Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn


Romancing Mister Bridgerton (Bridgertons #4)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins
ASIN: B000FC1PNE

Review:

Exactly two days before her sixteenth birthday, Miss Penelope Featherington fell desperately, irrevocably in love with Colin Bridgerton. The shy, quiet, awkward, and plump Penelope fell and fell hard for the dashing, devil-may-care brother of her best friend Eloise -- a love that was destined to remain unrequited (and undiminished) for the next twelve years. Never considered a social success (the infamous Lady Whistledown once memorably described a younger Penelope as resembling an "overripe citrus fruit"), and now rapidly approaching her twenty-eight birthday, Penelope has resigned herself to being considered firmly "on the shelf." She's embraced her impending, perpetual spinsterhood with a great deal of equanimity -- or so she thinks, until Colin returns from his latest round of travels and the gossip begins to swirl once again around the Bridgerton family's most eligible -- and determined to remain so -- bachelor. When she stumbles upon Colin's dearest secret, she begins to wonder if she's ever really known the man she's loved for nearly half her life -- and if she can trust him with a secret of her own.

Colin Bridgerton leads a charmed life and he knows it -- but that is precisely what irks him most. A popular mainstay in Whistledown's columns, Colin is renowned for his easy-going nature and perpetual good humor, but he's desperate for something more substantial than the social regard of the ton. As the third Bridgerton son, he finds himself well provided for but lacking purpose, a void he despairs of ever filling until his little sister's best friend stumbles upon his travel journals. Her passion for his writing -- and his surprising passion for her approval -- awakens within him an...awareness of Penelope as an individual, a woman whose quick wit, intelligence, and compassion he finds himself craving like never before. But the unassuming Penelope harbors a secret of her own, one that Colin fears could destroy her in the eyes of the ton -- a fate from which he's determined to save her. For the confirmed bachelor and traveler has discovered the rarest of jewels in his very own backyard, one he's determined to make his own -- a gorgeous, blossoming wallflower.

Since first discovering Julia Quinn's superb -- and highly addictive -- Bridgerton series earlier this year, I've attempted to make my first read-through of the series last as long as possible in order to prolong the enjoyment of discovery. But I'm quickly discovering that is a losing battle, because the more I read Quinn's writing the more I crave, and when I finished the the third Bridgerton novel -- An Offer From a Gentleman -- and realized that Colin's story was next, I dived into it immediately. Colin fast became a favorite character of mine from the moment of his first introduction in The Duke and I, with his irrepressible good humor and penchant for (lovingly) needling his siblings, particularly brothers Anthony and Benedict. While each Bridgerton book can stand alone, as far as reading these novels as a series goes Romancing Mister Bridgerton offers readers a huge pay-off, a love letter to anyone who has ever felt overlooked, undervalued, and dared to love impossibly.

Quinn is a master at developing a heart-stopping romance that develops out of friendship and mutual interests. These Bridgerton books are smart romances, where that elusive spark of intellect and delight in one another's companionship play just as much a role -- usually more -- than simple physical attraction (which, never fear, Colin and Penelope share in spades regardless). Penelope is a heroine for anyone who has ever been a wallflower, who has ever struggled to shine in company and whose greatest desire is to be known and loved for oneself above all. Quinn has touched on this issue to some degree in each of the previous Bridgerton books -- after all, being "recognized" and claimed by one's true love is a trope of the romance genre -- but here she delves into her deepest exploration yet of the facades one constructs in order to protect one's heart, whether perennially popular like Colin or painfully shy like Penelope. I particularly loved how Colin had to work through a sense of shame in admitting his dissatisfaction with his (admittedly) blessed life. In lesser hands he would have easily come off as a petulant child instead of a swoon-worthy hero, but Quinn's deft characterization results in an honest exploration of the depths of his struggle to find personal fulfillment and purpose.

In addition to her superb character and relationship development, Quinn positively excels at peppering her novels with with a host of delightful supporting players, from detestable villains like Penelope's arch-nemesis Cressida Twombley to the warmth and individuality of the Bridgerton siblings. But here she brings fearsome society matriarch Lady Danbury to the fore, with her audacious bet offering a thousand pounds to the member of the ton that uncovers Lady Whistledown's true identity. That bet serves as the spark that ignites an unlikely -- and utterly delightful -- friendship between Lady Danbury and Penelope, one in which the older woman's strength and no-nonsense wisdom gives a late blooming wallflower the strength and confidence to shine. For, as Lady Danbury tells Penelope, "Isn't it nice to discover that we're not exactly what we thought we were?"

Woven throughout Colin and Penelope's story is the search for Lady Whistledown's true identity, and an examination of that columnist's impact on their lives and more importantly, their perceptions of each other. As I mentioned earlier, this novel offers a huge pay-off for series fans in that regard -- but a culmination, if you will, of the previous three books, there is a great deal of recapping that occasionally slows the pace of this otherwise effervescent tale. That very slight issue aside, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is Quinn at her best -- effervescent, breezy writing, a whip-smart sense of humor, and a sizzling romance made up of equal parts passion and intellect. For, as Lady Danbury tells Penelope, "Isn't it nice to discover that we're not exactly what we thought we were?" -- and therein lies the utter magic of this charming read. Colin and Penelope's slow-burning love story, founded on friendship and mutual interests, is a study in the heady, transforming power of love's ability to bring out the best in a couple. A romance to savor, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is a love letter to romantics, escapist wish fulfillment, yes, but a fantasy laced with a heart-tugging exploration of the risk and joy found in emotional honesty.

About the book:

Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend's brother for . . . well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret . . . and fears she doesn't know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone's preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can't seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip aboard he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same—especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide . . . is she his biggest threat—or his promise of a happy ending?

The UK cover!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Call the Midwife returns Sunday too!


This Sunday, my friends, promises to be a very good night for television. Call the Midwife returns to PBS with its third season, and here are a few previews!



Mr. Selfridge returns Sunday!

I am beyond THRILLED that Mr. Selfridge returns to Masterpiece Classic THIS SUNDAY with its second season -- because 1) the second season has gotten the thumbs up from some trusted Facebook sources and 2) HENRI IS BACK. Why HELLO THERE:


*I dies*

Here are a few previews for your enjoyment - first up, the Master Showman:



Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: An Offer From a Gentleman by Julia Quinn


An Offer From a Gentleman (Bridgertons #3)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins
ASIN: B000FC1PN4

Review:

From her earliest childhood memories, Sophie Beckett knew the truth of her parentage, and as a consequence, her place relative to the world of the rarefied English ton -- strictly outside the elite ranks of that social whirl. As the bastard daughter of the Earl of Penwood, Sophie knew she rested behind the thinnest veneer of respectability -- claimed as the earl's ward, but with the truth of her parentage write clear on her features, until her tenth year Sophie enjoyed a life that, although lacking the emotional security of family ties that she craved, provided for the physical needs of food, shelter, and education. But everything changed when her father married a widow with two daughters, and Araminta, the new countess, taught Sophie what it meant to be shamed for possessing antecedents well and truly out of her control. For four years, the girl was further ostracized, hated by the woman she'd hoped to look on as a mother and ridiculed by her daughters Rosamund and Posy. With the earl's sudden passing, Sophie found herself unacknowledged and penniless, thrust into a life of servitude, at the mercy of Araminta's every whim. Six years pass, and her dreams worn thin under the grinding heel of Araminta's shoe, when invitations to the famed Bridgerton masquerade ball arrive, Sophie seizes the chance to, for just one night, be something more than a scorned illegitimate daughter -- to be just her, a woman reborn, a world of possibilities at her feet. It was just one night -- and one night couldn't possibly cause any harm. But sneaking into the masquerade, arrayed in a dazzling silver gown, Sophie underestimated the power of one night to transform her life forever, for she never counted on meeting Benedict Bridgerton...

Benedict, the tall, lanky, impossibly handsome second Bridgerton, is heartily sick of society in general and his mother Violet's matchmaking schemes in particular. But when he spies a mysterious woman in silver at his mother's masquerade, he knows his life has changed forever -- for this woman, known to him only by her winsome smile and electrifying presence, this woman, over the course of one brief encounter, captures his heart forever. When she flees the ball, leaving only a monogrammed glove as a clue to her identity, he's devastated, and spends months searching for her among the ton, to no avail. And as the months become years, he becomes convinced his once chance at a love match to rival his parents' has passed -- sure, that is, until he rescues housemaid Sophie Beckett from the unwelcome advances of her employer at a country party. But Sophie is a servant, a wholly unsuitable match for the younger brother of a viscount...isn't she? Be that as it may, she's the only woman to make his heart sing since the long-ago masquerade, and so he proposes an audacious scheme -- Sophie will become his mistress. However, Benedict never reckoned on Sophie's horror of inflicting her illegitimacy on a possible child, or the secrets she's been holding dear. When the truth is finally revealed, will true love conquer all, or will social conventions shatter the promise of a love that flowered one magical night, when a masquerade gave an unlikely pair the courage to reveal their hearts?

The more I read Julia Quinn, the more I become convinced that this woman can do no wrong. The Bridgertons have quickly become one of my all-time favorite fictional families, and with this third installment, Quinn blends her trademark warmth, wit, and humor with a fairy tale retelling that is at once both literal and wholly new. The Duke and I and The Viscount Who Loved Me, which showcased the love stories of Benedict's sister Daphne and brother Anthony, respectively, are essential fairy tales in and of themselves -- delightfully romantic, humorous, heartfelt confections that establish Quinn as a gold standard in romance. But with An Offer From a Gentleman, Quinn takes the conceit one step further, weaving the tropes of the Cinderella story -- the evil stepmother and stepsisters, shoes, a ball, secret identities -- into the Bridgerton world and making the classic tale her own.

Lest her retelling become too literal, Quinn introduces Sophie and Benedict, sparks fly -- and then circumstances conspire to keep the would-be lovers apart for two years. And this time jump is one of the things that impressed me the most about this retelling of Cinderella, revealing Quinn's determination to thoroughly test the fairy tale trope of love at first sight to the max. Both Sophie and Benedict construct ideals, fantasies that arguably see the best potential in each other but just as arguably fall short of reality. For Sophie's determination to keep her secret, reveals the great irony of the title -- Benedict's offer to make Sophie the maid his mistress means that in perhaps the most important respect -- respect of Sophie as an individual, regardless of social station -- that he is no gentleman. His pressure to get Sophie to acquiesce to his plan is inexcusable and short-sighted, but it's a testament to Quinn's characterization and plotting that he still emerges as a hero worthy of keeping company with Simon and Anthony. This Bridgerton, of the charmed life, loving family, and hidden artistic bent, is desperate to be known and loved as an individual, yet is just as susceptible to the social pressure to marry well until he realizes that in Sophie he has a woman who'd love him if he were a pauper -- and how, therefore, could he do any less in return?

Perhaps it is the comfort of familiarity, but with each successive installment that I read of Quinn's Bridgerton series I fall more and more in love with this delightfully quirky, passionate, close-knit family. Even more than the previous two installments, this novel showcases their legendary family bond, and gives their matriarch Violet a chance to shine, far beyond merely urging each of her children in turn towards matrimony. It could be tempting, with Quinn's breezy writing style and irrepressible sense of humor, to gloss over the weightier themes of family and belonging, of seeing, being seen, and being truly accepted as one is, that she explores within the pages of Benedict and Sophie's story, but that is what makes her books such gems. She blends the heady flush of new romance with a refreshingly honest look at what it takes to make a relationship last beyond the thrill of discovery and the first rush of passion. An Offer From a Gentleman is romantic escapism at its finest, yes -- but escapism laced with thought-provoking nuggets shedding light on identity, self-worth, and the respect of one another required to make a relationship work that once again elevates Quinn's storytelling from the realms of the ordinary to the extraordinary.

About the book:

Sophie Beckett never dreamed she′d be able to sneak into Lady Bridgerton′s famed masquerade ball - or that "Prince Charming" would be waiting there for her! Though the daughter of an earl, Sophie has been relegated to the role of servant by her disdainful stepmother. But now, spinning in the strong arms of the debonair and devastatingly handsome Benedict Bridgerton, she feels like royalty. Alas, she knows all enchantments must end when the clock strikes midnight.

Who was that extraordinary woman? Ever since that magical night, a radiant vision in silver has blinded Benedict to the attractions of any other - except, perhaps, this alluring and oddly familiar beauty dressed in housemaid′s garb whom he feels compelled to rescue from a most disagreeable situation. He has sworn to find and wed his mystery miss, but this breathtaking maid makes him weak with wanting her. Yet, if he offers her his heart, will Benedict sacrifice his only chance for a fairy tale love?

The UK cover!


******

So, I know the costumes aren't right, but hey when we're talking fairy tale casting who cares about accuracy, eh? All while I was reading An Offer From a Gentleman I kept picturing Benedict and Sophie as Richard Chamberlain and Gemma Craven from my beloved 1976 version of Cinderella, The Slipper and the Rose.


I mean look at this profile -- does that scream artistic, brooding aristocrat or what? :)


Review: The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene


The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #1)
By: Carolyn Keene
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
ISBN: 978-0-448-47969-9

Review:

When I stumbled upon the news that Grosset & Dunlap was re-issuing the first four Nancy Drew novels with absolutely gorgeous new artwork, deliciously evocative of the teenage sleuth's 1930s origins, I couldn't resist the temptation to revisit this childhood favorite to see if her charm has stood the test of time. And happily, she does. From the opening chapter, which finds Nancy driving her beloved blue convertible (I seriously mourn the transformation of roadster to convertible, though I suppose that update was inevitable), saving a child's life, and hearing the first rumors of the fabulously wealthy Josiah Crowley's lost will, I was once again hooked and within these pages transported to River Heights and the side of a friendly, unassuming girl with a knack for crime-solving and a passion for justice.

Growing up, I remember Nancy Drew being one of the first heroines I desperately wanted to be -- not only was her life one never-ending series of adventures, but she was pretty, capable, and above all wickedly smart. And her dreamy boyfriend Ned didn't hurt, either. *wink* However, within the pages of The Secret of the Old Clock we've yet to meet Ned, or Nancy's stalwart chums Bess and George. This novel sets the tone of Nancy's adventures by introducing her charmed life as the beloved daughter of lawyer Carson Drew, who always managed to balance his parental concern for Nancy's safety with a remarkable latitude and encouragement for her unorthodox passion and independent streak, and beloved housekeeper Hannah, who I always rather imagined to be the female version of Alfred from the Batman mythology. :)

While these books may be formulaic, I can't really complain as The Secret of the Old Clock is arguably something of a gold standard for this type of fiction. Nancy is smart, capable, and passionate about helping those less fortunate than herself, all admirable traits that have helped this perpetually youthful sleuth endure for over eight decades. With crisp, clear prose, a nicely-plotted mystery, and loads of atmosphere, Nancy's first mystery is every bit the charming page-turner now as when I first discovered it over twenty (gulp!) years ago. However, with the benefit of adulthood and the knowledge the internet has provided about the series, I think I perhaps appreciate the longevity of these stories even more. When I was a kid, before I learned that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, I thought she was a GENIUS -- now, I appreciate what it took to craft and perfect this winning formula even more. Long live Nancy!

About the book:

A special treat for Nancy Drew fans, and any reader who's new to the series! We're releasing a stunning new edition of an old favorite: The Secret of the Old Clock, the first book in the incredibly popular, long-running series. It's the same exciting mystery that readers have fallen in love with for more than 80 years—Nancy Drew has to help Mr. Crowly's friends find his missing will, before the evil Topham family steals his full inheritance. Now with a brand-new look, this is an edition that collectors won't want to miss!

******

And now, a brief history of The Secret of the Old Clock covers! Because HELLO, they are ALL AWESOME.




Friday, March 21, 2014

Lewis & Hathaway LIVE!!


GUYS GUYS GUYS. I am SO EXCITED!! Last month (and somehow I missed this news) Lewis was commissioned for a new series of six one-hour episodes! According to Digital Spy, the series will see the retired Lewis return to active duty to work with the now INSPECTOR Hathaway. Can. Not. WAIT.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Love Comes Calling by Siri Mitchell


Love Comes Calling
By: Siri Mitchell
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1036-5

Review:

Ellis Eton is sick and tired of being a disappointment to her strait-laced, well-to-do Boston family. Though she tries, she never seems to have any follow-through, personally or academically, leaving a trail of frustrated chaos in her wake. The only thing her restless, active mind and boundless energy allow her to do well is act -- and on stage she can escape who she is and be anyone she wants, anyone but herself, the disappointing Eton daughter. When she's informed by a professor that she's failed economics and is in danger of flunking out of Radcliffe College, she hatches a daring plan -- she'll runaway to seek her fortune as an actress in Hollywood. The only problem is her lack of funds...

Making the stars in her eyes a Hollywood reality seems like another failed Ellis scheme in the making until Janie Winslow, daughter of a family servant, begs for help. Janie needs Ellis to leverage their similar looks and her acting talent to pose as Janie for two weeks as a "hello girl," where Janie operates a telephone switchboard, while she attends to a family emergency. Ellis is thrilled -- posing as Janie will give her a chance to flex her acting muscles and earn much-needed funds. But the work proves more challenging than she'd anticipated, particularly when she accidentally overhears a conversation threatening Griff Phillips. Griff, her childhood best friend, is now a football star with dreamy blue eyes -- and the one person who tempts Ellis to think twice about fleeing to Hollywood. Intent on saving Griff, will Ellis miss the truth he's always known --- that what she views as her biggest weakness is her greatest strength, and that her uniqueness isn't, in fact, a mistake?

From start to finish, Love Comes Calling is an absolute delight. With her trademark attention to detail and her unique, unparalleled flair for bringing history to life with a Technicolor-clarity, Mitchell brings the roaring, raucous 1920s to vibrant life on the page. And in a stroke of brilliance she allows readers to witness this tumultuous, transformative decade through the eyes of a woman whose restless mind and unfocused energies would today see her diagnosed with ADHD. As a daughter of privilege, Ellis is in the position to embrace the increased freedoms the postwar years brought to women, from college educations to opportunities in the workforce -- only unlike the "hello girls" she meets when posing as Janie, Ellis has the safety net of family wealth. This realization not only allows Ellis to appreciate where she's come from, and the gifts she's been given, but plants within her a growing desire to help other women embrace the new opportunities afforded to them in this great decade of social change, giving her restless energies a heartfelt focus that cannot help but succeed.

Mitchell has a gift for bringing wildly disparate historical periods to life in her novels with pitch-perfect clarity, from the glamour of the Gilded Age in She Walks in Beauty to a Quaker struggling to survive the Revolutionary War in The Messenger. Here she brings the Roaring Twenties to life with all of the vibrancy and energy of the early Hollywood films that Ellis loves. There is more humor within these pages than one familiar with Mitchell's past works might expect to find, but for me that is part of the magic of her work. She manages to capture the essence of a time period, faded to black and white in the history books, and with a few deft strokes of her pen bring it back to life. Although Ellis post-dates the initial incarnation of The Perils of Pauline by a decade, I couldn't help but liken the madcap nature of her adventures to the early Hollywood serial -- the stakes are high, and despite obstacles and occasional failures, there is an infectious enthusiasm to her adventures for which one cannot help but cheer.

Within the framework of Ellis's story, Mitchell tackles the topic of Prohibition, and through the historical lens asks readers to examine the intersection of faith and politics -- as potentially volatile and timely a subject today as it was nearly a century ago. With the passage of Prohibition, the rise of corruption in government and law enforcement exploded, and the ease with which one can access illegal alcohol forces Ellis to examine both her personal beliefs and her role -- if any -- as a believer in a society whose mantra was increasingly "anything goes." More than seeking to enforce an arguably unenforceable law, as Ellis enters the workforce and experiences the best and worst society has to offer, she realizes the critical importance of living her faith, for the potential of her life, well and faithfully lived, to speak louder than any law. As Mitchell states in her Author's Note, "we were designed for the freedom of choice....[and] only God can change hearts" -- a particularly timely reminder for those today who, like Ellis and Griff nearly a hundred years before, are passionately concerned for the state of their culture.

Love Comes Calling is Mitchell's most cinematic novel to date, a love letter to the early pictures that captivated Ellis's imagination and a gorgeously-rendered, engaging reflection of the medium's energy and humor. The Roaring Twenties in all its capacity for change and possibility and excess spring to life within the pages of the novel with a captivating energy. The carefully-meted detail and ephemera through which Mitchell brings to life Ellis and her world makes for an utterly fascinating, absorbing read. And Ellis herself is an absolute gem, her voice not only pitch-perfect for the time in which she lived but an engrossing and compassionate glimpse into the mind of a woman wired to think in a manner and at a pace that, frankly, leaves most of the world in the dust. For anyone who ever wanted to be anyone but who they were, Love Comes Calling is a sweetly-told love letter. This is Mitchell at her most engaging -- fascinating history and captivating characters laced with thought-provoking spiritual truths.

About the book:

A girl with the best of intentions. A heart set on Hollywood. An empty pocketbook.

When a look-alike friend asks Ellis Eton to fill in for her as a telephone operator, Ellis jumps at the chance. For her, the job will provide not only acting practice but the funds to get Ellis a start in the movies. She's tired of always being a disappointment to her traditional Boston family, and though she can't deny the way he makes her head spin, she knows she's not good enough for Griffin Phillips, either. It's simple: avoid Griff's attentions, work, and get paid. But in typical Ellis fashion, her simple plan spirals out of control when she overhears a menacing phone call...with her very own Griff as the target.

With an endearing heroine as her lead, Siri Mitchell takes readers on a madcap tale of love and discovering one's true desires!

******

While reading Love Comes Calling, I couldn't stop thinking about two of my favorite classic Hollywood musicals -- 1947's Good News, the 1920s-set story of a co-ed who falls in love with a football hero a lot like Griff (a DISHY Peter Lawford), and 1960's Bells Are Ringing, the story of a ditzy, well-intentioned operator at a telephone answering service who violates the cardinal rule of her employment -- DON'T get personally involved in their lives, never mind falling in love. Both are absolute GEMS, check them out if you're in the mood for a little Love Comes Calling-inspired film-fest. :)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Turn trailer

I kinda forgot all about AMC's upcoming Turn series, despite the presence of oh, hello, Jamie Bell, and hello again Burn Gorman, and hello most of all, JJ FEILD, until my friend Kaye started posting images to one of her History on Screen Pinterest boards. Premieres April 6th!

)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: The Unveiling by Tamara Leigh


The Unveiling (Age of Faith #1)
By: Tamara Leigh
Publisher: Tamara Leigh
ASIN: B008R54ZWO

Review:

Amid the political turmoil of 12th century England, where the conflict between King Stephen the usurper and Henry, the rightful heir and son of the Empress Matilda, pitted friends, neighbors, and family members against each other, Lady Annyn Bretanne has but one desire -- to forge her own destiny in a world of men. More comfortable with a sword in her hand than embroidery -- or some other, equally ladylike pursuit -- Annyn has taken advantage of her indulgent uncle's care to become more a knight than the lady of Aillil as is her birthright. But her world is rocked when her brother Jonas, training as a squire at under the formidable and legendary Baron Wulfrith, is returned home by his master, ostensibly killed thanks to the civil war dividing the land. But Annyn discovers a secret meant to stay hidden forever as she mourns over her beloved brother's body -- the rope burns around his neck, proving that foul play, and not honorable combat, were the cause of his death. Sure that Wulfrith is responsible, the fourteen-year-old Annyn vows to dedicate her life to avenging her brother, shunning her sex and devoting herself to swordplay and weapons training, waiting for the moment when she can claim the revenge God has denied her family. Disguising herself as a squire-in-training, the boyish Annyn gains admittance to the hallowed male-only halls of Wulfen Castle, where boys become men and she will at last revenge her brother's death on its infamous lord. When Wulfrith turns out to be less the villain than she assumed, she begins to question her plan -- but with Henry descending on the castle and her future in the balance, her second thoughts may have come too late too late, setting in motion a fate she never dreamed possible.

Having read and enjoyed Tamara Leigh's first foray into self-publishing, Dreamspell -- a genre-bending medieval time-travel romance -- I was eager to try her recently-released medieval romances. While there is much to enjoy within the pages of The Unveiling, I didn't love it quite as much as I'd hoped to, mainly because it plays to a trope that can be very hit-or-miss with me -- the woman assuming the guise of a man for revenge, adventure, whatever the case may be. Let me be clear -- I am not nor have ever been a "girly-girl" in the strictest imagining of that term -- I am all for women eschewing traditional roles and following their dreams and doing what they love, no matter tradition or societal expectations. That said, there are incontrovertible differences between the sexes. But in historical fiction, if a woman is going to deny her sex, deny her expected place in society, I have to 1) buy into why she's doing it and 2) believe that she's capable of stretching those boundaries so I can respect her choices.

On that score, I never bought Annyn's justification for seeking revenge on Wulfrith, or the fact that she was good enough at the "manly" pursuits of swordplay, etc., to pass as a squire-in-training. While it is clear her brother was murdered, she just decides that Wulfrith is responsible with only the slimmest circumstantial evidence to support her claim. And then, when she manages to successfully insert herself at Wulfrith's castle in order to facilitate her assassination attempt, she complains about everything she's required to do in the guise of a squire. Seriously?! I could respect her so much more if her overweening hubris hadn't prevented her from admitting that she wasn't and never would be as good as battle-hardened men a foot taller, twice her size, and with years of experience. You wanted this, you asked for this, yet you constantly curse your trainer for demanding you live up to the expectations of a man in training, when you're not -- and it's not their fault they are operating under false pretenses. That type of denial of one's own strengths and limitations frankly drives me batty.

So I spent approximately 70% of the novel frustrated with Annyn for getting angry with people for frustrating her plans, refusing to take any responsibility for the issues her recklessness brings to not only her life but the lives of those relatively innocent bystanders surrounding her. And until that point, I was convinced that Wulfrith could do better with literally anyone else. But once Annyn's deception is revealed, and she starts to realize that she's been foolish and deluded, the romance kicks into gear and with her trademark sizzle, Leigh treats readers to a story of two individuals who are utterly perfect for each other, in spite of themselves. When Annyn finally allows herself to embrace -- at least in part -- her feminine nature, she positively blossoms under the wary attentions of Wulfrith and his family. It's when she realizes that she doesn't have to deny such an essential part of herself, that as she is she is worthy in both Wulfrith's and God's eyes, that she finally reaches a much-needed level of maturity -- one that allows me, as the reader, to finally cheer for her reluctantly-realized romance with Wulfrith.

Leigh has a passion for this time period that shines with every carefully-crafted detail of this story. The setting, atmosphere, and dialogue are all beautifully suggestive of the time, each chapter rich with period detail. Wulfrith is an alpha hero worthy of any romance reader's dreams, and from his perspective I loved the manner in which Leigh contrasts the oft-times political nature of marriage during this time period with his radical desire to break the cycle of emotional abuse that characterized his parents' union. It's a beautifully realized, timeless message that allows Leigh to subtly weave a message of faith and godly purpose throughout Wulfrith's growing relationship with Annyn, the catalyst for the transformation of not only their lives, but the lives of their families, future generations, and a renewal of their faith.

While I remained frustrated with Annyn more often than not, The Unveiling offers a fascinating glimpse into the social and political climate of 12th-century England (as such, it could serve as a companion novel of sorts to The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick). In addition to my issues with Annyn's characterization, this book has some unfortunate formatting issues (there are some odd spacing issues, and the default font is so tiny as to be nearly unreadable, and requires adjusting the font size to nearly the largest possible setting in order to read comfortably). Those issues aside, Leigh is an extraordinarily gifted wordsmith. Her passion for the time period and subject matter shines here -- she is so comfortable in this world that one cannot help but lose oneself in within the pages of this book, transported to medieval England, lost in the period's political turmoil and romantic possibilities. I look forward to exploring further volumes in this series soon -- this is a much-needed, refreshing voice in the historical market -- passionate, historically accurate romances grounded in life-changing faith.

About the book:

12th century England: Two men vie for the throne: King Stephen the usurper and young Duke Henry the rightful heir. Amid civil and private wars, alliances are forged, loyalties are betrayed, families are divided, and marriages are made.

For four years, Lady Annyn Bretanne has trained at arms with one end in mind—to avenge her brother’s murder as God has not deemed it worthy to do. Disguised as a squire, she sets off to exact revenge on a man known only by his surname, Wulfrith. But when she holds his fate in her hands, her will wavers and her heart whispers that her enemy may not be an enemy after all.

Baron Wulfrith, renowned trainer of knights, allows no women within his walls for the distraction they breed. What he never expects is that the impetuous young man sent to train under him is a woman who seeks his death—nor that her unveiling will test his faith and distract the warrior from his purpose.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Once returns this Sunday!

Once Upon a Time finally returns this Sunday, and people I am SO excited! That mid-season finale just about did me in!!



I highly recommend reading this article which dishes up some spoilers -- and a heck of a lot of useful set-up info -- for this half of the third season.

Bring.


It.


ON.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Fairest of All by Serena Valentino


Fairest of All
By: Serena Valentino
Publisher: Disney Press
ASIN: B0078X0UV6

Review:

When the Evil Queen first appeared on movie theater screens in 1937, Walt Disney set the gold standard for all screen versions of fairy tale villains to come. She was gorgeous, menacing, and altogether overwhelming -- a scene-stealing villain, the embodiment of unrepentant evil. Or was she? As it is no secret that I adore fairy tales and film and novel re-tellings -- or re-imaginings -- of these classic tales of good versus evil, it was a foregone conclusion that when I stumbled upon Fairest of All I'd one day read it.

Here, Serena Valentino crafts a backstory to the Evil Queen of legend, positing a history that, were different choices made, could have allowed for a very different -- and altogether more positive -- outcome of the Queen's relationship with her stepdaughter Snow White. Much like Elphaba's story in Wicked, the television show Once Upon a Time, or (presumably) the upcoming film Maleficent, this novel attempts to reassess the Queen in light of her upbringing, if not exactly excusing or attempting to justify her behavior outright, but rather to offer a plausible reason as to why the Queen would go to such drastic measures to remove Snow from her life.

The young Queen is one eager for a place to belong, desperately in love with her husband and eager to be a mother to her new daughter. But she's terribly insecure, crippled her father's emotional abuse and eager, desperate for the validation being in a family can provide. However, when that haven is threatened, the door is opened for this insecure Queen to seek affirmation elsewhere -- even if its at the hands of a mirror whose power stems from her greatest oppressor.

I love the ambition behind this novel, and the fairly plausible manner in which Valentino attempts to flesh out the canon of the film. It is a bit simplistic in its rendering, however, as she introduces great ideas only to leave them less than fully developed, perhaps giving the target audience less credit than they deserve. Valentino knows her source material, and peppers her story with film and other Disney canonical (including my favorite, a Sleeping Beauty shout-out!). Her prose, while occasionally reminscent of Grimm or Perrault, can be somewhat simplistic and stilted, filled with awkward descriptions and "flourishes," but on the whole this is a pleasing addition to Disney and fairy tale lore. I'd love to see Valentino explore the backstory of other famous villains, like Ursula, or perhaps Cinderella's enigmatic nemesis -- a veritable treasure trove of opportunities are waiting in the wings, and Valentino's passion and imaginative flair for this type of fiction holds promise.

About the book:

For anyone who's seen Walt Disney's Snow White, you'll know that the Wicked Queen is one evil woman! After all, it's not everyone who wants to cut out their teenage step-daughter's heart and have it delivered back in a locked keepsake box. (And even if this sort of thing is a common urge, we don't know many people who have acted upon it.)

Now, for the first time, we'll examine the life of the Wicked Queen and find out just what it is that makes her so nasty. Here's a hint: the creepy-looking man in the magic mirror is not just some random spooky visage-and he just might have something to do with the Queen's wicked ways!

Review: My Sweet Valentine by Annie Groves


My Sweet Valentine (Article Row #3)
By: Annie Groves
Publisher: Harper
ASIN: B005WKGN9U

Review:

After surviving the onslaught of Hitler's Blitz on London, the women of Article Row -- Olive and her daughter Tilly, and their lodgers Agnes, Sally, and Dulcie -- continue to struggle to adjust to life under the ever-present specter of war. Working as a nurse at St. Bart's, Sally continues to see the worst of the Blitz's impact on London, but finds solace in her relationship with George, a young doctor whose affections have helped her forget her own breach with her family back in Liverpool. Agnes is blissfully happy to be engaged at long-last to her boyfriend Ted -- the only thing marring her joy is her future mother-in-law's refusal to open her heart to the one-time desperately lonely orphan. Dulcie is as incorrigible as ever, exasperating and endearing herself to her fellow lodgers by turns, and dating an American pilot -- and determinedly ignoring disturbing signs that he's less than enamored of her than she'd like to believe. And while Tilly is blissfully happy dating Drew, the dashing American reporter, Olive fears that in wartime Tilly's passionate nature will only lead to heartache. But even as Olive fights to protect her headstrong daughter, the widow finds herself increasingly drawn to the attentive -- and very married - neighbor, Archie Dawson. As each woman strives for happiness in an increasingly war-torn London, they find that the only constant they can rely on is change, as they strive to hold on to the hope of a better world in the midst of unimaginable sorrow and loss.

My Sweet Valentine, the third outing in Annie Groves's Article Row series, continues to be a warm-hearted, poignant portrayal of life on the home front during the horrors of the Blitz. Whereas previous installments of the series gave relatively equal page time to each woman's story, this volume focuses primarily on Tilly and her romance with Drew, and its impact on her relationship with Olive. In the second volume, Home for Christmas, Grove introduced -- albeit in a very gentle fashion -- the changing moral values of the time, and the impact a potentially rash liason or even marriage could have on a young woman's life, with a couple's future so uncertain thanks to the realities of the war at home and abroad. Groves further develops this theme here, giving, I think, a very realistic portrayal with Tilly of a "good girl" struggling to navigate rapidly changing social mores of the day and reject or reconcile them with her conservative upbringing.

That said, I do feel like the book suffers for focusing so much on Tilly and Olive's oft-times stormy relationship, and relegating the other residents of Article Row to minor supporting players. One of the main reasons I enjoyed London Belles and Home for Christmas was the sense of community Groves managed to build between these very different women, brought together by shared need and the rigors of life on the homefront. Agnes all but disappears, left to suffer off-stage with her future mother-in-law's patently obviously disapproval, with only a brief update on the state of her relationship with Ted. Dulcie fares somewhat better -- Groves offers a tantalizing glimpse into the development of her unlikely friendship with an erstwhile suitor, now horribly wounded and rejected by his family. I love Dulcie because at first glance she seems like such a selfish character -- but underneath that bold-as-brass exterior lurks a heart of gold.

Of the lodgers, Sally fares best here. Groves continues to explore the toll Sally's fractured family life took on her emotional well-being, and while her reaction to her father's remarriage is extreme, and certainly the stuff of soap opera, Groves manages to imbue Sally's story with an appreciable level of emotional authenticity. Groves continues to explore Sally's changing moral views here, particularly vis-a-vis her intensifying relationship with George, contrasting her more mature decision-making process with Tilly's youthful, impetuous nature. It's a contrast that brings into sharp relief the error of focusing so much on Tilly -- likable enough, but incredibly immature -- and that quality, coupled with Olive's smothering, wears thin in a novel of this length (400 pages).

Sadly, Annie Groves passed away shortly before this novel was published, but with it she cements her status as a master when it comes to writing nostalgic, warm-hearted, female-centric wartime fiction. While My Sweet Valentine is far from perfect, focusing on -- at this point -- my least favorite resident of Article Row, it is a solid entry in the series. I particularly appreciate how, despite the story's gentle tone, Groves never shies away from exploring the stark realities of wartime, delivering brutally honest sequences exploring the emotional impact the Blitz has on survivors. She's at her best when exploring the human toll of war on the homefront, and its catalyst as an engine of social change. Though the prose is still occasionally clunky and repetitive, and the characterizations uneven, I enjoyed revisiting Article Row, and I look forward to finishing the concluding, posthumously published volumes in this saga -- Only a Mother Knows and A Christmas Promise.

About the book:

An emotional portrayal of the lives of four women as Valentine’s day approaches, in 1941 wartime London
‘Life brought enough problems and upsets for young hearts, especially young female hearts, without them having to carry the added burden of the war…’

Tilly is passionately in love with the dashing American journalist, Drew. But he is harbouring a secret that threatens their burgeoning love. At the same time, Dulcie’s brother Rick walks back into her life, the man who she longed for all those years ago…

Agnes is comforted by the loving arms of her caring train driver fiancĂ© Ted. And Sally could not be happier with her talented surgeon boyfriend at her side, especially since he’s risked his life to visit her at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

For Tilly’s mother, Olive, the cold heart that had been frozen since her partner died, is beginning to thaw. But the man she pines for is betrothed to another. The net curtains on the well-to-do Article Row have been twitching, and prying eyes have seen the way she’s been looking at Sergeant Dawson…

When the clock strikes midnight at the Hammersmith Palais, three couples stare deeply into their lovers’ eyes. The confident and stunningly beautiful East Ender, Dulcie, is left alone once more, abandoned by her boyfriend at this most precious of precious moments.

But the women of No. 13 Article Row know that joy is short lived in the London of 1941. It’s a treacherous place, especially for the tender-hearted. As Valentine’s Day approaches, the perils of war threaten life as they know it and all matters of the heart.