Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Something Borrowed by Richelle Mead

Something Borrowed (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publisher: Puffin


Something Borrowed, the sixth entry in Puffin's series of short stories celebrating Doctor Who's 50th anniversary, features the sixth Doctor attending -- as the title suggests -- a wedding. But not just any wedding -- one occurring in the Koturia alien equivalent of Las Vegas (and given the sixth Doctor is known for his wildly colorful clothing choices, one can only assume he'd fit right in *wink*). Along with his long-time human companion Peri (as played on the show by Nicola Bryant over the course of thirty-three Fifth and Sixth Doctor episodes), Six (played by Colin Baker) arrive on Koturia ostensibly to attend a friend's wedding, but find the city under veritable siege by bloodthirsty pterodactyls. In the midst of this chaotic atmosphere, the Doctor begins to suspect something is awry with the identity of the bride, and he and Peri are in a race against time to prevent this would-be dream wedding from becoming an unforgettable nightmare.

Mead elects to have Peri narrate this story, and the first-person narrative from the companion's point-of-view was in this case immediately off-putting as I felt it prevented me from getting a sense of Six's character until the story was almost finished. Though not overly familiar with Peri's on-screen characterization, I thought Mead did a creditable job capturing a no-nonsense American attitude that seems to fit with what I've read about the character -- smart, willing to learn, and able to stand up for herself. The Sixth Doctor's personality is sadly shadowed until nearly the end of this slim story, when Mead finally manages to relate the volatility and arguably egotistical confidence that characterized his tenure.

I was quite impressed with Mead's world-building here and the manner in which she adapted colorful Las Vegas stereotypes to her alien civilization. And her utilization of the Rani, a rogue female Time Lord, was an unexpected and welcome surprise. This *felt* like it had all the makings of a very solid episodic adventure, but for me its potential remained largely unrealized. Between the narrative choice and the somewhat flat characterization of Six, I was never invested in this short story as was the case in previous installments. There is SO much potential here, and fun nods to Six's canon (like the Chameleon Circuit, and a Gallifreyan female villain), but simply not enough time in which to bring all of the elements to a wholly satisfying conclusion. A fantastic premise, and revealing a great imagination, but Something Borrowed just didn't work for me quite as well as some of the previous Who short stories I've read. However, I suspect there is much more avid fans of Six's tenure than I will be able to appreciate within its pages.

About the book:

A wedding on the planet Koturia turns out to be a far more dangerous proposition than the Sixth Doctor and Peri ever expected. It marks the return of a formidable old foe whose genius matches the Doctor's. Can the Doctor outwit this villain, save Peri and stop the wedding in time?

American fantasy author Richelle Mead puts her own twist on the Doctor's amazing adventures through time and space.


This is obviously the best commercial of all time. I don't see it being surpassed, in my lifetime at any rate! :)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Downton Abbey Series 4, Part 4

Source: Pinterest link via HuffPo UK
This week's installment of Downton Abbey was a vast improvement over last week's "filler" episode. Here we are actually treated to what felt like some forward momentum on several storyline fronts, not the least of which is Anna (Joanne Froggatt) taking some steps toward healing and recovery in the wake of the vicious assault that occurred during the houseparty weekend. Stuff happens this hour, people! At a fast pace, no less!

With Edna's absence (THANK GOODNESS), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) was once again without a lady's maid -- a position that has now been filled thanks to Thomas's (Rob James-Collier) recommendation of some random woman named Baxter (Raquel Cassidy). Baxter, shockingly, seems really nice (she gives Cora ORANGE JUICE with her breakfast, which brings on a bout of the I MISS AMERICA FEELS), and is a total whiz with a sewing machine. If you've seen Land Girls, Baxter's face may be familiar as she was featured in that show's second season. She also appeared in the Doctor Who season six two-parter, "The Rebel Flesh" and "The Almost People." I've heard from a friend who has watched the whole season that the Baxter storyline as regards her connection to Thomas -- and his apparent hold over her -- isn't satisfactorily resolved this season. At this point given their similar coloring my guess is she is a relative of some sort. Thoughts?

Anna is still determined to keep the truth of her attack from Bates (Brendan Coyle), and this is NOT going well because she's moved back into Downton and can't even attempt to mask her emotional turmoil in Bates's presence. I mean obviously something is seriously wrong -- though apparently enough time has passed between this episode and the attack for her to know that she did not become pregnant (THANK GOODNESS...if Fellowes had gone THAT route I might have broken my television screen). Poor Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place as she wants to honor Anna's wishes, but she's sure that Anna SHOULD tell Bates and work through this as a couple.

Here is where things get a little weird for me. Bates basically corners Mrs. Hughes and blackmails her into revealing Anna's secret by threatening to leave. She does so, but insists that the rapist was a random, outside attacker that will be impossible to identify (of course Bates does NOT buy this, given that Anna's change in manner coincides the the end of the houseparty). I GET why Bates is upset...I GET his impulse to want revenge on the man who wounded his wife. But it really sort of astounds me that both Anna and Mrs. Hughes are positive Bates would just go out and whack the rapist, which kind of makes me re-think the whole, interminable storyline regarding the death of the FIRST Mrs. Bates. Setting aside Anna's trauma just for a moment, both women seem remarkably okay with the idea that Bates's teddy bear exterior masks a potential cold-blooded killer. Somebody talk me through this here -- I'm honestly not trying to make some sort of judgement call, because I get the desire to protect and the raw anger and grief Bates must be feeling when he hears WHY Anna has become so withdrawn -- but I wasn't entirely comfortable with the way he pushed Mrs. Hughes during their conversation (though goodness knows she can handle ANYTHING), or the way he starts to plot his revenge, certain of the rapist's identity -- never mind that, if he's caught, Anna may be avenged BUT she'll be left without a husband. That said, though, the scene where Bates and Anna FINALLY talk everything out and he reassures her of his love and her value in his eyes, reassures her that any guilt or shame that she's been struggling with are undeserved lies, that moment was beautifully played and heart-wrenching to watch.

WAIT A SEC. I just figured out my problem. I'M OVER-THINKING A SOAP OPERA. Moving on...

The big upstairs storyline involves the death of a longtime tenant and Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Branson's (Allen Leech) proposed plan to follow through on foreclosing on the lease, thereby allowing Downton to farm that tract of land. Robert (Hugh Bonneville) hates to seen the long-time tenants lose their lease, as they've worked Crawley property for...well, so long I can't remember. At the funeral he is approached by the son, Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), who would like to halt the foreclosure, continue working his family's land, and pay off his father's debt. Robert is inclined to loan the man the money and views his earnest proposal as a good bet, but suspects (rightly) that Mary will object (BECAUSE THAT'S JUST THE WAY THINGS ROLL AROUND HERE, FOLKS). I was pleasantly surprised by how this storyline played out -- I expected Mary's rather more cutthroat business instinct to be proved correct, but instead when she discovers that her father loaned Drewe the money without a word to her, she's moved by his generosity and dedication to the longtime business association between the families. If anyone is a good business bet, I would hope this Drewe fellow rewards Robert's faith in him -- I see he's slated to appear in the season's final two episodes, so I suppose we'll see!

The whole kerfuffle over whether Drewe stays or goes seems to have reawakened Branson's socialist leanings, which gets him to dwelling on the fact that since he's been a part of the Crawley family he doesn't fit in anywhere -- more than a chauffeur but less than an aristocrat. (I expect that sense of new identity, of blending families is a side effect of marriage, Tom, but whatevs...) So he starts talking about moving to America, which as long as Leech is happy with his contract I don't see happening, but it gets Cora all worked up because she doesn't want Sybbie to leave -- but oh does she ever get the allure of America as the land of opportunity. (Robert, just HUG IT OUT with him. Bet you anything he'd stay then!) ;-) Side note: wasn't it great to see Sybbie and George in the nursery? And wasn't Branson ADORABLE with his daughter?! THE CUTENESS. I die.

Alfred (Matt Milne) is accepted to the Ritz's cooking program, and every spare moment is filled with cooking lessons from Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Daisy (Sophie McShera). Sophie is ALL torn up about the prospect of him leaving, but Mrs. Patmore continues to urge her to do the right thing and support his dreams, etc. Alfred is nice enough and all but I am PAST ready for Daisy to meet a fellow who is  NUTS about her from the start! Anyways, all of her worrying is for naught as Alfred doesn't make the cut -- but it was an interesting "field trip" away from Downton, and one hopes he sticks it to Jimmy (Ed Speleers) and continues to pursue his dreams. I don't even get Jimmy's point now -- all he does is make snarky comments and moon after Ivy (Cara Theobold), and even she seems to be getting a bit sick of it all.

Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is extra pathetic this episode. When Carson (Jim Carter) thinks Alfred will be leaving, he broaches the possibility with Molesley of taking the position of footman. He hems and haws about it so much he offends Carson, who hilariously RELISHES telling Molesley off after he deigns to accept the come-down job-wise. HELLO. Would the man not rather be a footman, back in the big house as it were, than paving streets? He does not seem cut out for manual labor, just sayin'!!

There is a whole subplot involving Isobel (Penelope Wilton) attempting to find the son of a local widow a gardening position in Violet's (Maggie Smith) household. The whole did the gardener steal the letter opener thing felt kinda worthless EXCEPT for the fact that Isobel and Violet were back to snarking at each other. Honestly, I didn't realize how much I'd missed the more adversarial side of their relationship. ;-) I do wonder how Isobel's story arc is going to play out, now that she isn't actively involved in the day-to-day life at Downton, as she was in Matthew's day. I don't feel like the family is purposely cutting her out, but obviously both sides need to perhaps make more of an effort to connect, for George's sake if nothing else.

Wrapping things up, Mary gets an visit from an old friend -- Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks)! She should just marry him and get it over with. ;-) He's adorable. And apparently GAINFULLY EMPLOYED traveling the countryside with his boss, Charles Blake, and assessing the impact of the war on the sustainability of the country's estates...or something. I guess it perhaps boils down to seeing if they can pay their taxes?? Anyways...Mary is all STAY HERE, YOU'RE ADORABLE...and I can pick your brain about running Downton. So next week we get Charles Blake's introduction, and please FOR THE LOVE let him be less pathetic than Gillingham!!!

Oh...and did I mention that Edith (Laura Carmichael) is preggers?? OBVIOUSLY.

*Photo copyright Masterpiece/ITV/Carnival Films. No copyright infringement intended.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Maleficent "Dream" trailer

And I just keep getting more and more excited for this film! Be awesome Maleficent, PLEASE BE AWESOME.

Review: No Place Like Oz by Danielle Paige

No Place Like Oz (Dorothy Must Die #0.1)
By: Danielle Paige
Publisher: Harper Collins


It's been two years since Dorothy returned to Kansas from her adventures in Oz -- two years marked by a brief brush with fame as surviving the cyclone made her a local celebrity, followed by normalcy. After experiencing the wonders of Oz, the heady flush of power and acclaim, normal in Kansas is the last thing Dorothy craves -- and she begins to wonder if fighting so hard to come home was the biggest mistake she ever made. When her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry's lovingly-planned Sweet Sixteen birthday party goes horribly awry, Dorothy makes a desperate wish to return to Oz. When a gorgeous pair of red heels appear, with a note from "G," Dorothy is thrilled that her old friend Glinda has somehow heard her plea. But her return trip has some unintended passengers -- Em and Henry -- who are, inexplicably, less than thrilled with their marvelous new surroundings. Their determination to return to Kansas only fuels Dorothy's desire to stay. And the longer she's in Oz, reuniting with old friends like the Tin Woodman and meeting new acquaintances like the powerful Princess Ozma, and the longer she wears those gorgeous shoes, the more convinced Dorothy becomes that Oz needs her, and it's only in this magical land that she'll finally get her due. But the beautiful shoes come with unexpected side effects, effects that threaten to destroy all that made the girl from Kansas into a bona-fide hero.

Over the past several months I've come across a lot of positive buzz for Danielle Paige's debut novel, Dorothy Must Die, slated to release in April. With the release of that provocatively-titled debut just around the corner, I decided to finally try the prequel novella, and I'm so glad I did! I've always loved twists re-imagining the classic Oz story better than the original book or the widely-accepted-as-canon classic musical, and happily this novella hits all the right notes in that regard. This story makes SO MUCH SENSE, tackling the issue of how a young teenage girl would realistically cope with being the hero of a world one moment, lauded for her bravery, to returning home and being tasked with hauling pig slop. Talk about a come-down, hmm? Unchecked power in the hands of any individual, but perhaps especially a teen with barely the maturity to hope to cope with such a responsibility, is the crux of this storyline, the pivot upon which Paige's deliciously dark re-imagining of Oz turns.

Paige hits all the right notes in this slim story, from the ever-faithful Toto to the characterizations of the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodman, and Scarecrow, even with a telling re-styling of Dorothy's famous gingham-checked dress, a study in innocence sacrificed to the heady allure of power. I loved how she slowly turned everything I thought I knew about Oz on its head. Paige's Oz is every bit as richly-imagined as its source material, and given this set-up I cannot wait to see how her full-length debut plays out. The Dorothy of legend now has bite, and something tells me she will make a formidable antagonist. My only qualm with this novella is that the sense of the time and place of Dorothy's origin isn't well-established -- Paige seems to hint at the 1930s (she references Shirley Temple's films), but this Dorothy is occasionally a tick *too* edgy and modern for me to completely buy as coming from that time period. That one issue aside, No Place Like Oz is one of the best prequel novellas I've yet to read -- action-packed and character-driven, it excels at one of my favorite literary devices -- re-imagining a classic in a fresh new light. I cannot WAIT for Paige's debut -- if she can deliver on the promise of this novella in Dorothy Must Die, she's on track to mark herself as one to watch in fantasy fiction.

About the book:

In this digital original novella, Dorothy travels back to Oz to reunite with old friends, but her story may not have a happy ending. No Place Like Oz is a prequel to the forthcoming novel Dorothy Must Die.

After returning to Kansas, Dorothy Gale has realized that the dreary fields of Kansas don’t compare to the vibrant landscapes of Oz. And although she’s happy to be reunited with Aunt Em, she misses her friends from the yellow brick road. But most of all, Dorothy misses the fame and the adventure. In Kansas she’s just another prairie girl, but in Oz she was a hero. So Dorothy is willing to do anything to get back, because there really is no place like Oz. But returning to the land she left comes at a price, and after Dorothy is through with it, Oz will never be the same.

Perfect for fans of Alex Flinn, Marissa Meyer, and Gregory Maguire, No Place Like Oz is a dark reimagining of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Building off of its rich mythology, Danielle Paige creates an edgy, thrilling story for teens that chronicles the rise and fall of one of the literature’s most beloved characters. This digital original novella is a prequel that sets the stage for the forthcoming novel Dorothy Must Die.

Review: The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

The Man in the Brown Suit
By: Agatha Christie
Publisher: William Morrow


Anne Beddingfeld has always longed for adventure. But as the only daughter of an eccentric professor more content to dwell on the peculiar charms of the Paleolithic period than modern times, she feared her dreams of adventure and romance would always remain just out of reach. When her father unexpectedly passes away, leaving her with a small inheritance, Anne -- equal parts practical and romantic -- seizes the chance to leave her small-town life behind forever and go in search of her own adventure. Traveling to London, she witnesses a man fall to his death on the tracks at a tube station, an incident the police are willing to attribute to a tragic accident -- but the look of terror on the man's face, coupled with the mysterious presence of a man in a brown suit who vanished after examining the victim, leaving behind a scrap of paper with a cryptic appointment written on it, leave Anne convinced of foul play. Determined to discover the truth of the matter, Anne launches an unofficial investigation, linking the man in the brown suit and his apparent tube station victim to the murder of a mystery woman whose body is found in a house for let, the unfortunate rental property the only apparent commonality between the eclectic trio. 

When the scrap of paper points to a liner preparing to voyage to South Africa, Anne impulsively books passage, determined to uncover the mystery of the man in the brown suit. There she befriends the charming Mrs. Blair and her handsome, enigmatic companion Colonel Race (who allegedly works for the Foreign Office), an eccentric clergyman, and the humorous Sir Eustace Pedler, owner of the unfortunate rental property, who seems to live in a constant state of befuddled harassment at the hands of his all-too-officious secretary Pagett. The deeper Anne investigates the man in the brown suit, a dangerous web of intrigue is revealed, involving stolen diamonds and a mysterious Colonel, a criminal mastermind whose influence soon threatens Anne's life and that of the man she's fallen in love with -- a man whose own secret past points to his identity as the very brown-suited murder suspect she's chased across continents. Anne is about to discover that real-life adventures are never so neatly wrapped up as the serials she's loved all her life, and if she's not careful this first excursion into sleuthing could be her last.

In browsing iTunes a few weeks ago I stumbled across an audiobook recording of The Man in the Brown Suit, a Christie novel I'd never heard of much less read. Having predominantly read several of her "series" novels -- i.e., those featuring Poirot and Marple, I'm nevertheless always interested in her standalone mysteries as they provide such interesting, oft-times experimental, departures from her norm. On that score, The Man in the Brown Suit delivers in spades. One of Christie's early efforts (only her fourth novel, first published in 1924), this novel showcases Christie's penchant for "bright young things" seeking adventure in exotic locales, besting traditional investigators with a combination of sheer nerve and intelligence. Anne is a winning character, very reminiscent of the serial film heroines to whom Christie seems to be paying homage here -- i.e., The Perils of Pauline and the like -- spunky, well-intentioned romantics.

Christie splits her narrative between Anne's reminiscences and Sir Eustace's journal entries, the latter of which are frankly some of the funniest narrative I've ever encountered in a Christie novel. People, he is HILARIOUS. The dual narrative works well here, particularly considering how fast and furiously Christie throws red herrings and misdirection at the reader along Anne's journey. I do think this novel lacked some of the finesse that would manifest itself in Christie's later work -- the plot was a bit too convoluted for even me as an avid aficionado of her mysteries -- but as an early example of her genius the humor and energy in this storyline is not to be missed. Featuring exotic locales, whip-lash fast plot twists, and a dash of romance (which develops out of thin air, basically, but WHO CARES because Anne is LIVING THE DREAM), The Man in the Brown Suit is an early Christie gem.

About the book:

Pretty, young Anne came to London looking for adventure. In fact, adventure comes looking for her—and finds her immediately at Hyde Park Corner tube station. Anne is present on the platform when a thin man, reeking of mothballs, loses his balance and is electrocuted on the rails.

The Scotland Yard verdict is accidental death. But Anne is not satisfied. After all, who was the man in the brown suit who examined the body? And why did he race off, leaving a cryptic message behind: "17-122 Kilmorden Castle"?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

out and about in the blogosphere...

I'm over at my friend Rachel McRae's blog today, sharing some of my most anticipated Christian fiction releases from the first half of 2014! Please stop by and share yours! :)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Downton Abbey Series 4, Part 3

This week's installment of Downton Abbey primarily concerned itself in dealing with the aftermath of the houseparty of doom. I'd like to address the Anna-related portion of this hour's storyline first. Realizing that this episode opens the DAY after her attack (just ONE DAY, people!), it is extraordinarily painful to see Anna (Joanne Froggatt) attempt to hold her composure, knowing her attacker is still on the grounds, albeit preparing to leave. Bates's (Brendan Coyle) constant fretting that he is somehow responsible for Anna's black mood wore thin after the first mention or two...and underscores, I think, a problem in the couple's characterization that I'd never really considered. There is no reference point for a sad Anna...even when Bates was imprisoned, when you knew that was weighing on her, she was never overwhelming, outwardly depressed. While I've loved Anna's sweet spirit and general enthusiasm for life and positive outlook since the show began, in dealing with the aftermath of this attack it's a bit clearer that to this point she's not been the most nuanced of characters, hmm? I'm not knocking her, but as this storyline (which I hate BTW) has brought this to light, I feel it is fair to mention it. I mean it seems only realistic to me that they would've had a spat or two (or ten) in their married life to date, but this side of Anna has completely thrown Bates off his game...and while I get him wanting to know what's behind her sadness, his worry face seems a bit nagging after a while as opposed to actually being, you know, worried. I have to give Froggatt credit here -- she is revealing nuances in her acting here that speak to what a superb talent she is, and Fellowes -- well, her speech to Mrs. Hughes about feeling "unclean" and unworthy rang very true. So while I hate that we've gone least how Anna is processing this feels honest, painfully so.

Branson (Allen Leech) is likewise riddled with guilt over sleeping with Edna (MyAnna Buring), never mind that she got him flat-out drunk in order to orchestrate their liason. It is unfortunate that for all the aftermath of Anna's situation touches on the painful emotional after effect of rape, the flip side of the coin -- a situation where a woman takes advantage of  man in the same regard -- is so bungled. Branson's guilt is genuine, and my heart really broke for him, because at that time (and even today) I think society conditions men to think that they can't be taken advantage of...and that forces them to process events of the like involving Branson and Edna in a whole other way, denying that an attack occurred and instead taking on the guilt of a moral failing or lapse in judgment.

So we all knew the only reason Edna weaseled her way back into Downton's halls was because she HAD TO GET IN BRANSON'S PANTS, because apparently she'd decided that he was to be her ticket out of service and no other would do. *headdesk* Over the course of this installment Branson reluctantly agrees to accompany Mary and Rose on a trip to London. During this time he and Mary have a beautifully played, very honest exchange, where she attempts to get him to share what's so obviously bothering him, and he refuses, sure it will ruin their friendship -- and I love the fact that they HAVE such a solid friendship now. Mary's advice -- that finding a safe person with which to share one's heart is critical -- is beautifully honest, which sends Branson in search of his unofficial mother, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan).

I LOVED how Mrs. Hughes read Edna the riot act, but honestly her "evidence" -- a family planning book or something like that?? -- was really, really weak. And while I am not sorry to see Edna go (please let it be forever this time!), the manner in which the desired end was accomplished felt like SUCH a rushed cop-out. Now, apparently, Branson is fine, because as a man he can just show lapses in judgement, and he's incapable of being any completely viable emotional fallout is brushed aside in a rather clumsy fashion. Ugh. However...Mrs. Hughes rocked it, this scene being just one of many reasons that I loved her in this episode -- the other being every other scene she shared with Carson (Jim Carter). I LOVE THOSE TWO TOGETHER SO MUCH. And when she had his former lady love's photograph framed as a gift? I DIED. They are SO PERFECT TOGETHER.

So, back to upstairs shenanigans -- Branson aside -- for a bit. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is beyond thrilled with the success of her houseparty, sure that Anthony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) has piqued Mary's interest in LIVING AGAIN. Robert (Hugh Bonneville), to his credit, takes a bit more measured of a view to this "development" - ha! Cora arranges for her sister-in-law Rosamund (Samantha Bond -- I've missed you!!) to invite Anthony and his loser friend John Bullock (Andrew Alexander) to dinner with Mary, Branson, and Rose (Lily James), the latter OH SO EXCITED to be in London where, you know, STUFF HAPPENS.

And stuff does indeed happen in London, my friends, because they go to a SWANKY NIGHT CLUB  and Bullock gets smashed and embarrasses Rose on the dance floor (though seriously I think she is just incapable of not starting fights or getting embarrassed when dancing...something is BOUND to happen), leading to her rescue by the African-American bandleader (and terrible singer) Jack Ross (Gary Carr). Seriously, not a fan of his voice...but whatever. I'm not really sure what racial politics was like in England in the 1920s, but Rosamund is just shy of scandalized by Rose's enthusiasm for the young gallant and ushers them all home. So apparently this is the point of Rose this season...a romance with a man of a different race...which, given Fellowes's track record in dealing with controversy will probably go no where.

Meanwhile -- or later? I've lost all track of time -- Edith (Laura Carmichael) is in London to say goodbye to Gregson (Charles Edwards), who is happily tripping along in his plans to become a German citizen so he can ditch his crazy wife and marry Edith. He proceeds to seduce her with responsibility, having her sign some sort of power of attorney that gives her authority at his paper, they kiss, and the next thing you know she is doing the walk of shame sneaking back into Rosamund's house early the following morning. Rosamund isn't all about this development, but I really don't see Edith being taken advantage of here...and honestly I think she and Gregson make a nice couple. Their lives are just a hot mess any way you look at it. :P

Back at Downton, Gillingham shows up to FRIGGIN' PROPOSE to Mary because hey, they just reconnected like four days ago after YEARS apart and he LOVES HER can't you tell??? And why the heck not?? That was the saddest, most pathetic thing ever. I mean LAME, Fellowes, SO LAME. I'm all for Mary moving on but to have an option propose in his SECOND EPISODE appearance...well he goes from looking sort of cute with possibilities to unbelievably pathetic. He'd better not be the new endgame, 'cause if so he has a LOT of ground to make up.

Is Violet (Maggie Smith) nicer this season? I'm not complaining mind you -- I think every word that drops from Maggie Smith's lips is golden. But she's so nice and understanding to Mary and Isobel (Penelope Wilton), especially the latter. I LOVE it...I never thought I'd see the day where I felt Violet was..mellowing, is perhaps the word -- mellowing a bit. *wink* Dare I say it? Are Violet and Isobel fated to become BFFs? Isobel seems to have found her new purpose in life as she agrees to work at Dr. Clarkson's (David Robb) new clinic. So...remember when he was all into her? Are we gonna revisit that, like, EVER?

The balance of the downstairs action in this episode revolves around Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) getting exasperated (or maybe I'm projecting?) watching Jimmy (Ed Speleers) and Alfred (Matt Milne) STILL moon over Ivy (Cara Theobold), while Daisy (Sophie McShera) gets more and more miserable because she's STILL got a thing for Alfred. At this point I don't even know why Jimmy is all of a sudden into Ivy, but all drives Alfred to the crisis point of actually applying for a training position in the kitchens of the Ritz in London. And to all that I say GO FOR IT, Alfred. Just because Jimmy doesn't want to do anything with his life doesn't mean his interest in Ivy should hold you back. Or something. This quadrangle thing going on is just exhausting.

This felt more than usual like a filler episode, and given the pall hanging over the show in the aftermath of Anna's attack that's understandable. What I wonder if Fellowes ever grasped was how introd a rape plotline would so overshadow EVERYTHING ELSE going on. Because even though only Anna and Mrs. Hughes know about the attack, it's pretty near impossible to view the more light-hearted, soapy shenanigans the show is known for without filtering it through the lens of "if they only knew they'd act differently," or something like that. ANYWAYS...I'd love to hear your thoughts on the episode, so please chime in!

*Photo copyright Masterpiece/ITV/Carnival Films. No  copyright infringement intended. 

The Mindy Project

If you don't watch The Mindy Project this video clip from last night's episode will mean nothing to you, but let me just say this: OMGITISTHEBESTTHINGEVER. It is some kind of cruel and unusual punishment indeed that this show doesn't return from its hiatus until April. APRIL. You give me THIS and then leave me hanging until APRIL.

Mindy Kaling + Chris Messina, long may they reign on my television screen!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: The Summer of You by Kate Noble

The Summer of You (The Blue Raven #2)
By: Kate Noble
Publisher: Berkley


Lady Jane Cummings, only daughter of the Duke of Rayne, quickly became the ton's "it girl" following her debut. Flirtation was her forte, her destiny as a leading social light assured as the gossips watched her every move. But everything changed when her beloved mother fell ill and died. Withdrawing from society for the required year of mourning, Jane is abandoned by her brother Jason to grieve and care for their bereft father alone. As time passes Jane comes to the heartbreaking realization that she stands to lose her father, but in a slower, ruthless, but equally inexorable fashion -- to the slow slide of dementia. When her brother finally returns from his Continental adventures, Jane has just begun to immerse herself in the activities of the Season -- near her breaking point and desperate to forget, even if only for a few hours at a time, her broken personal life. Jason is shocked by their father's decline and orders Jane to remove the Duke to the family summer home at Reston in the lake district. But Jane refuses to go quietly into social and familial exile, and so the Cummings siblings withdraw to the Cottage, where Jason refuses to rise to his duties as heir and Jane is left with little more help than before. When rumors of a highwayman living brazenly among the local populace reach Jane's ears, she's shocked to discover she knows the subject of the public's ire - Byrne Worth. And with the realization that Byrne is nearby, Jane discovers her purpose -- clearing his name. However, the deeper she involves herself in Byrne's life, it quickly becomes apparent that her interest in his welfare is far from altruistic, and the price it exacts may be her very heart...

After helping his brother foil a dastardly plot to renew British hostilities with France, Byrne Worth withdrew from family and society to his recently-inherited house in quiet Reston. The one-time Blue Raven, the British spy widely lauded for his derring-do, wants nothing more than to nurse his demons in solititude, held captive by the havoc a bullet wound wreaked on his leg leading to a vicious laudanum addiction. Absent of the purpose and passion that once defined every aspect of his existence, Byrne is content to feed his neighbors' dislike of him with a forbidding glare and curt demeanor, doing nothing to dispel the rumors that he is responsible for the robberies threatening the village. But when Lady Jane waltzes back into his life, determined to break through his insular shell and restore his good name, he finds himself powerless to resist her charm and enthusiasm. The easy, comfortable progression of their relationship is threatened by the town's determination to pin the highwayman's crimes on Byrne, and the closer he gets to Jane the more time -- and her brother's growing awareness of their relationship -- threatens to destroy their fragile bond. Will one special summer be all Jane and Byrne are fated to share, or can the Blue Raven perform his greatest feat yet -- capturing the heart of the Duke's daughter and reclaiming his once-bright future?

After falling in love with Kate Noble's delightful characters, nail-biting suspense, and frothy romance in Revealed, I was eager to read its sequel as it promised to delve into the life of the enigmatic Byrne, introduced in that volume as the brother of the hero. While Revealed won me over with its heady mix of Austen-esque characters and a dash of international intrigue, The Summer of You proved to be an even greater treat. Captivated from the first page by the revelation that Lady Jane Cummings, erstwhile nemesis of Phillippa Worth, nee Benning, is much more than a pretty face, her headlong rush to embrace the frivolity of the ton's social scene a desperate attempt to mask the pain of a fracture family life. She meets her match in the most unexpected of men -- the one-time spy, crippled by the emotional and physical toll of war, and left bereft of the furious purpose that once guided his every action. Both Byrne and Jane are people at a loss, floundering and without anchor in a world that demands they be placed in boxes, filling proscribed roles to which each is to submit. It is only in risking vulnerability with each other that each finds the strength to lay claim to a life and future of their own making.

More than the story of Jane and Byrne's slow-burning romance, this is the story of family and the soul-deep need for meaningful connection that everyone at some level, at some time, has hungered for with every fiber of their being. Noble has such a gift for bringing the full scope of life into her stories, whether it is the heartbreak of coming to terms with a husband's betrayal, as Phillippa learns in Revealed, or the loss of a parent's mind, in a sense their essence, and with that cut learning to accept the passage of responsibility and maturity from one generation into the hands of the next. This is particularly true in the case of Jason, Jane's brother, and the deep-seated denial regarding his status as the future duke that becomes the crux of their relational controversy throughout the course of the book. Watching the pair work through these issues of caring for an ailing parent, balancing the push and pull of familial obligations with the desires of the heart. And when that balance is found, when understanding is brought to their relationship, the resulting resolution is beautifully executed.

I just adore Noble's unparalleled ability to pen gloriously-realized, three dimensional characters on the page. While the initial spark of attraction between Byrne and Jane is undeniable, Noble develops a beautiful, genuine friendship between them long before anything of a more romantic nature occurs, a friendship that each treasures so much they struggle with taking the next step and jeopardizing the refuge found in each other's company. Noble touched on this concept in Revealed, but here it is explored more fully -- the desire to see and be truly seen as one is, all artifice stripped away, and to still be accepted by another. That is the gift Jane and Byrne give to each other, the foundation of their romance, and that heady basis was the spark that kept my fingers flying, eager to turn  the pages and devour the next development in their achingly authentic, slow-burning romance.

The Summer of You reminded me a bit of Austen's examination of the foibles of small-town life in her novels. Noble populates Reston with a host of well-drawn supporting players, from Victoria, the bane of Jane's childhood transformed into a fast friend, her father, the well-meaning but ineffectual magistrate, determined to see Byrne convicted as the highwayman, to his youngest sons, determined to wreak havoc around the town at every opportunity. Her sharply-drawn characterizations spark with life and lend the novel a wonderful feel for the manners and mores of the Regency time period. But while she may set her stories in Austen's day, the people and struggles and relationships related therein are equally timeless in their appeal. This is a historical romance, yes, but more than that it is the story of individuals embracing life to the fullest -- a life well-lived, risks, pain and all.

While this is only my second experience reading Noble's full-length fiction, I absolutely devoured it, and with Byrne and Jane's positively incandescent love story she's cemented her place on my list of must-read authors. The Summer of You is replete with Noble's warmth and humor, and while lacking the international intrigue that so memorably flavored its predecessor, the investigation into the highwayman's identity -- and how that plays out -- is a welcome and wonderfully organic dash of action, the spark that unexpectedly spices and ultimately transforms Jane's life over the course of what was *supposed* to be one lazy, unremarkable summer. Noble pens swoon-worthy romance at its finest -- rather than the feeling or impulse of a moment, she develops Byrne and Jane's relationship, forcing each to lower walls, reveal hurts, and in seeking to help the other become a previously undreamed of  best versions of themselves, resulting in a gorgeously-rendered romance. Jane and Byrne are characters sure to wend their way into your heart, and the world they live in and the story Noble crafts promises to steal your breath -- SO MUCH BOOK LOVE I CAN HARDLY STAND IT. I cannot wait to lose myself in her next book!

About the book:

From the acclaimed author of Revealed comes a tale of first loves and second chances...

Lady Jane Cummings is certain that her summer is ruined when she is forced to reside at isolated Merrymere Lake with her reckless brother and ailing father. Her fast-paced London society is replaced with a small town grapevine. But one bit of gossip catches Jane's attention--rumors that the lake's brooding new resident is also an elusive highwayman.

Jane must face the much discussed mysterioso after he saves her brother from a pub brawl. She immediately recognizes him from London: Byrne Worth, war hero and apparent hermit--who she finds strangely charming. The two build a fast friendship, and soon nothing can keep this Lady away from Merrymere's most wanted. Convinced of his innocence, Jane is determined to clear Byrne's name--and maybe have a little fun this summer after all... 

Review: Downton Tabby by Chris Kelly

Downton Tabby: A Parody
By: Chris Kelly
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4767-6593-8


I love Downton Abbey and I ADORE cats, so Chris Kelly's recently released parody was a no-brainer for me. This slim volume condenses three seasons of the popular costume soap, following the upstairs and downstairs antics of turn-of-the-century England's feline population through the sinking of the Titanic to the aftermath of the Great War. The double-page photographic spreads, reenacting key scenes from the series with a distinctly catty thread is worth the purchase price alone (I'm particularly fond of Mattmew Clowder and Thomas Farel -- the latter the "handsome but evil First Footcat" -- preparing to dine on rat in the Verdun trenches -- it's not as gross as it sounds, ha!). Peppered between the photos and history "lessons" are sections like "Uninvited But Necessary Words from the Dowager" and "How to Keep a Secret at Downton Tabby" (i.e., why bother?). A cute and clever Downton pastiche, Downton Tabby is a nicely-designed, humorous read sure to bring a smile to the face of cat lovers and costume drama aficionados alike.

About the book:

Welcome to Downton Tabby

Here, the aristocrats of the animal kingdom dwell in stately splendor, sleeping, grooming, sleeping some more, and being fed by their downstairs cats, unaware that their way of life—providing work for others—is about to be swept away by the tides of history . . . and runaway cars.

The fur will fly.

This humorous parody provides essential information for preserving their Golden Age, including How to Keep a Secret at Downton Tabby, How to Argue with Lord Grimalkin About His Most Deeply Held Beliefs, and some Uninvited but Necessary Words from the Dowager.

*You can view photo spreads from the book HERE.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

PEOPLE. The things I find in the drafts folder of this half-forgotten musings on The Reichenbach Fall from TWO YEARS AGO.

This Sherlock post isn't going to be nearly as in-depth as past blog entries (i.e., The Hounds of Baskerville or A Scandal in Belgravia), but as Sherlock is finally returning to Masterpiece with Series III THIS SUNDAY, I feel compelled to post something about this installment of the show (and in case you're wondering, yes, I have managed to avoid spoilers as to how Sherlock survives that fall!).

This episode is positively riddled with wonderful character moments and nods to the canon, but at its heart is, of course, the relationship between Sherlock and John, and a showcase for the chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Before touching on a few of those moments, here are the paragraphs I wrote TWO FRIGGIN' YEARS AGO and then, apparently, promptly lost in my drafts folder:

I have a feeling the answer is hidden in plain sight, but because we have all been watching the characters and action unfold on-screen we're missing some subtle clue(s). I'm convinced Molly has something to do with helping Sherlock pull it off. I read an interesting theory that possibly John was drugged by the substance used in the Baskerville episode...which is fascinating to me because going on what we see, we see Sherlock with his head bashed in -- but that is from John's point of view...and shock/drugs/getting hit by that bike...all contributing factors to his rattled state.

I sort of feel like Sherlock's tears might have -- at least in part -- been a genuine emotional reaction to the moment. Because I think whatever he planned, however he pulled it off, he KNEW what it was going to do to his best friend, he KNEW he had no choice but to willingly crush him emotionally. Very interesting how Moffat and Gatiss are overseeing the growth of Sherlock's character. He is very much the Sherlock of the canon but there are moments of powerful growth that they insert in the series, that I think mean a great deal because we know Sherlock isn't "wired" to connect/be emotionally vulnerable. He's not becoming someone he isn't, or was never meant to be...they are just testing him in some really interesting ways. At least I think so. :)

I think it is possible Sherlock and Mycroft are in on the whole thing -- during the "dead" time between "Fall" and "Empty House," Mycroft financially supports Sherlock in hiding...will be interesting to see if that is brought into the next series! I love how this series explores this testy, emotionally frought relationship between the brothers...just because Mycroft is more "socially adept" than Sherlock doesn't mean he is any less messed up. :P There's a bigger game afoot, at least that's how I saw it.


Was that worth waiting two years to click "publish"? Nevermind, don't answer that. *wink*

The episode opens with John visiting his psychiatrist for the first time in over a year, heartbroken over his best friend's death. I KNEW that was coming, and still, after all this time, that opening gives me chills. Flashback three months, and we see Sherlock riding on high on a string of fabulously publicized successes, his crowning jewel the recovery of a J.M.W. Turner painting of Reichenbach Falls (I LOVED that, immediately reminded me of the atmosphere of the original stories as well as my beloved Jeremy Brett series).

Meanwhile Moriarty (Andrew Scott) pays a visit to the Tower of London, breaking into the case containing the Crown Jewels (after writing "Get Sherlock" on the glass), while simultaneously unleashing codes from his phone that open the vault at the Bank of England and unlock all of the cells at Pentonville Prison.. This is a brilliantly filmed sequence to the soundtrack of Rossini's "La gazza ladra" ("The Thieving Magpie"), a wonderfully appropriate metaphor for the Moriarty of this series, here highly suggestive to my mind of the manner in which he picks away at the threads of Sherlock's reputation in this installment.

Moriarty is arrested and Sherlock is called to testify, sure of the outcome, never dreaming, perhaps, that it was Moriarty's plan all along to participate in a highly publicized trial only to be acquitted. This highly public black mark against Sherlock in the public eye is but the first step in the madman's plan to see his rival utterly destroyed, to see the "angel" the public has embraced shredded, utterly destroyed.

The primary canon source for this episode is obviously Doyle's "The Final Problem." I've always thought it was rather interesting that Doyle scripted Sherlock's death here, tired of writing for his most famous creation, determined to have him exit in a spectacular fashion -- little counting on the public pressure that would insist on Holmes's resurrection ten years later in "The Adventure of the Empty House." Doyle's rather fraught relationship with the cult of celebrity that erupted around Sherlock is, I think, mirrored after a fashion in this episode -- public adoration made Sherlock here, and can just as easily destroy him as Moriarty so methodically intends to prove.

Through the ensuing storm of accusations and doubt, John (of course) remains faithful to his friend -- what breaks my heart here is seeing the impact of Sherlock's very public fall from grace on Lestrade (Rupert Graves). THAT killed me (just ONE of the times something came very near that in this episode) -- closely followed by the revelation that Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) was responsible for the leak of personal information regarding HIS BROTHER during earlier interrogations of Moriarty. That fatalistic acceptance of that -- well, is there any other word for it than betrayal, however unintentional? -- is brilliantly played. The Holmes brotherly relationship in this series is so fraught with tension, so utterly heartbreaking.

This series' crowning moment is Sherlock and Moriarty's final face-off on the roof of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where Moriarty reveals the true depth of his obsession with destroying his rival -- he commits suicide, leaving Sherlock to pay the price of his friends' lives -- John, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade -- with his own. Only with his death will they be spared an assassin's bullet. And so he makes a final call, determinedly attempting to destroy John's childlike faith in him by admitting that he's a fake, that everything they've experienced together, the entire basis of their friendship, is a lie.

But of course John knows his friend. And the final scene of this episode leaves me every bit as gutted as Martin Freeman is on-screen. The utter devastation with which he imbues John's final words over Sherlock's grave -- while Sherlock looks on from the shadows -- is gut-wrenching, an unforgettable image of loss and steadfast faith that has been the defining image of this incarnation of the classic friendship for far too long.

Sherlock returns this Sunday on Masterpiece. I am looking forward to seeing how he survived the fall, of course, but the mechanics are at this juncture just that -- mechanics. What I really can't wait to revel in is the return of Sherlock and Watson to my television screen and the unforgettable dynamic brought to their unorthodox friendship by Cumberbatch and Freeman's performances. Everything else is just icing on the cake. :)

*Image copyright BBC/Masterpiece. No copyright infringement intended.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Once Upon a Dream - today only at Teefury!

My favorite Doctor Who/Disney artist extraordinaire Karen Hallion has a new t-shirt available today only (1/15/14) at Teefury -- a variation of her first Sleeping Beauty/Doctor Who mash-up entitled "Once Upon a Dream."

Isn't it THE BEST?!

Review: The Courting Campaign by Regina Scott

The Courting Campaign (The Master Matchmakers #1)
By: Regina Scott
Publisher: Love Inspired Historicals


Three months earlier orphaned Emma Pyrmont fled London and her foster father's abuses for a position in the secluded Derbyshire countryside as a nanny. Entering service is a step down in the world, but the sacrifice is worth it, allowing Emma to determine the course of her future, free from her foster family's abuse and manipulation. Like her foster father, the master of the house and father of her young charge, Sir Nicholas, is a natural philosopher -- and while lacking the former's penchant for outright abuse seems content to leave the raising of Alice to servants. When Mrs. Jennings, the cook, makes an audacious proposal, suggesting that Emma set her cap at the master and thus assure Alice of a loving and stable home life, Emma is scandalized. But her well-meaning fellow servant's attempt at matchmaking plants the seed of a plan within Emma -- she'll "court" Sir Nicholas on behalf of her young charge, thereby revealing to him the joys of fatherhood. But steering Nicholas's attention from his critical work developing a safety lamp for his estate's mining venture is easier said than done, and as Emma redoubles her efforts to bridge the gap between father and child, she finds herself in danger of losing her heart to the very type of man she'd sworn to avoid.

I've taken note of Regina Scott's novels before -- mostly thanks to her lovely covers -- but never read one, and in the mood for a quick, light read I decided to try her latest series, The Master Matchmakers. I love the concept behind each volume, wherein well-meaning and dedicated staff attempt to see their employers happily wed. It's a cute conceit that plays well here in relation to the trope of a nanny/governess figure falling in love with her employer. While Mrs. Jennings's initial suggestion to Emma rather awkwardly introduces the concept of matchmaking, once Emma determines to open Nicholas's eyes to his daughter the unofficial, familial ease that develops between the trio is well-developed.

I really liked Scott's emphasis on early nineteenth-century science, especially as regards Emma's own aptitude for the subject, uncommon in an era that placed a strict emphasis on women developing the "drawing room" arts of music, embroidery, and the like. Both Emma and Nicholas are fairly well-drawn -- while Emma's characterization felt a little flat to me -- her objections to scientific experimentation and its practitioners are certainly well founded, but expressed in a rather rote manner -- Nicholas was rather interesting. He seems to have Asperger's, and given the time period and lack of a diagnosis and understanding of the way in which his brain works, Emma's frustration is understandable. Scott does an excellent job revealing how Nicholas thinks and just how important his process is to him, and watching both him and Emma work toward understanding each other's personalities and needs makes for a sweetly-crafted romance.

The Courting Campaign is a nicely-executed historical with warmth, humor, and an admirable depth, the latter a pleasant surprise given the novel's category-length format. I wish the faith factor had felt rather more organic to the storyline -- it would've been nice to see how faith came to be such an important aspect of helping Emma overcome her past, rather than simply taking her word for it. And while Nicholas and Emma do reach a romantic accord, I would've liked a bit more relational development there -- perhaps greater collaboration on his experiments? However, this proved to be a pleasant manner in which to while away a few hours, and I like the concept of well-meaning but meddlesome matchmaking servants enough to guarantee I'll check out subsequent volumes in the series.

About the book:

The Nobleman and the Nanny 

Emma Pyrmont has no designs on handsome Sir Nicholas Rotherford—at least not for herself. As his daughter's nanny, she sees how lonely little Alice has been. With the cook's help, Emma shows the workaholic scientist just what Alice needs. But making Nicholas a better father makes Emma wish her painful past didn't mar her own marriage chances.

Ever since scandal destroyed his career, Nicholas has devoted himself to his new invention. Now his daughter's sweet, quick-witted nanny is proving an unexpected distraction. All evidence suggests that happiness is within reach—if only a man of logic can trust in the deductions of his own heart.

Sherlock: The Musical (Season 3)

This is brilliant!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Downton Abbey Series 4, Part 2

GUYS. I just don't have the heart to really blog about this episode...and I KNEW WHAT WAS COMING.

Dammit, Julian Fellowes. :-/

I've adored Downton Abbey in all of its soap opera glory since the first season...and I realize I'm admitting to something of a double standard here when I say that I can deal with shenanigans of all stripes, from romantic flings to murders (or accusations thereof), but personal, physical attacks like rape...well, there's a reason I don't watch crime shows of Law & Order: SVU's ilk. And that doesn't even touch on STUPID EDNA getting Branson drunk and doing God knows what behind closed doors. Whether or not she actually succeeds in sleeping with him in his state is left to question, but if she did -- well, as other bloggers have pointed out, whether female OR male, the inability to give consent does not imply its presence.

This new storyline for Anna feels out of step with the history of the show -- without spoilers, I would've expected there to be some conflict over a mistaken flirtation with Green, not an outright attack. But maybe that's just me. I will say this -- Joanne Froggatt, you broke my heart -- and you're an even better actress than I ever dreamed. It KILLED me to see a character defined by her unflagging positive outlook and constancy suffer this. I can only hope that the aftermath and recovery is handled in a sensitive manner that respects the seriousness of this plot "twist."

So, rather than my usual gushing, which feels particularly inappropriate given the gravitas of the subject matter introduced here, I'm just going to quickly highlight a few points relevant to the other characters' storylines going forward:
  • The first of Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) new suitors arrives for Downton's house party -- childhood friend Lord Gillingham, Anthony Foyle (Tom Cullen). He is adorbs, and also apparently "nearly engaged," whatever that means, but oh-so-into Mary (of course). (The Masterpiece geek in me can't get over that there is an Anthony Foyle character here, when later in the season Suitor Option #2 shows up -- Charles Blake, played by Julian Ovenden, who played Andrew Foyle in Foyle's War.)
  • Fellowes masterfully finds reasons to keep Molesley (Kevin Doyle) on this show by having him substitute as a footman when Jimmy's (Ed Speleers) penchant for showing off lands him with a sprained wrist. Poor Molesley isn't dealing well with his come-down in the world...
  • Carson (Jim Carter) has no understanding of the celebrity culture boom destined blossom during the twentieth-century's ensuing decades as the thought of a world-famous singer, Dame Nellie Melba (Kiri Te Kanawa), conversing with the family leaves him absolutely scandalized. This would be hilarious enough on its own except Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) makes her frustration with this view known by proclaiming that she's the most progressive, modern resident of Downton. HA.
  • Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has gambling issues, losing a substantial sum that he can ill afford to Sampson (Patrick Kennedy), some random frenemy from his club. Anyone recognize Kennedy from Bleak House, where he played Richard Carstone? 
  • Robert's aforementioned gambling issues are resolved when Gregson (Charles Edwards) OF ALL PEOPLE finally manages to ingratiate himself with his dream father-in-law by revealing Sampson to be a card shark in need of a come-down, winning back everyone's I.O.U.'s. This makes Edith (Laura Carmichael) stupid happy, furthering the train wreck I feel sure is coming. I mean separating Gregson from his crazy wife for the moment, I really do think he and Edith share some nice chemistry...but they are so hilariously awkward sometimes it just cracks me up. 
  • Robert's big objection to Gregson is that he's essentially "in trade" as a newspaperman, right? Neither parent knows of his marriage? And who exactly does he think is supposed to be a better option, especially if he's ignorant of point #2? I mean NO ONE IS AROUND, Robert. Yeesh. 
  • Violet (Maggie Smith) is overflowing with her requisite wit, but pauses in her non-stop sarcasm to once again reveal her compassionate side, reaching out to Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and encouraging her to start giving herself permission to enjoy life post-Matthew. 
  • Branson (Allen Leech) needs a hug. It was SO hard seeing him bumble through the house party while trying SO HARD and get progressively more and more depressed. Obviously it was beyond stupid to talk to Edna (MyAnna Buring), but he certainly wasn't reaching out to her for the kind of comfort she so obviously wants to give. :P I cannot WAIT for her to disappear, preferably forever. (Side note: I loved seeing Joanna David as the Duchess of Yeovil that manages to corner Branson at every opportunity -- if she seems familiar, that's because she played Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice.)
  • Bates's (Brendan Coyle) look at Anna's obvious distress at the end of this installment BROKE MY HEART. 
I suppose that about covers it. There were a few other enjoyable downstairs developments, like learning Alfred (Matt Milne) wants to win Top Chef 1922 or something, and as per the norm  Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, and Mrs. Hughes were all in fine form. But it's just the nature of this episode, for me at any rate, that the attack on Anna colors what would otherwise be vintage Fellowes in the vein of Gosford Park, making any other character's more light-hearted moments tragic because they just don't KNOW what happened.

I'm definitely curious to hear your thoughts on this episode, so please share! And if you've seen season four in its entirety please try to keep comments relatively spoiler-free, thanks. :)

EDIT: A friend shared this link on Facebook, where a survivor of rape talks about her reaction to this installment of Downton Abbey. It is a heartbreaking and thought-provoking read.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

The Duke and I (Bridgertons #1)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: HarperCollins


In the midst of her second Season, Daphne - the eldest girl in the Bridgerton family of eight -- has all but given up on the hope of making a love match. Daphne is the girl that everyone likes, that everyone wants to be friends with -- always the chum, the good sport, but never the lover inspiring flowery declarations of passionate intent. But Daphne's closely-held dream of a loving husband and family, her desire to not settle, and her reluctance to compete in the Season's Marriage Market threatens to make her the bane of her loving mother Violet's existence. Violet, after all, must think beyond her eldest daughter's reluctance to make a match to the three girls waiting in the wings to make their own debuts. When Daphne meets the newly-minted and arrived in London Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset, she's alternately maddened by his haughty demeanor and unsettled by his direct, passionate gaze. The infamous rake is her oldest brother Anthony's long-time best friend, the type of man a good society miss avoids at all costs -- until he makes an intriguing offer, one that promises a blessed reprieve from her marriage-minded mama -- but with the unintended side effect of imperiling her heart.

Only one thing could induce Simon to forsake his world travels and return to London -- his estranged father's death. The old duke made Simon's life a torment from childhood, belittling the boy for his stammer, leaving him to be raised by servants and forge a successful path in life through sheer force of will -- the will to prove his hated sire wrong. However, he was not prepared for the attention his new title brought to his personal life as Ambitious Mamas flocked to his side to introduce their debutante daughters. When Simon meets Daphne, he's shocked by how quickly she puts him at ease, intrigue colored with a desire to possess her beauty -- until he learns that she's Anthony's sister, which places her in the Strictly Forbidden category of romantic dalliances. Even so, he cannot resist suggesting an audacious scheme -- he'll pay court to Daphne, ostensibly removing himself from the Marriage Market, and she'll become more desirable than ever by virtue of being associated with London's newest duke. But when the fake courtship gives birth to real attachment, lines are crossed -- could marriage between the girl no one wanted and the duke determined to die alone become a love affair for the social record book?

After several years of two very dear friends telling me I'd love Julia Quinn's Regency romances, I finally decided to give The Duke and I a try, and I'm SO glad I did. The first installment in Quinn's popular Bridgerton series sparkles with wit, warmth, and a genuine emotional and intellectual connection that goes far deeper than any physical attraction that sparks between the duke and Daphne. I've read reviews comparing Quinn to Jane Austen, and while Quinn's sly humor and sharp characterizations were certainly inspired by Austen, I think a more apt comparison would liken Quinn to Georgette Heyer, with a dash of the chick-lit sensibilities found in the likes of Hester Browne's or Jill Mansell's novels. In other words, The Duke and I is a clever, funny, warm-hearted romp through Regency England with a romance that will take your breath away and an unexpectedly deep emotional resonance between its hero and heroine -- this is, refreshingly, the story of a physical, emotional, and intellectual union of complementary equals.

I adored the family dynamic exhibited here -- the Bridgertons are the type of sprawling fictional family I love to read about. The may fight and squabble but they are loyal to a fault (as Simon quickly learns even during the early days of his "faux courtship" with Daphne). Although this is very much Daphne's story, Quinn does an excellent job introducing the siblings that will feature in later installments. From the rakish Colin, newly-returned from Europe, to Anthony the eldest, nearly driving himself batty attempting to navigate the Marriage Mart as a very eligible viscount while sheperding his strong-willed family through society's social whirl, to the precocious ten-year-old Hyacinth, whose outspoken wisdom beyond her years marks her as a force to be reckoned with once she comes of age. And I adore their mother, Violet! At first I feared she was Mrs. Bennet reborn, but her occasional flighty absent-mindedness masks the razor sharp wit and intelligence required to survive as matriarch to the lively Bridgerton children.

Although Daphne and Simon's journey from courtship to marriage covers only the span of a few short weeks, I loved the emphasis Quinn placed on their intellectual and emotional compatibility. Yes, they each are highly appreciative of the other's fine form, what makes their romance make my heart sing is how they are both so utterly disarmed and genuinely comfortable in each other's company. Looks may fade with time, but personality is forever, eh? And while keeping with the fact that since this is a mainstream historical romance there are some spicy scenes, refreshingly those occur after marriage. I was really impressed by how Quinn touched on the intimacies of the marital relationship making each partner vulnerable to the other, and how that trust, if lost (speaking of misunderstanding, not abuse) can create a painful rift. Daphne and Simon's commitment to each other, despite their marriage's rocky start and subsequent misunderstandings, is the hook that got me so emotionally invested in this couple and kept my fingers flying to turn the pages.

Quinn possesses a delightfully breezy writing style that oft-times belies the serious issues of emotional weight that she addresses within the pages of Simon and Daphne's story. The prologue, revealing Simon's tragic childhood, reads with the matter of fact tone of a dark fairy tale, one leaving readers to question the possibility of the tortured heir's future happiness. The warmth and humor with which she imbues this romance makes the heart of The Duke and I all the more compelling and memorable, because Quinn doesn't shy away from the difficult issues that could make or break a marriage. Even if her breezy writing style lends itself to playing a *bit* fast and loose with period mannerisms, that is forgivable since The Duke and I is thoroughly engaging, romance for the heart and the mind at its finest. This is wholly memorable, utterly delightful introduction to the Bridgerton clan -- and with the added mystery of the mysterious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown's true identity, whose quips are peppered throughout the novel -- I cannot WAIT to revisit this family in subsequent novels.

About the book:

Can there be any greater challenge to London's Ambitious Mamas than an unmarried duke? -- Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, April 1813

Simon Basset, the irresistible Duke of Hastings, has hatched a plan to keep himself free from the town′s marriage-minded society mothers. He pretends to be engaged to the lovely Daphne Bridgerton. After all, it isn′t as if the brooding rogue has any real plans to marry - though there is something about the alluring Miss Bridgerton that sets Simon′s heart beating a bit faster. And as for Daphne, surely the clever debutante will attract some very worthy suitors now that it seems a duke has declared her desirable. But as Daphne waltzes across ballroom after ballroom with Simon, she soon forgets that their courtship is a complete sham. And now she has to do the impossible and keep herself from losing her heart and soul completely to the handsome hell-raiser who has sworn off marriage forever!

The UK cover - I adore the art!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: A Perfect Fit by Lynne Gentry

A Perfect Fit (Prequel to Healer of Carthage) (The Carthage Chronicles #0.5)
By: Lynne Gentry
Publisher: Howard Books


Several months ago when I learned of Lynne Gentry's forthcoming debut I was immediately intrigued. Healer of Carthage is the story of Lisbeth, a twenty-first century doctor who finds herself lost in third-century Carthage, fighting a deadly epidemic alongside a handsome doctor (well, the summary doesn't SAY handsome, but I feel sure that's the case). How FLIPPING AWESOME IS THAT? Ancient Rome, star-crossed (time-crossed?) lovers? Togas and gladiators and archaeological adventures? I can't wait until March!

I'm so excited this release is almost here, even more so now that I've experienced Gentry's writing in this prequel novella. A Perfect Fit is the story of Lisbeth's parents and their discovery of the mystery that promises to open a portal in time. Novellas such as this can be hit-or-miss -- given the constraints of the format the story oft-times feels lacking. Happily this prequel is a well-crafted teaser, leaving me more excited than ever for Gentry's full-length debut. Medical student Magdalena and archaeologist Lawrence share a humorous meet-cute, and sparks fly as the two attempt to bridge their cultural differences, bonding over Lawrence's latest discovery. Although sketched in brief, Gentry does an admirable job of touching on the cultural and familial expectations Magdalena struggles with. I do feel that her decision to accept Lawrence's offer is too rushed, but given the limits of the novella format accepting that development on faith is forgivable. *wink*

A Perfect Fit is an entertaining, fast-paced story, and if my enjoyment of the small slice of Gentry's writing is an indication, I have high hopes for Healer of Carthage. March, come quickly! :)

About the book:

This e-short prequel to The Carthage Chronicles series offers an exclusive look at the romance of archaeologist Lawrence Hastings and Dr. Magdalena Kader­—parents of heroine Dr. Lisbeth Hastings from the upcoming novel Healer of Carthage—and how they stumbled upon a mystery thousands of years old and began the fateful journey to the Cave of the Swimmers.

Before Lawrence Hastings became obsessed with the Cave of the Swimmers and the mysterious disappearances surrounding it, he was just a young archaeologist excavating the Tophet of Roman Carthage. After an embarrassing on-the-job injury, Lawrence meets Magdalena Kader, a beautiful local doctor caught between her loyalty to her father and his traditions and what her heart truly desires.

Can they overcome their vastly different worlds to find something more?

Review: A Study in Ashes by Emma Jane Holloway

A Study in Ashes (The Baskerville Affair #3)
By: Emma Jane Holloway
Publisher: Del Rey


A year has passed since the events that unfolded at the end of A Study in Darkness changed Evelina Cooper's world forever. Left emotionally gutted by the loss of her pirate-love Nick, the disaster that left her best friend, Imogen, in a coma-like state, and captive to the steam baron Jasper Keating's every whim, Evelina's once bright future has dimmed beyond recognition. Held captive to the grounds of the Ladies' College, Evelina chafes at Keating's restraints even as she despairs of ever escaping his clutches -- and worst of all, even if she did, without Nick and Imogen the idea of a future free from Keating's machinations holds little appeal. But her uncle, the ever-resourceful Sherlock Holmes, refuses to accept the idea that Evelina's life is forever sacrificed in service to a ruthless steam baron. When he's approached by Imogen's younger sister, Poppy, the girl desperate to find a cure to restore the soul to her sister's lifeless form, he sets in motion a daring plan to free his niece from Keating's clutches, once again able to use her magical abilities without fear and with the hope of seeing her friend restored. 

But there is more afoot than Keating's desire to become first among the steam barons, using Evelina's gifts to wed magic to machines. Queen Victoria's last heir lies close to death, and rumors of poison and a son, long-hidden as insurance against the barons' schemes for absolute power come to light, and as those rumors spread the embers of rebellion fan into a flame. The people rally to the cry of "Baskerville!" and a mysterious Schoolmaster with an enigmatic smile and a charismatic spirit emerges as the movement's leader, gathering to him the disaffected and persecuted, makers and average citizens alike, bound together by the common hunger for freedom. While Evelina, in her bid for freedom, finds herself recruited to the Baskerville cause, her one-time love Tobias dances on the edge of a precipice, torn between protecting his new family or the danger that will come if he sacrifices security for principles. And deep within an enchanted long-case clock, and the hell that is one of the Scarlet King's prisons, two souls once thought lost forever make their own desperate bids for freedom. As rebel forces descend on London, Evelina and her friends risk everything to see themselves and their country freed forever from the steam barons' iron grasp -- but the marriage of magic and machine is dangerously unpredictable, and unless Evelina can come to terms with her power and potential, all may yet be lost to new enemies and new threats, wilier still than the steam barons of old.

Emma Jane Holloway's Baskerville trilogy has been a glorious surprise, each volume an improvement in showcasing her seemingly boundless imagination, world-building, and gift for penning heartfelt, memorable characters. Here everything -- and I mean literally EVERYTHING -- comes full circle with nary a thread to my remembrance dropped in error, resulting in a wholly satisfying, occasionally heart-wrenching, conclusion to Evelina's story. But by now this trilogy is about so much more than Evelina and her quest to unite the dual halves of her personality, the mechanical and the magical. Her friends and enemies each take their turn stealing center stage, becoming heroes in their own right or deliciously irredeemable villains one loves to hate. 

This is at once both Holloway's greatest strength, delivering a satisfying conclusion for her fans, but also illustrative of the series' greatest weakness. Holloway isn't afraid of going big and reaching for the stars when it comes to her storytelling, and here she goes bigger than ever before, delivering a conclusion to her steampunk version of Sherlock's London that is grander and more ambitious in scope than anything that's come before -- but it's also over a hundred pages longer than each of the previous two volumes. Now I pretty much adored this book and love this series, but I can't help but feel that with some careful editing, allowing for more seamless transitions between the different points-of-view and varied story threads that this volume of the trilogy would've been even more pulse-pounding and exhilarating. 

More than ever before here Holloway dives deep into the lives of her supporting characters -- Toby, Imogen, and now Poppy, the latter little more than set dressing until circumstances here allowed her to shine and reveal her spark. I loved Poppy's moxie, her desperation to save her sister and her bravery in defying her father's expectations. Until the end of A Study in Darkness, Poppy's older, frailer sister Imogen was overshadowed by Evelina. But here -- separated from not only those she loves but her very body, forced to confront evil personified in the form of her insane twin, Imogen becomes a heroine in her own right. Her chapters have the flavor of a steampunk version of Alice in Wonderland, and I loved the charm of her love story with toymaker Bucky Penner. The final Roth sibling, Tobias, broke my heart here. The charming rake has become a man divided, tormented by his choices and desperately seeking redemption -- and in a bold move (hopefully the set-up for a sequel series) he becomes a force to be reckoned with.

I loved how Holloway wove nods to the original The Hound of the Baskervilles story throughout Evelina's story arc, an association only hinted at in the first two volumes coming full circle here. While I've enjoyed seeing Holloway play a bit fast and loose with the Holmes canon in the first two books, I was completely entertained by her take Doyle's classic novel. Given the scientific nature of her steampunk world, I also have to wonder if her version of the famous hound's origin story was in any way influenced by the Sherlock episode The Hounds of Baskerville as there are one or two fascinating parallels that could be drawn between the two. As the tipping point for revolution, precipitating Evelina's own crisis of conscience regarding light and dark magic, the revelation of every detail concerning the multi-layered Baskerville plotline is a rewarding experience for both fans of Sherlock and high adventure.

A Study in Ashes overflows with Holloway's signature humor and apparently boundless imagination. While I do think this would be an even stronger conclusion if it was somewhat shorter in length, I cannot deny that I was nevertheless enthralled by Holloway's spectacular conclusion to the infamous Baskerville Affair. This trilogy has become so much more than just Evelina's story by this point, and the scope and spectacle of this final act is a breathtaking entertainment on all fronts. The stakes are high, and be forewarned -- Holloway is an author who isn't afraid to break a reader's heart -- but the rewards are worth it. The magic, romance, and mystery of the first volumes come full circle, leaving me desperate for a sequel series -- because there just has to be a sequel series. PLEASE?! :) A Study in Ashes is very well-done, a journey worth the wait and a one I'm thrilled to have experienced. 

About the book:

As part of her devil’s bargain with the industrial steam barons, Evelina Cooper is finally enrolled in the Ladies’ College of London. However, she’s attending as the Gold King’s pet magician, handcuffed and forbidden contact with even her closest relation, the detective Sherlock Holmes.

But Evelina’s problems are only part of a larger war. The Baskerville affair is finally coming to light, and the rebels are making their move to wrest power from the barons and restore it to Queen Victoria. Missing heirs and nightmare hounds are the order of the day—or at least that’s what Dr. Watson is telling the press.

But their plans are doomed unless Evelina escapes to unite her magic with the rebels’ machines—and even then her powers aren’t what they used to be. A sorcerer has awakened a dark hunger in Evelina’s soul, and only he can keep her from endangering them all. The only problem is . . . he’s dead.