Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Books & Film

Happy New Year, dear readers! I can hardly believe that once again it is time to reflect on the previous year in book and film (since that is such a large part of my life, and the main focus of this little corner of the internet). As I've mentioned in previous retrospective posts, I'm not really one for "best-of" lists -- so the books or films I'm highlighting are those that have made the greatest emotional and/or intellectual impact on me in the proceeding year, whether through carefully-crafted prose, tight plotting, or sheer fun. :)

This year marks something of a personal record for me -- I managed to review 66 books here this year -- a number that wildly surpasses the record-keeping I've participated in on Goodreads since I first joined that site in 2006. My reading challenge for the year was to top 2011's 40 books read and reviewed, so I'm thrilled with surpassing my initial goal of 50 and coming in at 132%. *wink* This past year's reading has been an eclectic mix, and I've stretched myself beyond the bounds of my "norm" (Christian fiction) to also enjoy pulp fiction classics, steampunk, and graphic novels. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my ten favorite reads for 2012 (click the cover to be taken to my review, and for the full reading list check out my book review archives or Books Read in 2012 Pinterest board).

Ten Books
(Click cover to read review)






I saw so many fantastic films this year, but I only managed to review 18 (I cannot BELIEVE that I still haven't done a write-up about The Bourne Legacy!!). While this list isn't quite as comprehensive as my book one, here are some of my favorite (reviewed) films from the past year -- and believe me, it was HARD to narrow this list down! :) You can access the full list of reviews on my Movies Reviewed in 2012 Pinterest board or through the movie archives page. 

Eight Films
(Click poster to read review)





Typically I also look back on the year in television, but I feel as though my TV-related blogging has been ALL over the map this past year (i.e. I may NEVER catch up, ha!) so I'm going to give that a pass. If you're interested you can check out the categories that did receive the most attention on the blog this year -- TV Reviews, Masterpiece Classic, and Masterpiece Mystery. :)

It's been a good year. :) As always, thank you, dear readers, for taking the time to visit my corner of the web and engaging -- you make this fun! I'd love to hear some of your 2012 favorites, so please chime in! :)

Review: A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

A Beautiful Blue Death (Charles Lenox #1)
By: Charles Finch
Publisher: Minotaur Books
ISBN: B003JH866G

About the book:

On any given day in London, all Charles Lenox, Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer, wants to do is relax in his private study with a cup of tea, a roaring fire and a good book. But when his lifelong friend Lady Jane asks for his help, Lenox cannot resist another chance to unravel a mystery, even if it means trudging through the snow to her townhouse next door.

One of Jane’s former servants, Prudence Smith, is dead – an apparent suicide. But Lenox suspects something far more sinister: murder, by a rare and deadly poison. The house where the girl worked is full of suspects, and though Prudence dabbled with the hearts of more than a few men, Lenox is baffled by an elusive lack of motive in the girl’s death.
When another body turns up during the London season’s most fashionable ball, Lenox must untangle a web of loyalties and animosities. Was it jealousy that killed Prudence? Or was it something else entirely, something that Lenox alone can uncover before the killer strikes again – disturbingly close to home?


Charles Lenox is a consummate Victorian gentleman -- fond of good books and good food, pleasant company, and a warm fire. But unlike most gentlemen of his social class, Lenox doesn't just visit his clubs and attend dinner parties -- he solves crimes. His wealth and status allow him to pursue his twin passions of academic research and travel as well as staying abreast of the latest in investigative methods and research, earning him a reputation for resourcefulness, discretion, and results. When Lady Jane Grey, his closest friend and neighbor, learns that her one-time maid, Prue, has died in suspicious circumstances, she turns to Charles for assistance. Unable to resist the charms of his lovely neighbor and the thrill of a new case, Charles accepts her commission and is thrust into the world of the enigmatic Barnard's household, where nothing is as it seems and everyone is suspect. As the director of the Royal Mint, Barnard is eager to see his maid's death rule a suicide. But when Lenox learns that Prue died from bella indigo -- an extremely rare poison known as  the "beautiful blue" -- all evidence points to a killer with money and connections, and a plot that if left unchecked could shake the foundations of the British economy.

Finch's debut introducing gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox is a cozy mystery lover's delight, replete with colorful characters, shadowy motives, and an investigator whose charm, persistence, and dedication to his craft promise a tidy resolution by the final chapter. Lenox is a charmer, thoroughly aristocratic in his manner and morals but wonderfully accessible, a bachelor set in his ways with unique academic interests and a determination to ferret out the truth of a case, no matter the cost. A cross between Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, with a dash of Wodehouse-ian warmth and humor, the character of Lenox is without a doubt this novel's greatest strength. A gentleman in every sense of the term, Lenox's warmth and moral center, his well-placed idiosyncrasies, make him a wonderfully human protagonist -- not particularly charismatic (at this juncture, at any rate), his appeal lies in his unabashed, straightforward sincerity and unflagging loyalty to those individuals and causes closest to his heart.

Compared to Lenox, the other characters populating his world are rather colorless, with only hints of promise and greater depth beneath the barest of hints granted on the page. McConnell, the tortured Scottish doctor and Lenox's forensic expert of choice, has a tantalizing backstory that is only hinted at. One hopes that in subsequent volumes of the series Finch explores McConnell's character and marriage to his polar opposite -- the vivacious Toto, a leading light in Lenox's social circle. Graham, Lenox's indefatigable butler, has a flair for investigative work and an unexpectedly close past with his employer, but his character remains frustratingly just out of reach, solely defined by his loyalty with the impetus for such left undefined. And while there is the promise of romance between Lenox and his long-time friend Lady Jane, sadly she is a cookie-cutter, colorless presence -- supposedly much in-demand socially, I was left with no idea why -- Lenox likes her and thinks she's pretty, but that one-sided, shallow perspective does not a compelling relationship make.

Finch possesses a promising flair for bringing late 18th-century London to life, from the rich comforts of Lenox's home to the apothecaries and slums he visits as part of his investigation. Plot-wise, the storyline could use some finesse -- Lenox spends a great deal of time mulling over this clue or that development, which makes for a pleasant, leisurely-paced read as he is such a likeable fellow. But the text suffers from an inordinate amount of "info-dumping," a good portion of the final quarter of the novel devoted to Lenox recapping the case and his suddenly successful deductions. With more showing versus telling, and greater attention paid to character development beyond Lenox and a more tightly-plotted story, the pieces are in place for an enjoyable series -- and seeing that this novel is Finch's debut, I have hopes that subsequent outings show greater polish. A Beautiful Blue Death is a pleasant, light-weight diversion, sure to appeal to fans of Wimsey or Poirot. Though the mechanics of Finch's debut mystery may be quickly forgotten, the warmth, humor, and promise contained within the character of Lenox marks this as a the introduction of a memorable gentleman sleuth with whom I look forward to whiling away many more lazy afternoons.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Call the Midwife - Christmas Special tonight on PBS!

Just a quick reminder that tonight PBS is scheduled to air the Call the Midwife Christmas Special! This episode bridges seasons one and two, the latter scheduled to start airing in the US on March 31st!

Watch Holiday Special - Preview on PBS. See more from Call the Midwife.

Review: The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

The Stepsister Scheme (Princess Novels #1)
By: Jim C. Hines
Publisher: DAW
ISBN: B001O222DG

About the book:

Cinderella–whose real name is Danielle Whiteshore (nee Danielle de Glas)–does marry Prince Armand.  And if you can ignore the pigeon incident, their wedding is a dream come true.

But not long after the “happily ever after,” Danielle is attacked by her stepsister Charlotte, who suddenly has all sorts of magic to call upon.  And though Talia–otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty–comes to the rescue (she’s a martial arts master, and all those fairy blessings make her almost unbeatable), Charlotte gets away.
That’s when Danielle discovers a number of disturbing facts: Armand has been kidnapped and taken to the realm of the Fairies; Danielle is pregnant with his child; and the Queen has her own very secret service that consists of Talia and Snow (White, of course).  Snow is an expert at mirror magic and heavy duty flirting.
Can the three princesses track down Armand and extract both the prince and themselves from the clutches of some of fantasyland’s most nefarious villains?

What would happen if an author went back to the darker themes of the original fairy tales for his plots, and then crossed the Disney princesses with Charlie's Angels? What's delivered is The Stepsister Scheme, a whole new take on what happened to Cinderella and her prince after the wedding. And with Jim C. Hines penning the tale readers can bet it won't be and they lived happily ever after.


I adore fairy tales, and am always on the lookout for fairy tale retellings that seek to breathe fresh life into the bones of a classic, well-known tale. Thanks to a recent GoodReads friend request, I stumbled upon The Stepsister Scheme, the first novel in Jim C. Hines' Princess series. With its graphic novel-style cover artwork featuring three princesses ready for battle, I was immediately intrigued, as the artwork promises that are most assuredly not the princesses of classic lore. For the first volume in his Princess series, author Jim C. Hines returns some of literature's most famous heroines to their darker Grimm roots. Adding a healthy dash of modern sensibility, wry humor, and a set-up reminiscent of Charlie's Angels, Hines' princesses are no wilting wallflowers waiting to be rescued -- rather they are on a quest to reclaim their lives from the sanitized, romantic tales that have arisen around rumors of their respective pasts.

As the title hints, The Stepsister Scheme is primarily centered on Danielle Whiteshore, the real Cinderella (in a nice touch her father was a master glass artisan), attempting to adjust to her new life as a wife and princess. But shedding her past, riddled with emotional and physical abuses, proves difficult, and Danielle has trouble reconciling her previous hardscrabble existence with her stepmother and stepsisters with the privilege and power it is now her right to command. Following an attempted assassination attempt by her suddenly magic-wielding stepsister Charlotte, Danielle is introduced to a world she never dreamed existed, where her mother-in-law, Queen Bea, commands a duo of elite women -- Snow White, an expert in all things magical, and Talia, otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty, a fighting expert thanks to the fairies' gifts of preternatural grace and intuition. Snow and Talia's unique skill sets make them the ideal agents to serve the queen on dangerous assignments -- and when the attempt on Danielle's life reveals a plot to kidnap her husband and overthrow the kingdom, she joins the pair determined to save her marriage and prove her mettle as a fighting princess.

I loved the multitude of nods to each princess's original story that Hines incorporates into his wildly fractured reimagining. Snow's nemesis -- this time her mother -- is tortured by being forced to dance in red-hot shoes as in the Grimm version. There's also a tragically doomed romance with a handsome huntsman and a multitude of mirrors replete with magical uses. Talia views her fairy gifts as more of a curse than a blessing, and while a prince figures in her reawakening, he's less noble and far more lecherous pervert. I loved the touch of a "spindle whip" being Talia's weapon of choice -- that was a nice nod the spindle lore in the original tale. But my favorite nod to Grimm involved Danielle's story, which saw Hines keep "Cinderwench's" guardian angel in the form of her mother's spirit -- first trapped within a magical tree, then a glass (!!) sword, as well as the vicious bird attack her stepsisters experience at the royal wedding.

While this is an undeniably fun concept, where this debut in the series falters is in character development. Danielle is the only princess I consistently felt any sympathy towards or inclination to cheer on as she fought to rescue her husband and reclaim her happy ending from the machinations of her stepsisters. Snow and Talia suffer from unfortunate stereotyping for much of the novel -- Snow is a sexed-up flirt while Talia is the embittered, rude warrior (and in a "twist" you can see coming a mile off, has unrequited feelings for Snow...ergh). Much is made of their own dark histories, but it isn't until the final third of the novel that their backstories are explored, finally lending the them some level of much-needed depth. Despite the character development issues and an occasional want of plot focus, Hines' world-building sparks with life. This is a fresh, energetic, and oft-times wonderfully snarky take on fairy tale retellings that shows great promise for future volumes.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman

Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles
By: Paul Lieberman
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 978-1-250-02011-6

About the book:

GANGSTER SQUAD chronicles the true story of the secretive police unit that waged an anything-goes war to drive Mickey Cohen and other hoodlums from Los Angeles after WWII. In 1946, the LAPD launched the Gangster Squad with eight men who met covertly on street corners and slept with Tommy guns under their beds. But for two cops, all that mattered was nailing the strutting gangster Mickey Cohen. Sgt. Jack O’Mara was a square-jawed church usher, Sgt. Jerry Wooters a cynical maverick. About all they had in common was their obsession. So O’Mara set a trap to prove Mickey was a killer. And Wooters formed an alliance with Mickey’s budding rival, Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen. Two cops -- two hoodlums.  Their fates collided in the closing days of the 1950s, when late one night “The Enforcer” confronted Mickey and his crew. The aftermath would shake both LA’s mob and police department, and signal the end of a defining era in the city’s history.

Warner Brothers developed the film Gangster Squad based on the research award-winning journalist Paul Lieberman conducted for this book, which reveals the unbelievable true stories behind the film. He spent more than a decade tracking down and interviewing surviving members of the real police unit as well as families and associates of the mobsters they pursued.  Gangster Squad is a tour-de-force narrative reminiscent of LA Confidential.


I adore film noir -- the shadow-drenched films of the 40s and 50s that brought to life a world inhabited by gangsters, femme fatales, and hard-boiled private eyes, double-crosses and shoot-outs, a murky cinematic world where the line between good and evil was more often than not blurred beyond recognition. The first time I heard of the upcoming film Gangster Squad was in the aftermath of the Aurora, CO theater shooting, when the trailer was pulled due to the fact that it contained scenes of a movie theater shoot-out (the sequence was subsequently cut and a new scene shot to take its place). I assumed the story was a fiction -- until I saw the trailer just over a week ago and absolutely fell in love with the look of the film. Generally speaking gangster pictures are a bit out of my viewing norm, but I am a total sucker for the look of the 40s and 50s and whatever else may be said about the upcoming film -- it has style in spades. When I learned that the film was based on the real-life exploits of LA-based gangster Mickey Cohen and the LAPD's secret "Gangster Squad," I knew I had to investigate the book that chronicling the LAPD's mid-century war on organized crime. And oh what a wild ride -- if nothing else Gangster Squad more than proves the old adage that the truth is stranger, and oft-times more compelling, than any fiction.

Journalist Paul Lieberman's 500-plus page account of the LAPD's Gangster Squad is a highly readable, page-turning account of the men whose shadowy crusade against the rise of organized crime in their city arguably changed the face of law enforcement forever. The Los Angeles of the early twentieth-century was a city on the cusp of great and profound change. With the rise of the film industry, LA was becoming an entertainment mecca -- and during the Depression years thousands sought their fortunes under California's sun-drenched skies. The advent of World War II brought a serious population boom to LA, as the city quickly swelled to become one of the top five most populated cities in America. But along with the burgeoning entertainment and industrial sectors came imports of a less desirable sort -- gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen who sought to establish gaming and protection racket empires of their own, set to rival their eastern counterparts in Chicago and New York. And thus ten-Chief C.B. Horrall greenlit the formation of the Gangster Squad, the elite, off-the-books, virtually invisible team was hand-picked for their brawn or their brains, and their willingness to completely dedicate themselves to ridding LA of the invading gangster menace.

What is perhaps most amazing about the Gangster Squad is the virtually unquestioned autonomy they were given in their assignment to investigate, tail, and harass the gangster element. Initially their only offices were two beat-up sedans wherein meetings were scheduled on shadowy corners and in vacant lots via coded messages. Since they weren't officially recognized (at least in the first years), they were given free rein to use any method at their disposal to clean up LA's streets -- unwarranted wire taps, their fists -- if a bookie or pimp was "encouraged" to leave town it was tallied a win, no matter the circumstances. What intrigued me most about the team was their pioneering investigative methods. Led by brilliant "bug man" Con Keeler, the squad pioneered new forms of electronic surveillance and wire tapping. And in an age when J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI refused to acknowledge  the existence of an organized mafia in America, the Gangster Squad was among the first to meticulously document the network of connections between LA operatives and their east coast counterparts, building massive handwritten dossiers on targets openly operating in the shadow of the law.

Lieberman's extensive exploration of the Gangster Squad's activities, its members (particularly straight-arrow John O'Mara and the roguish Jerry Wooters relative to Mickey Cohen), and their targets, is a highly readable, fast-paced account of a transformative era in the history of American law enforcement. Whether or  not you agree with their methodology, Gangster Squad is a fascinating examination of the lengths a group of men were willing to go to in order to stand in the gap for their family and city in peril from gangsters who regularly got away with murder. Lieberman's prose and colorful metaphors pack a punch suggestive of the likes of Chandler, bringing his history to life with a flair worthy of a noir classic. I do with a character list, index, and bibliography were included -- the foremost particularly since due to the scope of the history and Lieberman's not exactly linear storytelling it can be difficult to keep the players straight. That aside, for those intrigued by this tumultuous time period Gangster Squad is a fast-placed, not-to-be-missed thrill ride -- an absorbing and thought-provoking window into an explosive period of American history.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Downton Season 3 Preview

PBS has released the first ten minutes of Downton Abbey's third season on their Facebook page -- click HERE to watch! (Be warned this will take a while to load!)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you and yours, my friends! With the way my time off is flying by I wanted to make sure I got this greeting up before Christmas came and went. God bless & thanks, as always, for reading. :)

Monday, December 17, 2012

"OLD BILBO: And as we all know, people with psychological problems attract dragons."

People this recap of The Hobbit by author Sarah Rees Brennan is absolutely HILARIOUS. I seriously cannot stop laughing. One of my favorite quotes:

THORIN DREAMBOATSHIELD: I would have arrived earlier but frankly you were juggling plates and singing about the washing up and I’m not in for that.

THORIN DREAMBOATSHIELD: So I stood around outside letting the rain wash down my chiseled profile, staring out into the night and thinking about my dark past, as is my way.


THORIN DREAMBOATSHIELD: *but very chiseled*

Thanks to Tasha for bringing this brilliant piece of hilarity to my attention.

Doctor Who: The Snowmen - BBC America trailer

Can. Not. WAIT.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

happiness is a dwarf named Thorin...

Saw the long-awaited first installment of The Hobbit today. Right now all I can say is Richard m'dear, you did me proud. :)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review: Every Perfect Gift by Dorothy Love

Every Perfect Gift (A Hickory Ridge Romance)
By: Dorothy Love
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
ISBN: 978-1-59554-902-0

About the book:

Ethan and Sophie long to share a future together. But the secrets they’re not sharing could tear them apart.

Sophie Caldwell has returned to Hickory Ridge, Tennessee, after years away. Despite the heartaches of her childhood, Sophie is determined to make a home, and a name, for herself in the growing town. A gifted writer, she plans to resurrect the local newspaper that so enchanted her as a girl.

Ethan Heyward’s idyllic childhood was shattered by a tragedy he has spent years trying to forget. An accomplished businessman and architect, he has built a majestic resort in the mountains above Hickory Ridge, drawing wealthy tourists from all over the country.

When Sophie interviews Ethan for the paper, he is impressed with her intelligence and astounded by her beauty. She’s equally intrigued but fears he will reject her if he learns about her shadowed past. Just as she summons the courage to tell him, Ethan’s own past unexpectedly and violently catches up with him, threatening not only his life but their budding romance.


Sophie Caldwell returns to Hickory Ridge, Tennessee, with a burning desire to prove herself to the town full of painful childhood memories. Her lack of antecedents haunted her dreams while her darker complexion earned taunts and accusations of a mixed-race heritage. When longed-for guardians swept into Sophie's life and took her with them to Texas, Sophie was finally able to escape the rumors swirling around her past and developed a forward-thinking interest in newspaper industry -- a previously male-dominated world where women were just beginning to make their mark. Determined to prove herself to the town that once shunned her, Sophie risks her savings and future on re-opening the now defunct Hickory Ridge newspaper. Once there she meets Ethan Heyward, the building manager and architect behind the new and exclusive Blue Smoke Resort. While Sophie and Ethan share an immediate attraction, simmering unrest among the resort workers and Ethan's reticence to share his past and his apparently exclusive racial views leave Sophie reluctant to be forthcoming about her own checkered background. Just as she summons the courage to share her feelings, violence explodes at the resort, threatening her future with Ethan and at the newspaper. With forces insistent on maintaining the status quo arrayed against them, can two burdened souls find the courage to share their fears and claim a vibrant future free from the burden of mistakes and regret?

Ever Perfect Gift is the third entry in Love's Hickory Ridge Romance series, but my first experience with her work. My impression of the series is that each novel stands alone, only loosely connected through setting and recurring characters -- and on that score this third installment only partially succeeds. It assumes a certain measure of knowledge regarding Sophie's past rather than firmly establishing her history and motivations within the pages of this novel. While Sophie's insecurities regarding her unknown parentage are certainly legitimate and compelling reasons for angst, nothing she encounters in this novel seems to warrant the near-constant replay of her childhood hurts. The townspeople are extraordinarily welcoming and arguably open-minded concerning the advent of a professional newspaperwoman in their midst. I love Sophie's atypical profession and her passion for the written word. The narrative is strongest when Sophie confronts and overcomes objections to her role or opinion, rather than the repetition of her childhood insecurities, which, given the lack of prejudice she encounters seem petulant and positively unwarranted.

Plot-wise Love is clearly capable of penning a tension-filled scene as shortly after Sophie's arrival in town she is able to witness and report on a workers' riot at the resort. Unfortunately after this rather spark-filled opening the novel's pace slows to a glacial crawl, with Sophie and Ethan alternately musing on their respective secrets and their attraction to each other. When the action resumes nearly two-thirds into the novel, with a fairly stunning confrontation with a stranger from Ethan's past (followed by a sketchily-explained and rather random blow against Sophie's paper), the rush to pack so much action and information about the previously mysterious Ethan lends the concluding third of the novel a somewhat disjointed feel -- instead of raising the stakes for our characters, the action feels forced. Ethan's history was actually pretty fascinating, but information-dump necessary to fit his entire backstory into the novel's final chapters drastically lessens the impact of his own compelling history.

While overall Every Perfect Gift didn't "click" with me as I'd hoped, Love has a flair for bringing small-towns to life on the page, as indeed the well-realized setting is one of the novel's greatest assets. There is also a great deal of potential within the backstories Love has penned for Ethan and Sophie -- and with greater development and tension, Love's ability to craft characters with compelling histories holds great promise for future work. I loved her supporting cast, especially Sophie's friend Gillie who seeks to establish an infirmary in Hickory Ridge, and the promise of a romance with a younger man (a refreshing plot twist!). Sure to appeal to fans of sweet romances (i.e., Janette Oke and Lori Wick), Every Perfect Gift showcases Love's affinity for crafting sparkling settings against which characters with great potential strive to realize their dreams.

Thanks to Litfuse for the review opportunity!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

newest Man of Steel trailer

Now the trailers for this are starting to get REALLY interesting. :)

12 Days of Gifts with Dorothy Love’s “Home for the Holidays” Contest and Facebook Party {12/13}

Dorothy Love is celebrating the new book in her Hickory Ridge Romance series, Every Perfect Gift with a "Home for the Holidays" 12 Days of Gifts contest.

Celebrate the holidays with Dorothy Love and her protagonist, Sophie Caldwell, as they count down the days to Dorothy's author chat party with 12 Days of Gifts! Dorothy will be giving away copies of Every Perfect Gift and other holiday essentials, as well as key items from the book that Sophie would have worn during or used to celebrate the holidays (a beautiful, red shawl, Victorian ornaments, stockings). It's all happening on Dorothy's Facebook page. She'll post a new giveaway each day.

So bring on the Christmas cheer with Dorothy and the "Home for the Holidays" 12 Days of Gifts. Then join Dorothy on the evening of December 13 for her author chat party! During the party, Dorothy will announce the 12 winners from the Home for the Holidays giveaway and host an author chat about Every Perfect Gift and favorite Christmas traditions. Oh, and she'll be giving away lots of fun prizes. RSVP today.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Levin and Kitty

I loved these Levin and Kitty posters from Anna Karenina so much that I thought they deserved their own post. :) You can see the rest of the "love" posters as well as other images from Anna Karenina on my Costume Dramas board on Pinterest, if you're interested.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anna Karenina

Last weekend I went to see Anna Karenina, the latest film from director Joe Wright and his "muse," Keira Knightley. I've never read the novel (though I started it this week, and am a whole 7% into this massive tome!), and my only experience with the story were long-ago and barely-remembered viewings of the "classic" versions starring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. With that scant background knowledge, I went into the film expecting to enjoy it based solely on Wright's direction and stars Knightley and Jude Law -- but more than simply liking it, I absolutely fell in love with world of the film, thoroughly swept up in its tragedy and unexpected heart, and yes -- its hope.

In bringing Leo Tolstoy's massive, nearly 1,000 page tome to life, Joe Wright made the unusual -- and some would say, risky -- decision to film the entire story as a stage play. I wasn't sure how this would work and if visually the movie could pull it off. But from the opening scenes I simply abandoned myself to the conceit and lost myself completely within the film's glorious evocation of late nineteenth-century Russia.

I've always been fascinated by the history of Imperial Russia and subsequent revolution that brought an end to the glittering world of the tsars, so much so that I indulged in an entire semester on the subject in college, which remains one of my fondest educational memories. (And admittedly makes it all the weirder that I never tried to tackle a Tolstoy novel!) In this world, the aristocrats were arguably the celebrities of their day -- and as Anna is a highly-public member of that class, married to the well-respected statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, she is a woman who for good or ill lives under the laser-like scrutiny social celebrity. Thus, filming her story as a play elevates the audience into the role of her observer along with every on-screen counterpart she meets. It isn't breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, but to my mind it comes close, enveloping the audience immediately within the world of the film.

The scene transitions are seamlessly done, giving the film the feel of a fluid, rushing river -- probably a most apt comparison, when one considers the dizzying speed of events that Anna finds herself caught up in, propelling her to her ultimate downfall. (Trains are used in a similar respect, suggesting the idea of an individual on a journey leading to a destination they are powerless -- or think they are -- to stop, an outcome they feel -- or choose to accept -- is inevitable, no matter how disastrous the result. Interestingly enough, the week before I watched this film I saw Harriet Craig starring Joan Crawford for the first time. In that film, Crawford's character makes a similar comment about disliking trains because the method of travel makes her  feel "out of control," when in actuality in both cases Crawford an Anna conveniently forget they chose to take their respective journeys...)

The effect of the scene transitions is that the film maintains a sense of tension throughout, a rapid pacing that in my view lends itself brilliantly to the condensing of a 900-plus page novel. While Anna and her compatriots are set up and move on stage like so many glittering jewels, the transition scenes reveal a wholly different side to the story. Those "backstage" moments reveal the peasant side of Russian society, the filth, poverty, and struggle that make up the existence of the "have-nots" -- a marked dichotomy when considering Anna's privileged existence, and a harbinger of the revolution to come.

While Knightley skyrocketed to fame and widespread recognition with the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and Love Actually in 2003, I vastly prefer her turns in literature-inspired costume dramas. Anna Karenina is actually her second turn tackling an iconic fictional character from Russian literature -- her first being Lara in the 2002 Masterpiece adaptation of Doctor Zhivago (which I adore simply on its film-making merits, it is another book I've yet to read). And then there are her turns in Wright's Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, both of which set the groundwork for this their perhaps most visually stunning, ambitious collaboration to date. As Anna, I thought Knightley was pitch-perfect, making the transition from dutiful if quietly restless wife to mistress and social outcast heart-rending and believable. While Anna certainly goes to her doom with her eyes wide open, that does nothing to lessen the tragedy of her choices -- her willful rejection of the security of home, marriage, and son in order to temporarily satiate the lusts of the flesh.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Count Vronsky, the dashing cavalry officer whose chance encounter with Anna when when goes to meet his mother at the train (played by the inimitable Olivia Williams) launches a dangerously obsessive love affair that threatens to destroy not only their reputations but the lives of everyone it touches. Now I realize this is just a personal preference thing, but I don't see the attraction of Johnson over the likes of Law (receding hairline included!) at all. That said, he does manage to bring a youthful energy (and dare I say petulance?) to the role of Vronsky, a selfishness in his pursuit of Anna that fits the role well.

Jude Law was perfectly cast as Anna's older, politically-minded husband Alexei Karenin. I'm used to seeing him in roles that play off his personable, empathetic demeanor (i.e., Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, the father in Hugo, etc.). Between the make-up and his almost brittle, excessively proper mien, his Alexei was a bit of a shock. He is the very antithesis of Anna's warmth and vibrant personality. The brilliance of Law's performance is in the subtle layers he gives Karenin -- it isn't that he is wholly callous or clueless regarding Anna; rather, he doesn't know how to be emotional, how to exhibit the depth of his feelings until his family stands on the brink of implosion.

I am in no way attempting to excuse Anna's affair -- her relationship with Vronsky is lust, pure and simple -- there is nothing of lasting, meaningful love in their "relationship." But Karenin didn't help -- didn't attempt to meet Anna halfway until she'd sadly crossed the point of no return. A large part of that is certainly the social accepted roles of the sexes in the 19th century, but that aside I'm convinced that no matter the century, one thing about a successful marriage hasn't changed -- it's a two-way street that requires effort on both sides.

Interestingly enough Anna Karenina gives us three romantic relationships to compare -- Anna and Alexei/Vronsky, her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), and Konstantin Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty, Dolly's younger sister (Alicia Vikander - she can also be seen this fall in the Danish film A Royal Affair). Before we can take the measure of Anna's marriage, the film introduces us to the turmoil upsetting Oblonsky and Dolly's relationship. Oblonsky is an inveterate skirt-chaser, recently outed for an affair with his children's governess to the chagrin and embarrassment of his wife. Dolly, in giving her husband a home and children has lost the "bloom" of her youth -- or so that is Oblonsky's excuse. Anna has been summoned to "heal the breach" and convince Dolly to forgive her husband for the sake of their family. Anna succeeds -- and later in the film, while it is implied at the least that Oblonsky hasn't reformed, Dolly seems to have maintained a measure of peace in staying with her husband and loving him in spite of himself.

Macfadyen's Oblonsky was a comic revelation. With his ridiculous moustache, pseudo-pompadour-styled hair, and unflaggingly cheerful good humor (never mind that he is responsible for the problems in his personal life!), Oblonsky is QUITE the departure from Macfadyen's reputation has a romantic lead (Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, etc.). One couldn't imagine a more unlikely on-screen reunion for Knightley and Macfadyen, the couple responsible for putting their own unforgettable spin on Austen's famously sparring lovers. His long-suffering and put-upon wife is played by Kelly Macdonald, most recently the voice of Merida in Disney/Pixar's Brave. I just love her -- she always seems to have such a compassionate and kind on-screen demeanor, which is a perfect fit for Dolly, particularly in the tea room scene late in the film where she shows Anna the kindness of speaking to her in public.

Contrast the uneasy truce formed by Oblonsky and Dolly with Karenin and Anna as her affair becomes grist for the gossip mill. Once Anna chooses a passionate affair with Vronsky over her marriage and family commitments, she begins a long downward spiral into mental and emotional disintegration that is simply gut-wrenching to watch. The heady, early days of her not-so-secret "romance" with the officer comes into the harsh light of day when, unable to contain her emotions at the races (fabulously staged by the way) blurts out her feelings for the wrong Alexei in the most public way imaginable. Initially Karenin demands she honor her vows and maintain the status quo, finally driven to seek divorce. But when Anna gives birth to Vronsky's daughter and contracts a fever, begging for his forgiveness on her deathbed -- he finds himself moved to grant it. And that forgiveness looses something within him, freeing him from a desire for revenge or autocratic control, freeing him to take the first tentative steps towards expressing some feeling, some depth of the emotion that he possesses for his wife and family.

But while Karenin (Law is brilliant here) takes the first steps towards reclaiming his life from the poison of bitterness, Anna lives -- and she outright rejects facing life without her "grand passion." So Alexei lets her go, and cut adrift from the security of her marriage and family, commitments her husband would have gladly honored, she flounders, becoming increasingly possessive of Vronsky's time and attention. For in rejecting her vows, in embracing her feelings of the moment, she is left without any security. And this is where the staging of this film is so brilliant. When she decides to attend the opera with her friend Princess Myagkaya (hello Lady Mary -- I mean Michelle Dockery), she becomes the focus of society's scorn. The fluidity of the sets, the ability to change focus on a dime, is a stark and tragic reminder of the fact that Anna is an acceptable target for foolishly letting her sins become public knowledge -- when really but for the grace of God any audience member (within and without the confines of the film) could just as easily be the next target for their own missteps. That opera scene is to me perhaps the greatest tragedy of this story -- having rejected her husband's offer of a second chance, the increasingly unstable Anna still finds no grace or mercy with the public. Whether or not she would've accepted such, if offered, is of course open for debate -- but that lack of compassion was a convicting moment that broke my heart.

Thankfully Tolstoy doesn't leave his audience without the hope of redemption when it comes to relationships. The relationship between Levin and Kitty is a glorious realization of the possibilities of love, real, sacrificial, life-changing love and commitment. Levin is the complete antithesis of his old friend Oblonsky -- a shy, somewhat awkward young man, he prefers a simple life in the country, working the land, to the delights of city life. Passionately in love with Dolly's younger sister Kitty, he's returned to the city to press his suit, only to discover that in his absence a rival has arisen -- the dashing Vronsky. The youthful, romantic Kitty, sure of Vronsky's affections, turns down Levin's awkward proposal -- sending a heartbroken Levin back to nurse his wounds at his country home. Kitty's youthful, idealistic passion for Levin is subsequently crushed when Vronsky's obsession for Anna leaves her in the dust, humiliated and embarrassed.

Though I'm not yet 10% into the novel, the first few chapters offer some fascinating additional insight into Levin's personality and background, characteristics only hinted at thanks to the constrictions of the film's script and running time. But despite the compression of his story, Gleeson has done a fantastic job of bringing Levin's idealism and love for Kitty -- a love that is almost religious in its fervor -- to life on-screen. (Side note: did anyone recognize Gleeson as Bill Weasley?) Levin has set Kitty upon a pedestal as his perfect specimen of womanhood, his only hope of happiness -- a happiness he isn't quite sure he has the power to claim. Her initial refusal of his proposal is a humbling moment for them both, and it is only after this second separation when each has had time to heal and re-evaluate their feelings and desires that they can realize and claim the future they want -- with each other. His second proposal is so romantic. (Levin's impassioned dinner speech at Oblonsky's is simply beautiful -- and heart-breaking when one sees its effect on Karenin, caught in the throes of a broken marriage.)

While I absolutely ADORE Levin's purity of heart, his love for Kitty, and his ideals, he isn't the perfect answer to Vronsky or Oblonsky's predilection for mistaking lust for love. Speaking strictly from an interpretation of the on-screen action, Levin's obsession with purity, his idealism of Kitty, if left unchecked, would be doomed to fail -- because no human could possibly attain that level of perceived perfection. The turning point comes he and Kitty return to his country home following their marriage to discover his impoverished, dying brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), a known radical, and his common-law wife/former prostitute Masha (Tannistha Chatterjee) in residence. While Levin clearly possesses a sense of familial duty for his brother, he's ready to kick him out solely because he doesn't want Nikolai and Masha's presence to pollute his home, to risk offending his "angelic" bride. But to Levin's surprise its Kitty who shows him the truth of sacrificial love, joining with Masha to wash and tend Nikolai's broken body.

Just reliving that moment to type this makes me want to weep. The grace and mercy and beauty in that scene is overwhelming. My only previous experiences with this story on film focus on the tragedy of Anna and Vronsky's "romance." This film quite frankly shocked me with its moral, subtly Christian worldview, and the way in which it examines -- primarily through contrasting Anna/Vronsky and Levin/Kitty -- love, and encourages sacrificial love, love that doesn't wallow in the filth the world offers, or in the temporary satisfaction that comes from indulging transitory flights of fancy, but a love that extends a hand to the suffering, the fallen, and offers instead of condemnation, grace and mercy. You can have Levin's ideals, but to my mind the story espouses a faith and a worldview that uses those principles to walk out the perfect love we aspire to in a world full of fallen, messed up souls.

That's the hope this story offers, the hope that that love exists and can change one's world. It's an idea that is beautifully illustrated in the final scene of the film, when we see Anna and Karenin's son running through a field with Anna and Vronsky's daughter. Karenin is relaxing nearby reading -- an attitude of repose that would have been unthinkable when he was first introduced. The implication that he has not only taken in the child that resulted from Anna's infidelity, but that he's actually spending time away from work with those children stole my breath. This is a man humbled and battered by tragedy, but who through forgiveness, through releasing the wrongs done to him, has the hope of a fresh future -- and those children have the hope of a better, deeper, meaningful relationship with their papa.

There are just a few quick casting notes that I want to briefly discuss before closing. In addition to the principle players I've discussed at length, this film is packed with wonderful talent in supporting roles. Pip Torrens makes an all-too-brief but warm and humorous appearance as Prince Shcherbatsky, Kitty and Dolly's father. Torrens is a period drama veteran, appearing in films such as Marple, Shackleton, and Lorna Doone, and will be seen in the forthcoming remake of The Lady Vanishes. Holliday Grainger and Ruth Wilson join Michelle Dockery in playing aristocratic acquaintances of Anna's -- the latter playing Vronsky's cousin, Princess Betsy. Grainger appeared in the recent film version of Jane Eyre, and plays Estella in the forthcoming Great Expectations. Wilson was a huge surprise, as her blonde princess with a lisping accent couldn't be farther from the warm-hearted portrayal of Jane Eyre in the 2006 miniseries that launched her career. Emily Watson, most recently seen as Rose in War Horse plays Countess Lydia, the socially-conscious, kind antithesis of the other glittering, but poisonous flowers that populate Anna's social circle. And last but certainly not least, it was terrific seeing Thomas Howes, the sadly now-deceased William from Downton Abbey make a brief appearance as a military acquaintance of Vronsky's, looking so DIFFERENT. :)

Anna Karenina is a gorgeous, beautifully-made, thought-provoking film that I honestly have not been able to stop thinking about since I saw it. The tragedy of Anna's poor choices, the way she trades her precious marriage commitment for a cheap fling broke my heart, especially when contrasted with Levin and Kitty's growing commitment to each other and the sanctity with which that relationship is viewed. This is a gorgeous film, every frame popping with color and detail, the set direction, costumes, and props creating a glittering, snow-capped fantasy world full of all-too-real heartbreak. (Also, the score! Dario Marianelli has outdone himself once again!) But the heartbreak is balanced by the hope that a love exists that, when embraced, extends grace and mercy and offers the chance of renewal.

Free e-book alert: The Frontiersman's Daughter by Laura Frantz

Today my dear friend Laura Frantz's debut novel is free on Kindle! Click HERE to download your copy (remember to verify the "free" price before completing your purchase). I believe this special is good today only (12/7/12), so act quickly!

Here's a bit about the novel:
Lovely and high-spirited, Lael Click is the daughter of a celebrated frontiersman. Haunted by her father’s ties to the Shawnee Indians and her family’s past, Lael comes of age in the fragile Kentucky settlement her father founded. As she faces the many trials of life on the frontier, Lael draws strength from the rugged land. But the arrival of a handsome doctor threatens her view of her world, her God, and herself. Can the power of grace and redemption break through in this tumultuous place?
This epic novel gives you a glimpse into the simple yet daring lives of the pioneers who first crossed the Appalachians, all through the courageous eyes of a determined young woman who would not be defeated.
And here's a link to my review!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Downton Abbey Seasons 1 & 2 Recap

Exactly one month from today, season three of Downton Abbey will premiere on Masterpiece (can. not. WAIT!!). PBS has compiled this handy (and oft-times humorous) five-minute recap of all the action from seasons one and two. Enjoy!

Star Trek Into Darkness teaser trailer!

The first look at the long (and I mean LONG) awaited sequel to 2009's Star Trek has debuted:

Love seeing (and hearing) Benedict Cumberbatch! :) There's also the Japanese version of this teaser, which features a few additional seconds of footage:

May 2013 come quickly. :)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Moonraker (James Bond #3)
By: Ian Fleming
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-14-200206-3

About the book:

"'Benzedrine,' said James Bond. 'It's what I shall need if I'm going to keep my wits about me tonight. It's apt to make one a bit over confident, but that'll help too.' He stirred the champagne so that the white powder whirled among the bubbles. Then he drank the mixture down with one long swallow. 'It doesn't taste,' said Bond, 'and the champagne is excellent.'"

Moonraker, Britain's new ICBM-based national defense system, is ready for testing, but something's not quite right. At M's request, Bond begins his investigation into Sir Hugo Drax, the leading card cheat at M's club, who is also the head of the Moonraker project. But once Bond delves deeper into the goings-on at the Moonraker base, he discovers that both the project and its leader are something other than they appear to be...


If Ian Fleming arguably set the template for James Bond's adventures with his second novel, Live and Let Die -- exotic locales, beautiful women, incredible escapades -- he immediately turned what has become the standard "Bond formula" on its head with his third novel, Moonraker. The action of Moonraker never leaves England, the resulting product a tautly-scripted suspense novel that is my favorite entry (thus far) in the series. The novel opens with Bond settling in for what appears to be a routine week of office work, until he is summoned to an unexpectedly personal meeting with M to discuss Bond's impressions of the latest media darling -- Sir Hugo Drax, industry magnate, whose plans to build a super rocket for the defense of England, with a range covering Europe -- the ultimate military deterrent in the new post-war nuclear age. But M has discovered something disturbing about the enigmatic "savior" of England -- Drax is a card cheat. Bond earns Drax's ire by trouncing him at a high-stakes bridge game -- a rivalry that makes Bond's temporary homefront reassignment to Drax's missile project, replacing the recently-murdered security officer. With the help of a beautiful and savvy Gala Brand, an undercover Special Branch operative, Bond is determined to protect the Moonraker project from sabotage, but the threat to England's best hope for nuclear security is closer than he ever dreamed. With the missile's test launch mere days away, Bond and Gala find themselves caught in the midst of an insidious plot to strike at the very heart of England against an enemy who will stop at nothing to silence their investigation.

I loved this book. LOVED it. If Fleming had stopped here, I'm convinced that this novel and Casino Royale would have marked him as a master of the spy thriller. If Bond -- and by extension, his creator -- are known for outlandish plots, stereotyping, and the objectification of gorgeous women, Moonraker dares to crush those assumptions with Fleming's deft plotting and characterizations. First published in 1955, Fleming's nuclear missile storyline plays into the public's newly-awakened postwar fears concerning the possibility of a nuclear war. And by placing the entirety of the action on English soil, Fleming brought those fears home to his readership. The Blitz had awakened England to the realization that their island state was not immune from enemy attack, a realization and a fear that Fleming explores through first the hope of the Moonraker as insurance and the fight to keep that technology from turning on the very public that embraced its aim and its creator.

Like Casino Royale, easily a good third of this novel is set around the action of a pivotal card game. I simply adore reading Fleming's accounts of Bond's battles waged across the length of a card table. This is a plot device that could easily misfire in the wrong hands, but Fleming was clearly a master of his craft and an adept at cards. With his economical, fluid prose, his account of Bond's schooling of Drax at bridge is masterfully done. The depths to which Fleming used this construct to explore both Bond's psychological state as well as his opponent's are extraordinarily well done, a suspenseful sequence that is a brilliant set-up for the action that follows against the broader scale of the Moonraker launch and the threat of sabotage against the heretofore flawlessly run project.

Bond is at his best here, the perfect mix of dedicated agent, patriot, and very human, very fallible man capable of great feeling, with an equally great capacity for triumphs and failures. His counterpart here is Gala Brand, far more than typical "Bond girl" eye candy -- this is a character with surprising (considering the source) fire, intelligence, and training, more than capable, as Bond reflects, of hitting him where it hurts. *wink* While Bond is still Bond, physically desiring Gala, in a welcome twist she is a capable investigative partner, one who likes him, but manages to refrain from succumbing to his "legendary" charms. They make a memorable pair, and I love their relationship arc -- well done, Fleming.

Drax is a fascinating character. Per the Bond formula norm, he is a larger than life spectacle, full of annoyingly crass manners, limitless funds, and apparently rock-solid patriotism. I've always been fascinated by the idea of sleeper villains (such as Raymond Shaw in the shortly to-be-published 1959 classic The Manchurian Candidate), and pair that with a plot involving a Nazi plot a decade in the making -- it's the recipe for a surefire success. Drax is full of self-loathing, hell-bent on destroying his childhood and wartime demons through a brilliantly-conceived long con that might have succeeded -- if not for his inability to resist cheating at cards. In him, Fleming has crafted a unforgettable arch-villain with a surprisingly human Achilles' heel.

Sadly for Bond film fans, by the time the franchise looked to adapt Moonraker to the big screen Fleming's intimate little plot was largely discarded in favor of an attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze, which is tragic when once considers the strength of the source material. Interestingly enough, though, I was struck by Drax's similarity to Toby Stephens's Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (only with the added spectacularly weird genetic therapy thing). Moonraker is a fantastically good outing in the Bond universe, a brilliantly-plotted, solid thriller that delves unexpectedly deeply into the psyche of Britain's most enduringly famous secret agent. This, my friends, is why Bond is a classic.