and verve that makes the novel just plain fun to read. And the budding romance between Kat and Hale -- Oh. My. WORD. Carter masterfully creates a sizzling chemistry between her leads, and frankly Hale rivals the best romantic heroes found in escapist fiction of this ilk -- Hale is a teenage Bond with heart.

I absolutely adored this book -- the only downside to reading it so quickly is that the wait for book three is prolonged. Uncommon Criminals cements Carter's reputation in my view as a go-to author for page-turning, pulse-pounding escapist fiction -- this is the definition of a rollicking good read. I for one can't wait to join Kat on her next heist!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you & yours, my friends, and may God richly bless you in the coming year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pan Am 1.9: "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"

I finally got around to watching the fall finale of Pan Am, and oh my word was it awesome. The twists and turns were INSANE but for the most part I loved every second. Values-wise this show still has its frustrations, but I like these characters so much, and this episode was (for my money) a great example of what the show is capable of when at its best -- wildly fabulous, soap opera-ish storylines and compelling, likable, very human characters. And as a mid-season finale this episode worked WILDLY well, because oh my word I cannot WAIT to find out what happens next! :)

First of all I want to discuss Dean (Mike Vogel) and Colette (Karine Vanasse). Dean is lucky he's not dead or hospitalized after pulling the whole "Surprise! I'm taking you to meet my parents!" stunt. *wink* He has seemed so polished this season I forget that compared to Ted, Dean has very working class roots, coming from a farming family. I LOVED him in denim, I just have to say. He has such an adorable all-American look to him, doesn't he? :) Anyways, apparently since Colette kissed Dean after the whole Haiti debacle, they have been a couple -- probably the poorest-kept secret amongst their coworkers. *snicker* I couldn't BELIEVE that Dean's father was so ticked that Colette wasn't Bridget -- I don't care HOW bad or nonexistant your relationship with any given family member may be, you do NOT horrify a guest in your home like that! I wanted to smack him! As cliched and cheesy as Dean's apology may have been ("you're REAL, Bridget isn't"), as far as the "world" this show is establishing goes it fit the characters and the moment. Dean really is capable of being an wonderful, stand-up guy, but there's some maturity issues there, issues that I think Colette could help him with. I only wish they didn't have the baggage of previous hook-ups, but such is the nature of network TV I suppose. *sigh* (Seriously though, making love in the parents' BARN, a building they could walk into at ANY MOMENT, that's a bit much. Just sayin'!)

We are introduced to Maggie's (Christina Ricci) friend Sam (Danny Deferrari), a political activist briefly seen in the first episode, hinting at Maggie's bohemian lifestyle and political leanings. Sam cons Maggie into smuggling him onto her London-bound flight, where he plans to protest nuclear arms talks. En route he confronts a traveling senator (Chris Beetem), embarrassing Maggie on the job, and later calling her out on the fact that while she may talk a good game about wanting to change the world, when it comes down to it she just isn't brave enough. Maggie being Maggie rises to the challenge, and what starts out as a lively discussion between her and the handsome senator turns into a hookup, which leads to of all things a fire. There's no way around it, Maggie is a MESS, but I do like her spunk. I just wish the show didn't play so fast and loose with her morally-speaking. Thus far there have been relatively little consequences to her poor decisions on the job or romance-wise -- and addressing fallout could really add some depth to her character.

Regarding Laura (Margot Robbie) and Ted (Michael Mosley) in this episode, can I just tell you people how much I love them? If this show isn't renewed for a second season (and let's face it, that may be an uphill battle), I will be so upset if Laura and Ted aren't in a relationship! As immature and just plain stupid as Laura can be, she can also be extraordinarily kind and I love how she's seemed to make Ted a better (nicer) person just by knowing him (and saying no!). I loved how this episode played with the idea that Laura may have lost out on her chance with Ted, when Ted enlists her help to scare off an a girl he had a crush on as a kid that he turns out to like, and like A LOT. Amanda (Ashley Greene) is slated to appear in at least one other episode this season, so hopefully Laura will kick her to the curb (HA!).

But let me backtrack for a second -- since Dean plays hooky from work on the London flight, the Clipper Majestic has a replacement captain -- a sexist, stuck on himself PIG (John Bedford Lloyd), Captain Dennis. Dennis makes several unwelcome advances to Laura, a stark reminder of the fact that while sexism and harrassment in the workplace still exists, at least now there is more recognition of its inappropriateness and more recourse for victims of such behavior to seek, etc. I LOVED it when Laura "accidentally" spills hot coffee all over Dennis, who threatens to write her up -- but later reveals that Ted talked him out of it by telling the louse that Laura was the best thing that ever happened to him. (I DIE.) Ted has come a LONG way since this show began, and Laura's growing realization that he might be worth taking a chance on, and that she might be too late -- oh it was very well-played.

Speaking of consequences, Kate (Kelli Garner) is learning about those in spades as she's reaping the "reward" of her push to become a CIA spy. Not surprisingly it is a lot easier to join the agency than it is to leave it. Richard (Jeremy Davidson) insists that she complete one more mission in London -- delivering a fake list of spies to her contact Anderson (David Harbour), who will replace the real list a Russian is slated to acquire. I like to think that Richard is VERY UPSET that Kate wants to leave the spying game. *wink* Kate has grown up quite a bit over the course of the series, and though her pouting reaction to the harsh realities and consequences of spying can be grating, I have to admit she's got some skills and moxie as this episode reveals. I love that Anderson basically blackmails Kate into seeing the mission through by revealing that the lives of her old coworker Bridget and her ONE TRUE LOVE Niko are at stake. Nicely done, show, nicely done. Play with fire and you will get burned! If the cliffhanger from the end of this episode plays out the way I suspect, there's no way Kate is exiting the spy game anytime soon. :) I am definitely looking forward to the show's return January 8th!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Need I say more?


Pan Am news!

Calling all Pan Am fans! A friend of mine alerted me to the news on Facebook that ABC and Amazon and iTunes (whichever your preferred download method may be!) are currently offering FREE downloads of the first nine episodes of Pan Am! Here are the links:
I have no idea how long this deal will last, so if you're interested I'd hurry up and take advantage -- can't beat free, right? :)

In other Pan Am-related news, there is now an official soundtrack album available for purchase on iTunes! Here's the tracklisting:

1. Around the World ~ Buddy Greco
2. Fly Me to the Moon ~ Grace Potter
3. Call Me Irresponsible ~ Bobby Darin
4. Blue Skies (feat. Harry "Sweets" Edison) ~ Ella Fitzgerald & Paul Weston and His Orchestra
5. The Girl from Ipanema ~ Stan Getz & João Gilberto
6. New York City Blues ~ Peggy Lee
7. The Best Is Yet to Come ~ Shirley Horn
8. Mais Que Nada ~ Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66
9. Just One More Chance ~ Billie Holiday & Ray Ellis And Orchestra
10. I Can't Stop Loving You ~ Count Basie
11. Break It to Me Gently (Single Version) ~ Brenda Lee
12. Do You Want to Know a Secret (Pan Am Soundtrack) ~ Nikki Jean
13. Quando Quando Quando (Tell Me When) ~ Connie Francis
14. Destination Moon ~ Dinah Washington

Monday, December 19, 2011

NEW (!!) The Dark Knight Rises trailer

This has been a good day for film trailers, hmm? :) This is just beyond awesome -- this film promises to be AMAZING. It is going to be a long wait until summer, my friends, a long wait. But I suspect a wait that will prove worthwhile in the end.

Again, here's a link to the film's trailer on its Apple page in case the embedded video disappears from YouTube.

Christian Bale and Michael Caine, I love you guys...

Wrath of the Titans trailer

I'm actually really looking forward to this one. The Clash of the Titans remake was a great popcorn flick, and let's face it, it isn't hard to watch Sam Worthington on-screen. And this movie features Rosamund Pike! FUN TIMES!

Here's the link to the trailer on the film's Apple page in case the embedded YouTube video is taken down.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Review: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist Society (Heist Society #1)
By: Ally Carter
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
ISBN: 978-142311639-4

About the book:

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her to the case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own -- scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. Unfortunately, leaving "the life" for a normal life proves harder than she'd expected.

Soon, Kat's friend and former co-conspirator, Hale, appears out of nowhere to bring her back into the world she tried so hard to escape. But he has good reason: a powerful mobster's priceless art collection has been stolen and he wants it returned. Only a master thief could have pulled off this job, and Kat's father isn't just on the suspect list, he is the list. Caught beween Interpol and a far more deadly enemy, Kat's dad needs her help.

For Kat there is only one solution: track down the paintings and steal them back. So what if it's a spectacularly impossible job? She's got two weeks, a teenage crew, and, hopefully , just enough talent to pull off the biggest heist in her family's (very crooked) history -- and with any luck , steal her life back along the way.


Katarina Bishop is anything but your typical teenager. From earliest childhood she was raised by her parents to be a world-class thief, adept at every trick, every con, except that of living anything resembling a normal life. Kat pulled the biggest con of her life to "steal" an education from one of the world's most elite private schools, determined to be a normal teenager. But as good as that con was, Kat finds it impossible to escape her past when Hale, her former (ridiculously wealthy) partner and the boy she might just be in love with gets her kicked out of school in order to save her father's life. Kat's father is the sole suspect in the theft of five priceless paintings from the collection of the very dangerous Arturo Taccone, a man who doesn't care that her father isn't guilty, he just wants his paintings back at any cost. Kat finds herself squaring off not only against Taccone but against Visily Romani, a legendary thief so brilliant, so audacious, he couldn't possibly be real -- could he? With just two weeks to save her father's life, it's left to Kat to assemble a teenage crew and plan the heist of the century, proving that the girl might leave the thieving life, but you can't take the thief out of the girl...

Heist Society was RIDICULOUSLY fun. I've always loved a good caper story -- everything from Ocean's 11 (the original and the remake), and Audrey Hepburn's How to Steal a Million, to the Timothy Hutton-led show Leverage. Kat and company bear more than a passing resemblance to the Leverage crew, as she's definitely a thief with a heart of gold and the motley crew she assembles is very much a family, albeit an atypical one. This is a pure slice of escapist fun, a frothy confection that translates the romance of a classic heist film to the page, trading adult antiheroes for an appealing collection of too-smart-for-their-own-good, brilliant, loyal teens. If you're looking for danger and intrigue and gadgets galore, Heist Society delivers in spades. And Kat's potential romantic interests are Bond-like spies in the making -- particularly Hale, whose good looks, charm, and unswavering devotion to Kat are completely and utterly swoon-worthy.

While this is my first Ally Carter novel, it certainly won't be my last. Her writing positively crackles with an electric wit. Like the best on-screen heist, the storyline unfolds at a rapid pace with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as to exactly how Kat will manage to pull off the biggest job of her young life. And just when you think this is "only" going to be a teenage caper story, Carter throws a curveball and ups the ante, making the paintings Kat seeks casualties of World War II, stolen by the Nazis and never returned to their rightful owners. Kat's desire to see justice over sixty years overdue meted out adds a layer of unexpected depth to the novel.

Heist Society is page-turning, unputdownable escapist fiction of the highest order that delivers pure, adrenaline-filled, romance-laced action in spades. Kat is a highly likable heroine, all the moreso because despite her unusual skill set she's a very authentic teenager. *wink* I can guarantee I'll be reading her next adventure!

Grimm 1.7: "Let Your Hair Down"

Grimm delivered yet another superb episode last night (seriously, we're seven-for-seven now? LOVE it!), this time tackling the story of Rapunzel in a wonderfully unexpected manner. I've always considered Rapunzel one of the "princess" stories, a romantic fairy tale, and in keeping with this show's history (i.e., expect the unexpected), Rapunzel becomes a missing persons case, one that hits unexpectedly close to home for Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell).

When two hikers in the woods stumble upon a marijuana growing operation, they're almost killed until something -- or is it someone? -- enters the camp and attacks Delmar the oh-so-not-classy gunman, giving them an opportunity to flee. When Nick (David Giuntoli) and Hank (Russell Hornsby) arrive on the scene, they're struck by the unusual markings around Delmar's neck -- it's as if an unusually thick rope snapped his neck. While searching for evidence, Nick catches a glimpse of a wild child in the woods -- a figure with the face of a blutbad, and a ridiculously long rope of hair wound around its arm. And therein lies the episode's strength -- anyone familiar with the Rapunzel story knows that she lived in isolation, under the thumb of a powerful enchantress -- it takes the story to a whole new level of spine-chilling and creepy to turn the girl in question into a feral child, isolated by her lack of human contact and in this case, wolfish blood.

DNA tests prove that the hair belongs to a Holly, a girl at the center of a cold case missing child investigation from nearly ten years ago. I loved the fact that Hank had worked teh initial investigation -- this gave us an opportunity to really see his heart and commitment to his work, letting us see a bit more of what makes this supporting character tick. So, while the inisght into Hank's character was welcome, what really made this episode for me was Monroe. After last week's episode delving into Monroe's wild past, and now this week's episode driving home what an adorable softy he is, good grief the show is spoiling me. *wink*

What interested me most about Nick recruiting Monroe in an attempt to get through to Holly was what this told us about what it means to grow up as a blutbad. Since Holly was adopted, the ramifications of discovering one's wolfish tendencies (?) without any sort of support system is positively horrifying to think about. It also makes a whole lot of sense regarding why she spent nine years isolated, living in the woods. I LOVED watching Holly and Monroe connect on a blutbad level, and her realization that she's not alone, that there are others in the world like her was just brilliantly played. But more than that, I loved how Monroe had to really step out of his comfort zone to connect with one of his own kind. He spends so much time and energy suppressing his blutbad-self, that I think using that part of who he is to connect with Holly, to really make a difference in her life was a huge experience for him. It's a fascinating way of incorporating Monroe into Nick's work and life as a Grimm, and I hope the show explores this type of dynamic more in the future -- the whole creature-working-with-a-Grimm thing really flies in the face of the "rules" of the fairy tale vs. real world, and I love that.

This episode wasn't without a few issues, but nothing that detracted from my enjoyment of the story. The whole subplot about Delmar's brothers hunting down anyone that they thought *might* have killed their brother felt like a little much -- and that's saying something in a show where werewolves and killer bees is the norm. *wink* I also thought that the resolution of Holly's storyline was a bit too neatly tied up. The revelation that she attacked a male neighbor -- one can only assume that he'd made some sort of disgusting advance that triggered her transformation -- and then lived in hiding for years made so much sense in the context of the show, I couldn't believe that they wrapped things up by taking her straight home to her mother. This is a girl who can barely speak, who has lived a feral existence for over half her life, and Nick takes her straight home to mom -- no doctor's visit, not nothing. Monroe's a better therapist than I would've given him credit for, hmm? :P

The Grimm take on Rapunzel was yet another strong episode in the series, less heavy on the mythology of Nick's anscestry and as such speaks to the longevity potential of this series. If they keep this balance up storytelling-wise the possibilities are endless. :) There are hints that Nick's life could get very difficult now that he is so easily recognized as a Grimm -- the refrigerator repairman from two episodes ago is spreading the word about Nick's presence in Portland, and I have to think that it is this type of indiscreet discussion that is going to either get Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) asking questions about Nick's life, or it is going to put her life in danger -- either option offers some intriguing story possibilities.

Grimm returns January 6th with "Of Mouse and Man," when a man is found dead in a dumpster, the investigation leads to a sly snake and timid mouse. Can't wait! :)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I discovered something AMAZING today...

I'm a fan of Acorn Online on Facebook, and while checking my newsfeed this afternoon I came across a post where they mentioned being excited about a new series of Foyle's War (which is one of the BEST MYSTERY SERIES OF ALL TIME, just in case you didn't know). Well that intrigued me, since the last series of Foyle aired in the US on Masterpiece in 2010, and it seemed that funding wasn't going to be forthcoming for new episodes of this incredible gem of a show.

So what does one do when there is a puzzle like this? Why one goes to Google of course! Where you discover things like THIS (click to enlarge image):

Just last month -- LAST MONTH, PEOPLE! -- Anthony Horowitz, that wonderful incredible amazing genius behind Foyle's War tweeted that the show was coming back in 2012. That's NEXT YEAR, PEOPLE!!!

All I can say to that is BRING IT ON. Michael Kitchen, you've been missed. :)

yet again, White Collar...

Just when I think there's no way I could be more excited than I already am about the upcoming return of White Collar January 17th, USA Network goes and releases a preview like this:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reading challenges go (mostly) kaput...

Seeing as it is mid-December (where HAS this year gone?), I'm starting to think in restrospective blogging terms...and the first thing to check off that "to do" list are seven (what WAS I thinking?!) incomplete reading challenges. Oh well, it is what it is, hmm? I am quite pleased (looking on the bright side here, what!) with my progress on reviewing Stephanie Barron's fabulous Jane Austen mystery series (four volumes read and reviewed this year, woo-hoo!). Lesson learned...the absolute maximum number of reading challenges I'm allowing myself to even think about in 2012 is TWO, people, you heard it RIGHT HERE. TWO.

I'm removing the Reading Challenges page from the right sidebar and documenting (LOL) 2011's reading challenge progress for all eternity below. Because I am nothing if not THOROUGH. LOL! *wink*


One of my reading/blogging goals starting in 2011 is to participate in and complete a few reading challenges. I'll be keeping track of my challenge progress here. Click the buttons to be taken to my original sign-up posts, and click the book title to be taken to my review.

The Baker Street Reading Challenge 2011

Goal: The Sign of Four, 4 books

Sadly, no progress on Baker Street related reading...

Being a Jane Austen Mystery Reading Challenge 2011

Goal: Aficionada level, 9-11 books

Goal: Wading level, 10 books 

EDIT 3/5/11: I've decided that rather than commit to a specific reading list for this challenge, I'm opening it up to any and all books I've read before that I revisit this year. I think that's a less potentially overwhelming plan. :)
Georgette Heyer 2011 Reading Challenge

Goal: Six books  

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011

Goal: Severe Bookaholism level, 20 books

Bonus/Alternate Selections:

The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011

Goal: Neophyte Level, 1-4 selections

Possible alternate/bonus selections: 

Vintage Mystery 2011 Reading Challenge

Goal: Get a Clue level, 9 books

Agatha Christie

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Once Upon a Time 1.6: "The Shepherd"

Obviously I am two episodes behind on Once Upon a Time, which is really unfortunate when episode seven was such a gut-wrenching game-changer. But rest assured, once I work through the seven stages of grief (at least twice), I will have plenty -- PLENTY -- to say about Sheriff Graham. :)

Episode six of Once was full of the things I love about this show, mainly Josh Dallas being completely adorable as Prince Charming/David. And we got the added bonus of there being TWO Princes in Fairy Tale Land! The writers played the HIDDEN TWIN BROTHER CARD!! And they BOTH fight really well with swords so no worries there! I really wasn't expecting the twin brother card, but hey, whatevs -- since the flashback to Charming's origins in Fairy Tale Land pre-dates his meeting with Snow White, the discovery that the Prince we've gotten to now over the previous five weeks is a substitute, a stand-in, adds some fascinating layers to his character. Prince 1.0 was "procured" for a childless king by Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) and raised to become a leader of men, a dragon slayer -- and also a bit on the cocky side, since in an "audition" for King Midas (Alex Zahara) he turns his back on a warrior who is not dead yet (having a Monty Python moment!) and gets knifed. HANDILY ENOUGH the dead prince had a twin brother, who is a little bit David-esque with the shepherding thing and the noble spirit, etc., who becomes Prince 2.0 and the Charming we've all come to know and love since the beginning of the show.

Now I love, LOVE how Prince 2.0 gets roped into killing Midas's dragon and with no history of fighting or swordplay in his background rescues his men earning their admiration and loyalty and kills the flippin' dragon (which was pretty cool -- I am really hoping that whenever this show does the Sleeping Beauty story they have Maleficent transform into a dragon, because who doesn't want to see that? I thought so...). So Prince 2.0 a.k.a. the rise of the noble shepherd dovetails with David attempting to adjust to his post-coma life. Henry (Jared Gilmore) posits a fascinating theory about why David is so drawn to Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) -- because he apparently entered the Storybrooke in a coma, the curse wasn't able to fabricate a fake real-world life. Really makes sense, and makes his longing for Mary Margaret absolutely heartbreaking to see, because you know they are so close to rediscovering their happy ending -- but seeing as this is only episode six of season one, well heck that can't happen yet. Grrr. :P

I'm really interested to see how David's story plays out in Storybrooke, and if it is revealed that he's actually married to the snotty blonde princess character Prince 2.0 was blackmailed into getting engaged to in Fairy Tale Land. I loved the revelation that the ring the Prince was so insistent about retrieving from Snow White in episode three was from his poor birth mother, who gifted it to him with the promise that true love follows it -- yes, I am a sap -- loved that insight, though! Said snotty blonde was strangely enough transformed into emotional and needy Kathryn (Anastasia Griffith), who attempts to befriend Regina (Lana Parrilla). Now it has been well established that the consequence of the curse on Regina's life was that she is incapable of love, but time after time we see scenes where she is almost desperate to prove she has it, she feels it -- or so it seems. Her fanatical attempts to control Henry, and then her "softness" when Kathryn thanks her (little does K. know!) seem to me to reveal chinks in her armor. But of course, especially given the events in episode seven, I'm pretty convinced that Regina is too far gone and deserves every disaster Emma (Jennifer Morrison) can heap on her head. (Yes, Regina, I don't CARE what Snow did to you I AM BITTER, woman! You crossed the wrong viewer! *wink* :P)

Back to the episode at hand...I'd love to hear your thoughts on Regina vs. Mr. Gold. Half the time I think they are in league with each other, while the other half of the time I'm convinced that Mr. Gold would undermine Regina at any moment. Regina basically sends David into Mr. Gold's pawn shop, where a spinning windmill seems to hypnotize him, "awakening" his fake Storybrooke memories. On the one hand this is a very effective way of prolonging the David/Mary Margaret separation, but on the other hand it opens the door to both characters -- true loves -- engaging in intimate relationships with others out of frustration/bitterness/what have you...and the idea of that, well I just have to say it leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Thankfully this is a show that really does show a lot of restraint on-screen, but I suppose it is a mark of how much I like this show and these characters that this aspect of the twists and turns on-screen bugs me. Apparently Mary's rebound relationship will involve Dr. Whale (David Anders) -- any thoughts on who his fairy tale counterpart is?

This episode ends with Emma making the shocking discovering that Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan) is sleeping with Regina -- Graham made the discovery a million times worse by lying about it (stupid man!). I loved how it took this unwelcome bit of knowledge to reveal Emma's feelings for the handsome Sheriff...and her reaction to really get him looking sick about the state of his "love" life. (It is really, really hard to confine my thoughts to episode six...but I'M TRYING TO BE GOOD!!)

Hopefully I'm not going to jinx myself by typing this, but I'm going to try and have an episode seven post up BY THE END OF THIS WEEK. :)

The Merchant's Daughter trailer

Zondervan has really outdone themselves in the book trailer department -- this is the trailer for Melanie Dickerson's newest release, The Merchant's Daughter, based on the story of Beauty and the Beast.

Too good not to share. :) Though I think I have to give the edge to the trailer for Melanie's first book, The Healer's Apprentice, since it is SUCH a mini-movie!

So which is your favorite?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: The Healer's Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson

By: Melanie Dickerson
Publisher: Zondervan
ISBN: 978-0-310-72143-7

About the book:

Rose has been appointed as a healer's apprentice at Hagenheim Castle, a rare opportunity for a woodcutter's daughter like her. While she often feels uneasy at the sight of blood, Rose is determined to prove herself capable. Failure will mean returning home to marry the aging bachelor her mother has chosen for her -- a bloated, disgusting merchant who makes Rose feel ill.

When Lord Hamlin, the future duke, is injured, it is Rose who must tend to him. As she works to heal his wound, she begins to understand emotions she's never felt before and wonders if he feels the same. But falling in love is forbidden, as Lord Hamlin is betrothed to a mysterious young woman in hiding. As Rose's life spins toward confusion, she must take the first steps on a journey to discover her own destiny.


Rose, the eldest daughter of a poor woodcutter, is newly apprenticed to Hagenheim Castle's respected healer, Frau Geruscha. She longs to prove herself worthy of her mentor's faith, for if she succeeds, being the next healer would mean a life of independence and freedom from her mother's desire to wed a lecherous merchant in order to elevate her family's social standing. Secure in her chosen path, Rose is certain her future is set until a chance encounter with Lord Hamlin, the duke's heir, awakens her heart to the possibility of love. But love between a commoner and a noble is unheard of, an impossibility particularly since the young lord is bethrothed to the daughter of a neighboring duke who has lived in hiding, under threat from a powerful sorcerer. As Rose struggles to suppress her feelings for the kind and handsome heir, her own life is thrown into turmoil thanks to the advances of both compelling and repulsive suitors, all with questionable motives. As the life she thought she knew comes unraveled, Rose's faith is brought to the breaking point as she must decide if she can trust the God she's always served with a future shadowed with danger and doubts.

Where on earth was this book when I was a teenager? As a life-long fairy tale aficionado, I was intrigued by the premise and captivated from the first pages, eager to discover how Dickerson translated the Sleeping Beauty story into novel form. Sleeping Beauty just happens to be my favorite fairy tale, so the stakes were particularly high -- and overall I was quite impressed with how Dickerson translated the fantastical, magical elements of the story into a real-world historical setting. Medieval Germany is the perfect backdrop for Rose's story, a world where the Christian faith she holds dear can believably collide with old pagan traditions, and princes like Lord Hamlin quested for their ladies fair, holding honor and duty above all else. The Healer's Apprentice is a heady mix of romance and adventure, grounded in the political and social history of the fourteenth century, rich with medieval mores and customs that flesh out the Sleeping Beauty story beats that were the heartbeat of my own childhood imaginings.

In my experience with her debut Dickerson has set herself up as something of a trailblazer in the realm of faith-based fiction by capitalizing on the enduring popularity of fairy tales and the growing demand for historical fiction in the young adult market. While Rose operates in the world of medieval Europe, she is an extremely likable and wholly relatable heroine as she attempts to navigate the murky waters of young adulthood in order to find her place in the world. I loved how Dickerson developed the romance between Rose and Lord Hamlin -- its sweet intensity is a nice complement to the story's origins, fleshing out one of the most famous relationships in the fairy tale world. This is a slim novel, its only drawback being the final third of the storyline where I felt the pace was bogged down by Rose and Wilhelm's respective longing for each other getting repetitive -- a lot of talk about feelings with little forward momentum to the story's climax. And while I appreciated the twist Dickerson applied to the storyline of obvious spiritual evil (instead of stock "magic") versus faith, I wish the faith element and spiritual warfare aspects of the story had been a little less pedantic and more organic in its portrayal.

However, those qualms aside The Healer's Apprentice is a sterling example of breaking new ground in Christian fiction, and it is to be applauded for its (mostly) successful integration of secular fairy tales and faith-based literature. As such this is a novel with potentially wide appeal, crossing markets and target audiences. Dickerson has delivered a promising debut here, and with her clear appreciation for fairy tales and historical research she is an author to watch!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Grimm 1.6: "The Three Bad Wolves"

I suspect I'm going to start sounding like a broken record when it comes to Grimm, because seriously can this team make a subpar episode? I'm starting to think the answer is no. *wink* This episode took as its basis the story of "The Three Little Pigs," and as you might expect it provided some tantalizing insight into one of my favorite characters -- Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), the all too "refined" for his own good blutbad. But of course no straightforward retelling of such a familiar story would do for this show, and the story of pigs withstanding an onslaught of wolf attacks is transformed into a tale of vigilantism run amuck. The centuries old feud between the big bad wolves and the bauerschwein, a.k.a. the pigs, is about to explode in Portland.  

The opening sequence is a stellar example of the artistry that goes into framing each shot of this show. The close-ups of a rather menacing face have a suspenseful, film noir-like feel to them, until they pull back and it is revealed that the character in question is more oversized teddy bear than a baddie, as evidenced by the fact that post house explosion he's more concerned about his comic book collection. Hap the blutbad has clearly hit the booze or drugs one too many times in his past -- he's so not got his life together, Nick (David Giuntoli) is shocked to learn that Hap used to be a close friend of Monroe's. I never stopped to think about it, but Monroe has clearly been exercising stellar amounts of self-control in order to contain his inner wolf. I have not given the cuddly ol' clockmaker enough credit. :P

I was actually rather horrified by Monroe's ex-girlfriend, Angelina (Jaime Ray Newman) and her sociopathic tendencies. I mean I get the whole wolf/hunter/raw meat thing, but killing for fun...that's a whole other thing entirely. I suspect that this will increasingly become the crux of Nick's involvement in the fairy tale world -- the struggle to determine attackers versus victims, to reconcile his birthright as a Grimm with the responsibilities of his job as a police officer.While I liked the introduction of Monroe's past, and the stark differences between his life now and the life on the edge that we can imagine he lived with Angelina, I do so wish she'd been played by pretty much anyone beside Newman. I have never warmed to her as an actress -- couldn't stand her on Eureka as Tess, really couldn't stand her here. *sigh*

The whole wolf/pig feud had a very Hatfield/McCoy vibe to it, and despite my antipathy towards Newman as an actress she did an excellent job reminding me of what Monroe is capable of, should he choose to unleash the beast within. I thought it was interesting that the bauerschwein on the flip side of this feud turned out to be a police officer, and is the first fairy tale creature in several episodes that hasn't recoiled in fear when they realize Nick is a Grimm. (Aside: the mud bath at the end of the episode -- completely creepy and disgusting! LOL!) Similar to the mellifers in episode three, Nick's dedication to his job seems to be placing him in the position of alienating creatures historically friendly to Nick's kind -- I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out over the course of the show.

Considering the rapidity with which Nick is encountering and being recognized as a Grimm by creatures in all levels of the fairy tale hierarchy, I have to think it is only a matter of time before Hank (Russell Hornsby) or Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) start to question what is exactly is going on with Nick. In the comments section of my post on episode five, Tasha posited the theory that Juliette could be a member of the fairy tale world -- that is a twist I would LOVE to see, especially since her chemistry with Nick makes her role prime for expansion on-screen. Thoughts? Perhaps she's a princess or something, only she has amnesia!! *wink*

This episode gave some fantastic depth to Monroe's character, and since the door is open to a reappearance by Angelina I expect we'll see her again at some point, testing Monroe's resolve to stay on the straight and narrow. Nick's real life and Grimm life are getting increasingly messier and intertwined, and I am loving every second of this journey. Bring on the next installment! :)