Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Downton Abbey Series 3, Part 4

This week's installment of Downton Abbey saw the Crawley family tragically, irreversibly changed. And as difficult as it was to see that happen, from a dramatic standpoint I thought it was extraordinarily well-done and, honestly, much-needed. As gut-wrenching as it was to see the impact of such shattering grief on the family, this is something they cannot simply ignore and magically recover from with little lasting effect. This loss has the potential power to change the trajectory of character storylines and reset the future of at least one major player -- and in my opinion, as far the sustainability of the show is concerned, that is a good thing.

But before we talk about the EPIC SADNESS, let's try and get most everything else out of the way first, shall we? First of all, Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) are happy as CLAMS now that he's back in the good graces of the prison powers-that-be and able to receive letters and visitors. I am not really clear about why his cellmate is BFF's with a corrupt prison guard, and why the care so much about making Bates's life miserable -- probably because I don't really care. I mean, whatevs...FREE BATES already, dangit! *wink* Anna has apparently hit on a new theory that, if they can prove and document it, may actually prove her honey's innocence. Remember earlier in the season when Anna visited Vera's own BFF, who no surprise LOATHED the very mention of Bates's name? Apparently she dropped the clue that Vera was last seen scrubbing pastry dough from her hands -- activity that took place AFTER Bates had left her to return to Downton. So, WAIT FOR IT...apparently we're supposed to believe that Vera POISONED HERSELF in order to ruin her estranged husband's life from BEYOND THE GRAVE. *sigh*

The crazy thing is, in this world Fellowes has created that actually seems reasonable in some strange way. :P So, filled with a fresh sense of purpose, Anna takes her theory back to Lord Grantham who passes it on to his lawyer who will then go see Bates himself, because DANGIT the conventions of the social hierarchy MUST BE OBSERVED!

In other downstairs-related action, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) continues to take more than a passing professional interest in Jimmy (Ed Speleers), Downton's latest footman. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), ever crafty, continues her long-term game to wreck Thomas for making life difficult for her nephew, Alfred. She takes note of Thomas's interest and does her best to encourage Jimmy to seek Thomas's favor, playing up the latter's influence in the household as Lord Grantham's valet. While Jimmy wants to get ahead, he quickly becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Thomas's "attentiveness." People, when this blows up I have a feeling it is going to be bad.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) seems to be letting the authority that comes with her new promotion to assistant cook go to her head, as she is determined to make new kitchen maid Ivy's (Cara Theobold) life as difficult as possible -- all because Alfred (Matt Milne) is clearly smitten with her. What she doesn't realize is that Ivy only has eyes for Jimmy, and by giving Ivy never-ending heck all she's doing is alienating Alfred by acting like a shrew. POOR DAISY. I am DYING for her to get a little romance on this show and it just kills me to see her feelings for Alfred as yet unrequited. Props to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) for trying to make Daisy aware of the problem...I love their relationship. :) (Also, I feel so bad for the downstairs takes three seasons for Daisy to get a costume change and when it comes it just involves wearing a cap?! LOL)

Down the road SCANDAL ERUPTS when Isobel (Penelope Wilton) decides to hire Ethel (Amy Nuttall) to work as a maid. While I think it is all well and good that she wants to help Ethel in this manner, how she can remain so clueless about the reaction of others to this news is BEYOND ME. When her housekeeper/cook Mrs. Bird (Christine Lohr) learns that she's supposed to work with an ex-prostitute, she gets the heck outta Dodge, but not before sending a note to her apparent BFF Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) with the scandalous news. Molesley takes the intel straight to Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who is HORRIFIED, and honestly while the issue at hand is certainly serious, Carson's reaction is hilarious -- when he kept issuing orders that no maid, and then no footman, was to darken Mrs. Crawley's door, I cracked up. Downton is hardly immune to scandalous shenanigans, dear sir. *wink* I loved how Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) was so clearly unsettled by this development, yet tried to downplay the "scandal" at the same time. Awkward. :P

Okay, now to the difficult TRAGIC PARTS of this installment. *sobs* The arrival of Sybil's (Jessica Brown Findlay) baby is imminent, as Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) is called to Downton to assess her early labor pains (any clue how much time is supposed to have passed between this installment and the last? just wondering). Clarkson gives his super expert opinion that all is normal, only to have the air deflated from his happy prognosis by the news that Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has called in a high-end society obstetrician, Sir Philip Tapsell (Tim Pigott-Smith -- look! it's Margaret's father from North & South!). Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is taken aback, but Robert only says what I'm convinced EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER WATCHED THIS SHOW has been thinking, i.e. that Dr. Clarkson knows NEXT TO NOTHING. While I appreciate a character on the show finally addressing that elephant in the room, bringing in a specialist smacks of insisting that an archbishop marry Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery)...a touch of snobbery.

Shortly thereafter Sir Philip arrives, and everyone is enjoying a formal dinner while upstairs Sybil is left with what, one nurse? Nuts. The disconnect between Sybil's labor and the regular society functions below was jarring, to say the least. Cora has insisted that Dr. Clarkson be present to consult (under the guise of not offending him, clever woman). Clarkson is growing increasingly concerned over Sybil's swollen ankles and increasingly muddled state, suspecting eclampsia -- while I cannot fathom the the pain of labor, I'm pretty sure one isn't supposed to hallucinate. It was just MADDENING to watch the smug Sir Philip dismiss Clarkson's concerns wholesale, THE ONE FRIGGIN' TIME THE MAN IS ACTUALLY RIGHT! *headdesk*

A family can be on edge in the best birthing scenario, but outside Sybil's room the situation quickly devolves into raucous contention over Clarkson's insistence that the lives of Sybil and her child are at risk and Sir Philip's assurance that "nature just needs to run its course." Despite the fact that -- in my view at any rate -- Tom (Allen Leech) should've been the one consulted about his wife's care, he is quite understandably nearly out of his head with fear -- and the contention between the pro-Clarkson Cora and the pro-Philip Robert takes SO LONG Sybil delivers a healthy baby girl, and the danger appears to have passed.

But late in the night Mary rushes to wake her mother as Sybil is in the throes of toxic seizures -- Clarkson was right and the eclampsia has taken hold, but advanced so far as to make treatment impossible. People, this scene was gut-wrenching!! Each and every cast member acted the absolute heck out of the moment -- the overwhelming horror of watching Sybil helplessly thrash about, gripped by seizures depriving her of was TERRIBLE. (I've gotta say, though, even if Clarkson and Philip could do NOTHING, I cannot believe that as doctors they'd just stand around like that...yeesh!)

More than Sybil's actual passing, what killed me was seeing the aftermath play out both upstairs and down. Cora's final vigil and promises to her baby girl DID ME IN. Elizabeth McGovern has been given -- at last -- some really strong material to work with this season, adding much needed depth and passion to Cora as both a countess and, more than that, a devoted mother. Likewise the usually almost effervescent Violet (Maggie Smith), always ready with a quip or comeback, is devastated by Sybil's loss -- so much emotion conveyed in just Violet's stance and walk! Maggie Smith, you are superb. I suspect that Branson has gained in Cora an unexpectedly staunch -- and much-needed -- ally in the family, and I look forward to seeing their relationship play out. Branson has been absolutely gutted over these last two episodes, and I'm curious and hopeful that Fellowes will use him as an example, if you will, of a man's ability to transcend social mores and remake himself at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

Downstairs, the ever-faithful Carson, longest-serving staff member, is gutted as he's known Sybil since she was born -- I'm sure looking on all of the Crawley girls as the closest he'll ever come to having grandchildren of his own. I was taken aback by just how deeply Thomas felt Sybil's loss -- clearly the time they spent working in the hospital during the war was a more precious memory to him than I ever realized, its impact powerfully told by Thomas's unexpected tears. Color me shocked, people, but Thomas is actually getting layers this season. I love it. :)

Mary and Edith's (Laura Carmichael) reaction to the loss of their youngest sister was perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious moment of the episode, as Mary exclaims that OMG THE ONLY PERSON WHO THOUGHT WE WERE NICE IS DEAD!!! And Edith is apparently grief-stricken enough she wonders, she actually wonders, DO YOU THINK WE'LL BE NICE TO EACH OTHER NOW? When Mary basically says HECK NO I could've died laughing. While coping with change is a major theme this season, apparently there are some sacrosanct constants where this show is concerned that will remain unchanged. *wink* (Whoops, almost forgot to mention Edith's pre-tragedy big news -- someone wants her to write a regular NEWSPAPER COLUMN!!! You go, girl!)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode for me came in the final moments, when the seemingly stoic, almost shell-shocked Cora lets loose a brief but jarring verbal tirade blaming Robert for Sybil's death. Their marriage has always been, for the most part, remarkably solid throughout the series' run, so much so that  my heart quakes a bit thinking about this rift. In the show's first two seasons Cora was always the epitome of grace and class -- I don't know if the earlier arrival of her oh-so-American mother played a role in Cora's new fire, but she is fast becoming one of this season's most richly drawn and multi-faceted characters. I love that. And while I am also quite fond of Robert, the man has got to wake up and realize he stands not just in danger of losing his home but his family if he doesn't open  himself to change, and soon. (Though seriously, what was with Matthew thinking the DAY the funeral home or whatever comes to take away Sybil's body is the day to discuss the sweeping reforms he'd like to see initiated at Downton with the family solicitor. As much as Mary and Robert need to wake up and realize the man has a point, that was pretty tactless. :P)

Thoughts? As always I love to discuss! :)

Disney's Paperman

Apparently not going to see Wreck-It Ralph in theaters was a mistake, even though it didn't interest me in the slightest, because it was preceded by this absolute GEM of a short film entitled Paperman. Synopsis via the film's Facebook page:
Introducing a groundbreaking technique that seamlessly merges computer-generated and hand-drawn animation techniques, first-time director John Kahrs takes the art of animation in a bold new direction with “Paperman.” Using a minimalist black-and-white style, the short follows the story of a lonely young man in mid-century New York City, whose destiny takes an unexpected turn after a chance meeting with a beautiful woman on his morning commute. Convinced the girl of his dreams is gone forever, he gets a second chance when he spots her in a skyscraper window across the avenue from his office. With only his heart, imagination and a stack of papers to get her attention, his efforts are no match for what the fates have in store for him. Created by a small, innovative team working at Walt Disney Animation Studios, “Paperman” pushes the animation medium in an exciting new direction.
Best six and a half minutes of your day, guaranteed:

The die-hard, vintage loving romantic in me is SO HAPPY right now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pan Am - Complete Series available!

Fans of the short-lived series Pan Am rejoice! Today the complete series is finally, at long last, available on DVD. You can purchase your set here from Amazon -- currently the sale price is just $19.96! I have no idea how long this sale will last, so my advice is to order your copy asap! *wink* I am so happy to finally have the chance to own a physical copy of this show -- for all its first (and sadly only) season flaws, I loved this show, the concept, and the characters. You can check out my episode reviews here. Enjoy!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Ashton Park by Murray Pura

This week, the

is introducing

Harvest House Publishers (January 1, 2013)



Murray Pura was born and raised in Manitoba, just north of Minnesota and the Dakotas. He has published several novels and short story collections in Canada, and has been short-listed for a number of awards. His first books to be published in the United States are the inspirational works Rooted and Streams (both by Zondervan in 2010). His first novel to debut in the USA is A Bride’s Flight from Virginia City, Montana (Barbour), which was released January 2012. The second, The Wings of Morning, will be published by Harvest House on February 1. Both of these novels center around the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


For fans of the hugely popular Downton Abbey series, comes this equally enthralling story of the Danforth family of Ashton Park.
Among the green hills and trees of Lancashire, only a few miles from the sea, lies the beautiful and ancient estate of Ashton Park.
The year is 1916.  The First World War has engulfed Europe and Sir William's and Lady Elizabeth's three sons are all in uniform--and their four daughters are involved in various pursuits of the heart and soul.

As the head of a strong Church of England family for generations, Sir William insists the Danforth estate hold morning devotions that include both family and staff. However, he is also an MP and away at Westminster in London whenever Parliament is sitting. During his long absences, Lady Elizabeth discreetly spends time in the company of the head cook of the manor, Mrs. Longstaff, who is her best friend and confidante. This friendship includes visits to a small Baptist church in Liverpool that exposes Lady Elizabeth to a less formal approach to Christian worship and preaching than she is used to and which she comes to enjoy.

If you would like to read the first chapter of Ashton Park, go HERE.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Grimm: A Helping Hand

The second Grimm webisode has been released -- YAY! for more Monroe and Rosalee to help us through the LOOOONNNNGGG hiatus!

If you missed part one of the series you can watch it here.

Austenland film clips!

Two clips from the upcoming Austenland have surfaced following the film's debut at Sundance. You can watch the clips HERE. Now, I'm dying for a real trailer! :) I may have to content myself with re-reading Shannon Hale's book... *wink*

Thursday, January 24, 2013

David Tennant's "Spies" gets an air date!

I am SO excited about this: David Tennant's new World War II-era miniseries, Spies of Warsaw, has finally been given an air date! It will premiere on BBC America over two consecutive Wednesdays, beginning April 3rd and concluding April 10th. Here's a bit about the miniseries:
Set in London, Paris, and Poland during World War II, the spy drama stars Tennant as French diplomat/aristocrat Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a war hero who is drawn into “a world of abduction, betrayal and intrigue in the diplomatic salons and back alleys of Warsaw.” He falls for a a Parisian lawyer for the League of Nations (played by Janet Montgomery), and their affair heats up as Germans roll into the Black Forest.
And here's the BBC4 trailer, as the 15-second spot BBC America has in their press release is, well, only fifteen flipping seconds. *wink*

Red 2 Trailer

I am SO looking forward to this. Helen Mirren, you rock. :)

Doctor Who returns March 30th!

Can. Not. WAIT.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Downton Abbey Series 3, Part 3

Downton Abbey continued on Masterpiece Classic Sunday with what I thought was an overall slightly lackluster hour after last week's excitement/tragedy of Edith getting left at the altar. That said, as a "bridge" hour it serves its purpose of (presumably) setting up events to unfold later in the let's discuss. :)

One of this episodes main storylines involves Anna (Joanne Froggatt) becoming increasingly upset as days turn into weeks without a letter from Bates (Brendan Coyle) or permission to visit him in prison. The silence breeds doubt, and she becomes convinced that Bates is trying to be all gallant and set her free to move on with her life, unencumbered by a prisoner for a husband. Bates, likewise, is becoming depressed that he hasn't heard from his lady love, sure she is sick and tired of putting up with the burden of his prison sentence. Oh these crazy kids. *wink*

Meanwhile, the fallout from the decision to make Matthew (Dan Stevens) co-owner of Downton is primed to explode IMO, as Matthew being who he is, that means he's going to actually strive to understand how Downton is run and what he can do to make it better. No offense to his father-in-law, but a born administrator he is not. Downton's dire straits call for a little middle class common sense, if you will. *wink* Unfortunately this means going against generations of deeply entrenched tradition, as it becomes abundantly clear rather quickly that Robert (Hugh Bonneville) doesn't view Matthew's "save" of Downton with any sort of urgency. Instead of an invitation to reverse the downward financial spiral, he sees Matthew's investment as permission to maintain the status quo -- and his biggest ally in this point-of-view is Mary (Michelle Dockery). Awkward.

Downstairs, all that Carson (Jim Carter) cares about is that now that Downton is flush in cash once again is that he can bring the staff back to full pre-war strength. With that in mind he undertakes to hire a new footman and a kitchen maid, the latter which will finally allow Daisy (Sophie McShera) to claim her long-promised promotion to Mrs. Patmore's (Lesley Nichol) assistant cook. The new servants will, however, not be hired in time for the family's scheduled dinner entertaining the Archbishop of York (apparently Julian Fellowes had a premonition that he'd need to answer this recently-published article entitled "Why Is God Still Absent from Downton Abbey?"...ha! *wink* Why anyone is worried about that, in a soap opera, is beyond me given this show's track record, but whatevs).

The dinner party sees a surprise guest return to Downton bringing the promise of scandal -- Branson (Allen Leech) shows up desperate, soaked, and on the run from police, wanted in connection with attacks on the estates of noble families in Ireland sympathetic with British rule. And so the Irish Rebellion comes comes home to Downton and the family finally has to face the real-world impact of Branson's radical views -- well face it being a relative term, as this house possesses the ability to remain remarkably insulated from greater worldwide events all things considered. :P


So the entire family is scandalized -- quite understandably -- that Branson fled Ireland ahead of Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), leaving his pregnant wife facing possible questioning or imprisonment at the hands of the authorities because of her relationship with him. Now, in fairness to Branson, Sybil was remarkably game about the whole thing -- but that doesn't dismiss the rather "ungallant" flavor of Branson's actions...particularly after it is revealed just how involved he's been in Irish protests. This show has always taken a rather fast and loose approach to the real world impact of Branson's socialist political views -- he's always been big on talk and light on action and follow through. But actually playing a part in seeing the lives and home of individuals destroyed because they disagreed with him politically -- that seems to have had an impact, and it was refreshing to see the cocky political idealist actually shamed to some degree, for both his actions and the position it put him in vis-a-vis his wife's family.

Everyone goes into  survival mode, and with Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) encouragement Robert takes the first train to London the next day, desperate to quickly control the narrative fallout resulting from Branson's rash actions. The result is a promise from the powers that be that as long as Branson never returns to Ireland,  he will not be prosecuted. Dude, you're stuck at Downton FOR-EVAH. Let's set aside for a moment that I think this is ridiculously unrealistic, even by this show's standards, but this show is all about the house and sending family members to other countries has got to make filming dashed inconvenient. *wink*

By far the biggest reason this episode felt extraordinarily pointless to me was because of its focus on Ethel (Amy Nuttall) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Mrs. Hughes' (Phyllis Logan) attempts to help her and her son. Look, I think her life is TERRIBLY tragic, but Ethel's storyline has yet to have a twist or development that makes me care about her AT ALL. It doesn't help that Isobel is so wrapped up in her story, either, because last season Isobel got extraordinarily annoying in my opinion and this season has done little to mellow her penchant for irritation. I really do think she's well-intentioned, but FOR THE LOVE the woman has NO common sense.

INSANELY cute kid, no?

In sum, Isobel and Mrs. Hughes want Ethel to reach out to her son's grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Bryant (Kevin McNally and Christine Lohr). Do we all remember that McNally is married to Phyllis Logan? No? Well then noodle that when you watch these scenes of Mr. Bryant being an absolute jerk. :P Isobel seems to think that Ethel's son should stay with his mother no matter what, while Ethel (to her credit, I'll admit) seems to realize that IN THAT DAY AND AGE having a mother who is a prostitute *might* impede her son's chances of making something of himself in society. At this point Ethel isn't able to support herself without selling her body, so honestly I was a little horrified that Isobel was okay with Ethel's son likely witnessing that at his age. Just sayin'. Anyways, making a looonnnnggg story short(er), Ethel makes the extraordinary sacrifice of turning her son over to his grandparents. And I WISH that was it, but the previews promise this ISN'T OVER. It will apparently NEVER be over. Oh well, c'est la vie.

In more interesting news, Edith (Laura Carmichael) starts taking steps to reinvent herself following the Wedding of DOOM and takes an interest in women's suffrage. She writes an editorial expressing support for the cause, and it is actually published in the Times -- thoroughly horrifying Robert but earning welcome support from both of her brothers-in-law. People, if Fellowes pursues Edith possibly having a writing career -- becoming a political activist -- oh, this could be GOOD. I have this wonderful feeling that Edith is poised on the edge of something awesome. *keeping my fingers crossed* :)

Back to Bates and Anna for a moment -- honestly I thought the whole CORRUPT PRISON SYSTEM conspiring to keep them apart was bordering on the ridiculous. But I love them, so I have an extra measure of patience for their story -- and the end of the hour delivers a fabulous payoff. After Bates spends most of the episode continuing to prove that he is, in fact, a badass, when Bates and Anna finally receive their missing letters the raw emotion of the moment just killed me (yes, I am a total sap). This is why I love this couple -- Anna so incandescently happy she's positively glowing through her tears of relief, and Bates immediately transforming from badass to cuddly teddy bear. Get him out of prison already, please?! FREE BATES!

Downstairs is poised for a shake-up with the arrival of a new, and extraordinarily good-looking, footman named Jimmy (Ed Speelers -- remember Eragorn? Yes, I saw it... :P). Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE, except perhaps Carson and O'Brien) falls hard for the new footman, particularly Thomas (Rob James-Collier) -- we all saw that coming, right? Interestingly enough, O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) appears to have taken careful note of Thomas's response to Jimmy as well, and unless I'm very much mistaken she'll be looking for an opportunity to manipulate Thomas's feelings at the first opportunity.

Daisy is still crushing on Alfred (Matt Milne), and after a visit to her father-in-law (props to her for that, because considering she and William didn't actually have a marriage, I love that she's sort of allowed William's father to "adopt" her -- she needs that) Mr. Mason (Paul Copley -- holla Horatio Hornblower fans!) she decides to be all daring and modern and SHARE HER FEELINGS! I love that. Seriously I am turning into SUCH a Daisy cheerleader. :) While Alfred seems fairly receptive, the moment is never quite right (girl has GOTTA work on her follow through here), and then the moment flies out the FRIGGIN' WINDOW when Mrs. Patmore announces Daisy's promotion and introduces Ivy (Cara Theobold), the  new and very pretty kitchen maid. She seems nice enough (now, at any rate), but OHMYGOSH did I hate this for Daisy. :P

While overall I didn't find this episode particularly exciting, it does set up some nice potential drama for Edith and Daisy, and the promise of some Downton-running conflict between Robert and Matthew. In perhaps one of the show's more shocking scenes, Matthew actually goes to Violet (Maggie Smith) for help and advice -- talk about desperate times, hmm? *wink* I love the fact that Violet seems receptive to Matthew's ideas, but is basically all "yeah....good luck with that." HA!!!
And here's another Bates pic...isn't that smile to DIE FOR?! :)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock

The Passing Bells (The Greville Family Saga #1)
By: Phillip Rock
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-222931-1


In the summer of 1914, Europe stands poised on the brink of any abyss, rumors of war poised to become a reality. But in England, the aristocratic Greville family is thoroughly occupied with more mundane, familial matters -- the romantic entanglements of the heir, Charles, and the upcoming social season that will see the debut of only daughter Alexandra. Fenton Wood-Lacy, eldest son of the architect responsible for restoring Abingdon Pryory, faces losing his commission in the Coldstream Guards and financial ruin unless he can marry money, and quickly. Lydia Foxe, only daughter and heiress of the bourgeois Archie, the business genius responsible for White Manor Tea Shops, enjoys the attentions of the dashing Fenton but is determined to legitimize her family's fortune by marrying into the peerage, and her target of choice is the lovelorn Charles. Into this rarefied world of privilege come to unlikely outsiders -- Ivy Thaxton, an impressionable Norfolk girl working as Abingdon's newest maid, and American newspaperman Martin Rilke, nephew to Hanna Greville, a "poor cousin" determined to make the most of his English sojourn. While welcomed into the Greville family's world, both Ivy and Martin are starkly aware of their status as outsiders in a glittering social sphere bound by sacred honor and steadfast tradition.

The advent of war following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand brings the effect of far-flung European conflict home to English shores, with everyone from the highest echelons of society to the lowest members of the serving class eager to "do their bit" for king and country. For the Greville family, the full, widespread impact of the war's ability to shatter class boundaries and rewrite the rules of society is temporarily lost in their patriotic fervor. Before the horrors of trench warfare become a reality, transforming the world's very concept of conflict into a bloody war of attrition, Charles and Fenton become just two of many who view the war as a lark, a glorious adventure giving them the opportunity to make their mark on the world and strike a blow against the tenets of an older generation seeking to see the world continue to be "remade" in their image. But it is Martin, as an outsider, who with his keen intellect and razor-sharp insight into the foibles of human nature is among the first to see the war clearly, and bear witness through his writing to the conflict's irrevocable rending of the very fabric of society. As an entire generation's blood saturates the ground of France, every member of the Greville family and their acquaintance will find themselves transformed for good or ill in the crucible of war.

First published in 1978, in the wake of the now-classic Masterpiece series Upstairs Downstairs, The Passing Bells is poised to find new life in a world that has become captivated by the new "upstairs downstairs" drama of Downton Abbey, the short-lived Upstairs Downstairs re-boot, and the enduring popularity manners-driven period dramas inspired by the likes of Austen and Dickens. And for that, I am so thankful. This book is a period drama in novel form, a heady mix of fact and fiction and history, brimming with unforgettable characters, romance, scandal, and intrigue. I say this without reservation -- this is, without a doubt, the best historical novel I've read in years. From page one I was captivated by Rock's introduction into the world of the Grevilles and those family and servants who call Abingdon Pryory home. From the proud, tradition-bound patriarch Anthony, 9th earl of Stanmore, to his devil-may-care chauffeur, Jaimie Ross, an untapped mechanical wizard, each and every member of Rock's sprawling cast of characters is gloriously realized, true to their place in history and equally, genuinely susceptible to the forces of change that cut through society like a whirlwind at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This is historical fiction at its finest, richly atmospheric and saturated with period detail -- but Rock never overwhelms the narrative with raw data. Rather, the novel's sense of time and place is established through the careful meting out of fact relevant to the characters' experiences and overall narrative, resulting in a gloriously immersive, addictive page-turner. Rock's judicious marriage of fact and fiction brings the period of the Great War to life like no other novel (or film, for that matter) in my experience -- a richly rewarding, oft-times raw (Rock pens some of the most brutally honest war scenes in my reading experience), always unforgettable, read. And his characters -- oh! they will steal your heart. He possesses a seemingly effortless knack for bringing to life the privileged point-of-view of an earl while bringing to life -- equally creditably -- the perspective of a sheltered country girl experiencing the wealth of riches offered by aristocratic living for the first time. My favorite characters are by far Martin, with his passion for the truth and clear-eyed, journalistic integrity, and Ivy, the country girl who makes good and discovers her passion and purpose through her wartime efforts. Their love story -- oh, it will steal your breath with its heart and poignancy! They are followed closely by Fenton and Winifred -- Fenton's character arc was a wonderful surprise, and Winifred's clear-eyed perspective and insight are a refreshing change from the seemingly inherent artifice her peers possess. Each and every character is so well-drawn, their triumphs and heartbreak, eccentricities and passions beautifully articulated, flesh and blood characters that will capture your imagination.

For all I've stated here, I've only begun to touch on how much I adore this book. Rock's first installment in the lives of the Greville family during one of the twentieth-century's most devastating, transformative periods is an epic in every sense of the term. At once both an epic chronicle of a society's most trying hour, and an intimate look into the triumphs and tragedies of a group of characters so heart-breakingly real and authentic, one is loathe to turn the final page, The Passing Bells is, for me, a literary triumph. This is a book worth savoring, one whose world I'm thrilled to have at long last discovered. This book -- this book, I will never, ever get over this book. A story positively, gloriously breath-taking in its scope and vision. Thank goodness there are sequels!

About the book:

The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll -- shattering the household's tranquility, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home.

My heartfelt thanks to TLC Book Tours for the review opportunity!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The Runaway Princess by Hester Browne

The Runaway Princess
By: Hester Browne
Publisher: Pocket Books


Amy Wilde may have a green thumb when it comes to plants, but when it comes to men she's all thumbs -- hopelessly frozen, bereft of a single intelligent thought or witticism. Her vivacious roommate Jo is determined to see Amy's perpetually single status changed for good at their next party -- a party that's gate-crashed by Rolf, a playboy with the godlike looks of an Adonis. But it isn't Rolf that captures Amy's eye -- it's his suspiciously normal (but equally handsome) friend Leo, with whom conversation -- wonder of wonders! -- comes as naturally as breathing. She may at long last have finally met her perfect match, the man with whom she can finally be herself, unencumbered by her family's past scandal. But when she learns that Leo the investment banker turns out to be Prince Leopold of Nirona, one of the ten most eligible bachelors in the world, the very private Amy suddenly finds herself thrust into the glare of a very public, and often cruel, spotlight. When tragedy strikes and Amy's closely-guarded past threatens to resurface, can her relationship with Leo survive the pressures of fame and duty?

While The Runaway Princess is my first Hester Browne novel, it most assuredly will not be my last. People, this book is ADORABLE. This is the perfect read for anyone who ever found their heart skip a beat as the real life fairy tale unfolded between William and Kate, proving once again the public's enduring fascination with a royal romance. I loved Amy's idiosyncrasies and unabashed determination to remain normal, pre- and post-spotlight. She's quirky, funny, and best of all, real. Leo is a swoon-worthy hero, the perfect modern day knight in shining armor -- an apt description since after all Browne has penned the modern-day equivalent of a fairy tale. Amy and Leo are surrounded by a colorful cast of supporting players, best of all Amy's best friend Jo, larger-than-life, generous and loyal to a fault -- so well-drawn she deserves her own book. Her friendship with Amy, the give-and-take between them, is perhaps one of the strongest female friendships I've read in fiction of this ilk.

If Amy's story is a grown-up version of The Princess Diaries, it isn't all frothy fun and laugh-out-loud humor (although the novel possesses those qualities in abundance). Amy's unfolding relationship with Leo, while on balance are the stuff dreams are made of, are occasionally shadowed by the real-life, and all too relatable, intrusion of self-esteem issues and family tragedy. While I did feel that the "secret" shame in Amy's past was concealed far too long and resolved too neatly, I appreciated that Browne was willing to add some depth and emotional pathos to her otherwise fluffy, charming romance. Amy and Leo's romance is a charming, thought-provoking entrĂ©e into the glamorous and pressure-filled world of royal romance and its attendant public notoriety. The challenges and sacrifices Amy must face in her quest to make her relationship with Leo work are powerful reminders of the humanity behind the public persona, hidden behind the gloss of celebrity status and 24-hour news cycles. And while it could be argued that, in the end, Amy doesn't give much -- or enough -- ground, what I loved her passionate commitment to remain true to herself when her very private affaire de coeur becomes very public fodder for the gossip columns.

The Runaway Princess is a charming modern-day fairy tale, packed with warmth, heart, and unexpected moments of poignancy. Amy is a fantastic "everywoman" heroine, and coupled with Browne's razor-sharp wit and gloriously realized cast of supporting characters, her resulting romance is one of the best, most charming chick lits I've read in an age. Well done, Ms. Browne -- I can't wait to explore your backlist titles!

About the book:

If Amy Wilde’s new boyfriend, Leo, treats her like a queen, that’s because he’s secretly a prince himself: Leopold William Victor Wolfsburg of Nirona, the ninth most eligible royal bachelor in the world. Amy soon discovers that dating an heir to a throne has many charms—intimate alfresco dinners, glittering galas, and, for a girl who lives in jeans and wellies, a dazzling new wardrobe with tiaras to match. But there are also drawbacks: imagine the anxiety of meeting your boyfriend’s parents multiplied by a factor of “riding in a private jet,” “staying in a castle,” and “discussing the line of succession over lunch.” Not to mention the sudden press interest in your very un-royal family. When an unexpected turn of events pushes Leo closer to the throne, the Wolfsburgs decide to step up Amy’s transformation from down-to-earth gardener to perfectly polished princess-in-waiting. Amy would do anything for Leo, but is finding her Prince Charming worth the price of losing herself?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Your first look at 'Grimm's' webisodes - On The Air on

Oh this is the most awesome news...well today at any rate. Apparently NBC is going to debut Grimm webisodes to help keep fans happy until the show's second season resumes in March -- and they're featuring MONROE! Variety has our first look at the series' debut, which you can check out at the following link:

EXCLUSIVE: Your first look at 'Grimm's' webisodes - On The Air on

Nick & Monroe: A True Bromance

I can't wait for this show to return. :)

Giveaway Alert - The Greville Family Saga

Those of you who follow me on Goodreads may have noticed that I've been reading The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock. People, this book is FAB (more on that later this week). Since I'm so crazy about this book I want to do my part to spread the love and make you aware of a fantastic giveaway opportunity hosted by Laurel Ann of Austenprose.

You can find all the details and enter Laurel Ann's The Greville Family Saga giveaway HERE (enter through 1/23/13, winner announced 1/24/13). Good luck!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Downton Abbey Series 3, Part 2

Downton Abbey continued with part two of its Masterpiece run last night, and thank goodness it was only an hour long installment because this episode was packed. And AWESOME. This is Downton at its best, for me at any rate -- absolutely insane drama at lightning-fast speed. *wink*

The Crawley family is in the throes of planning its second wedding in what -- a month? -- as Edith (Laura Carmichael) is determined to marry Sir Anthony Crazy Eyes Strallan (Robert Bathurst). NO ONE except Edith thinks this is a good idea, but the family all seems resigned to letting her push ahead with her grand plan to become Lady Strallan. But a pall even worse than gaining a sap for a son-in-law hangs over Downton, and particularly Robert (Hugh Bonneville), as the family must face putting the beloved estate up for sale. Robert is loathe to see his financial and leadership failures exposed to the world, but he's resigned himself to his family's fate, even if Mary (Michelle Dockery) hasn't, because her stubbornly MORONIC husband refuses to save the family home. *headdesk* The family decides to take a picnic to "Downton Place" which is far from a shack...but it's all about perspective, isn't it? *wink*

To her family's everlasting credit, they are attempting to celebrate Edith's big day and encourage her as she marries Sir Anthony, even though the marriage is virtually, universally frowned upon. For all that Edith suffers from "middle child syndrome," if you will, when compared to the glittering Mary or the unconventional Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), good friggin' GRIEF does she ever deserve better than marrying to become (as Violet so eloquently puts it) "an old man's drudge" (and keep in mind, I will be ALLLLL about a well-written May/December romance, as long as one of the parties involved doesn't give me the creeps!). I mean I GET that nearly all of the young men in Edith's social circle died in the war. I GET that Anthony gives her the time of day. But a mutual love of motoring is only going to take a couple so far... :P

So while Edith is all in la-la land getting ready for her marriage and a lifetime of having Sir Anthony as her own special "project," the rest of the family copes with the reality of having to leave Downton while downstairs health scares and personal rivalries take center stage. After two seasons of seeing O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) as allies in their shared quest for world domination and desire to spread pain and suffering where ever they go, they are finally on the outs...and people, I LOVE it. Last week saw O'Brien abscond with Robert's dress shirts in retaliation for needling her nephew, making Thomas (as his valet) look the fool. This episode saw Thomas up the ante and use poor, gullible Molesley (Kevin Doyle) to start a rumor that O'Brien was leaving Downton. When Cora hears this "news" through back channels she's understandably put out that her ladies' maid wouldn't confide in her -- and this leads to all sorts of awkward moments for O'Brien. She's so rarely off-kilter. *wink* (I actually felt kind of bad for poor Molesley, unintentionally running afoul of O'Brien!)

Matthew (Dan Stevens) continues to be a complete ass about the fact that he's due to inherit money from Reggie Swire, the man who would have been his father-in-law if that silly twit Lavinia hadn't up and died last year. :P Lavinia, to her credit, was more than gracious about the whole Matthew-is-still-in-love-with-Mary mess, and for goodness' sake she died from THE FLU. It isn't as if she wasted away solely through her own (lack of?) willpower. So for approximately three-quarters of this episode Matthew is a complete jerk about the fact that Reggie wanted to leave him his estate, apparently relishing the chance to wallow in self-loathing and guilt over how he shouldn't accept the money because of Lavinia. Dude, Lavinia DOESN'T care!!! *sigh* I know Mary can have something of a reputation for being difficult and cold, but goodness I wanted  her to smack Matthew upside the head so. BADLY. All things told, the new bride handled her husband's idiocy with real class IMO.

Downstairs, aside from the O'Brien/Thomas "war," the most compelling storyline involves Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) anxiously awaiting the biopsy results from Dr. Clarkson (David Robb). I really enjoy the layers this test has revealed not only in Mrs. Hughes' character, but the warmth of the friendship that she shares with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol). Mrs. Hughes' worry and fatigue become increasingly difficult to hide from the ever-vigilant Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who first attempts to discover the cause from Dr. Clarkson (props to Clarkson for actually -- surprisingly? ha!! -- respecting doctor/patient confidentiality), and then wheedles the truth out of poor Mrs. Patmore. His worry for Mrs. Hughes just KILLED me...please, if they retire or something can they PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE get married Julian Fellowes? Because that would rock my world. I love how he goes to Cora on Mrs. Hughes' behalf, and then Cora calls her in and is all DON'T WORRY ABOUT A THING, WE WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU NO MATTER WHAT. I was close to tearing up right along with Mrs. Hughes -- particularly in that day and age, where she sacrificed the chance to make her own family for a career at Downton, when facing a cancer diagnosis she must've struggled with feeling so alone! HUGS ALL AROUND! And well done, Cora. :)

Edith and the Wedding of DOOM

So...Ethel's WEDDING EVE OF DOOM is upon Downton, and Sir Anthony has this horribly awkward conversation with Robert, where Robert, to his credit, doesn't tell Anthony what he's REALLY thinking (i.e., that Strallan is too lame to be his son-in-law). One gets the feeling Anthony is making Robert re-think Branson's (Allen Leech) suitability. *wink* Fast-forward to the next day, and the Crawley women all share a pre-wedding bonding moment, and then Edith makes her grand entrance -- and oh it kills me that she's so excited about this, because Anthony looks like he's going to throw up and she looks FAB. Seriously, wasn't her wedding dress amazing?! About this time I commented we have a runner -- and Sir Anthony Crazy Eyes does not disappoint, delivering perhaps one of the most awkward jilt-the-bride-at-the-altar scenes ever caught on film. LAME LAME LAME. Poor Edith is in understandable shock, but Violet (Maggie Smith) seizes the day -- and her comments about letting him go and it's all for the best -- AT THE ALTAR!! -- cracked me up. Vintage Violet moxie, that. *wink*

in hindsight, a portent of doom?

I predict that Anthony ends up dead if not by the end of this season, then before the end of the show. He is going off the RAILS, I can feel it!! :P I'd like to propose this scenario: Anthony runs his car off a bridge or something, because he can't stand that he's become SO LAME, and leaves all his money to Edith. Edith (who doesn't have compunctions about accepting odd and convenient inheritances like Matthew) takes the money and RUNS and goes on a grand European tour, where she takes up writing poetry. Somewhere in France or Italy or someplace AMAZING she meets an exiled Russian nobleman who had the foresight to put all of his money in a Swiss bank. They fall in LUV and Edith happily sticks it to her ENTIRE FAMILY by lassoing a HOT RUSSIAN PRINCE. The End. :)

Edith's heartbreak leads to a really touching scene between Cora and her oft-overlooked middle child -- people, that scene is why I love Elizabeth McGovern. She rocks. Cora doesn't often get the opportunity to show her "motherly" side, so it was refreshing to see her cast in the role of comforter here. I am quite excited to see where Fellowes takes Edith's storyline in the rest of this season and the next. Methinks the girl could do with a bit of scandal and genuine drama in her life. Mary and Sybil have carried the balance of that far too long. *wink*

Running parallel to the wedding prep and drama, Mary bites the proverbial bullet and -- against Matthew's express wishes -- reads his final letter from Reggie, wherein Matthew receives the man's full blessing. Of course Matthew is still an ass about it all and Mary actually has to go to the SERVANT'S QUARTERS to find out who the heck could've mailed a letter from Lavinia on her DYING DAY. LET IT GO MATTHEW, FOR THE LOVE LET IT GO!! But finally, after what, fifty-five interminable minutes of Matthew whining, he  takes the money and runs and puts Robert out of his misery -- with a twist. Robert insists that they in effect become "co-masters" of Downton, with Matthew's money being treated as an investment. Like this join chairmanship thing is gonna go down without any drama... :P

gratuitous Bates looking hot shot

In other news, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) goes all Miss Marple on the Bates case and interviews the last woman to see Vera alive. Of course this "witness" was Vera's BFF, who patently hates Bates and goes so far as to describe Vera in saint-like terms. Give me a break. I did rather enjoy seeing Bates (Brendan Coyle) manage to foil his cellmate's attempt to frame him by concealing a weapon in his bunk. Bates, m'dear, you are a badass. Love it. :) And in news I care absolutely nothing about, Isobel (Penelope Wilton) hunts down Ethel (Amy Nuttall), who has shown up at her wayward women reformation project multiple times, only to change her mind and run off at the last minute. WHY OH WHY is Ethel still on this show? Has she had another kid? Didn't she give her kid to random soldier father's parents? I don't even care enough at this point to look it up. :P

In the aftermath of Edith's wedding debacle, I thought it was quite touching to see the family and servants rally around the heartbroken daughter. I loved how during the servants' meal, where they got to eat all of the wedding food, Mr. Carson caved and "allowed" them to speak poorly of Stupid Strallan. *wink* I loved Daisy (Sophie McShera) in this episode, and how she's determined to become more outgoing in an effort to further her career and catch the eye of Alfred (Matt Milne), the new footman. When he asked her to play checkers and she had to say no I might've kinda screamed at the television. They could be SO CUTE together!!!

This installment concludes with perhaps one of my favorite scenes in Downton Abbey to date -- Mrs. Hughes returning to the house with the news that she is cancer-free. She lets Mrs. Patmore break the news to the anxious Mr. Carson, who is then so happy he starts singing while he works. SINGING. Carson. SINGING. That moment was utter perfection. :)

I absolutely loved this episode of Downton, precisely because it was so insanely wild. :) Good times, people, good times. Here's to next week's installment!

everything you (n)ever wanted to know about...

...yours truly. *wink* As an occasional contributor to Femnista, I got the chance to complete a fun questionnaire you can check out HERE.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cabin Pressure Series 4.1: "Timbuktu"

Cabin Pressure fans rejoice! The first episode of the BBC radio comedy's fourth series is available to listen to online via the BBC Radio 4 Player for the next six days, absolutely free! No word yet as to when the series will be available for purchase -- I assume sometime after the entire fourth run airs, the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned. :)

If you're not familiar with Cabin Pressure, here's a short blurb about the program -- each and every episode is absolutely HILARIOUS (and conveniently available for purchase through iTunes...just sayin'!). *wink*
Cabin Pressure is a sitcom about the wing and a prayer world of a tiny, one plane, charter airline; staffed by two pilots: one on his way down, and one who was never up to start with. Whether they're flying squaddies to Hamburg, metal sheets to Mozambique, or an oil exec's cat to Abu Dhabi, no job is too small, but many, many jobs are too difficult...

guest starring me :)

Hop on over to my friend Rachel's LifeWay Fiction Blog where she gave me the chance to talk about some of my most anticipated reads of 2013. We'd love to hear what upcoming releases you're looking forward to as well!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013

Downton Abbey Series 3, Part 1

My favorite costume drama soap opera returned to my television screen last night -- Downton Abbey's back, and the next six weeks promise to be insanely addictive as a third season of drama and romance in the lives of the Crawley family and their servants unfold on-screen. When we last met the Crawleys, it was Christmas 1919, and Mary at long last said yes to Matthew's proposal against a snowy, fairy-tale perfect holiday backdrop. While the upstairs residents of Downton Abbey reveled in that realization of a much-longed-for dream, downstairs was shaken by the trial of Mr. Bates for the murder of his WITCH OF A WIFE, Vera. Of course the impact of the trial was felt by the Crawleys, and the earl -- to his credit -- sticks by his belief in his valet's innocence, while Anna is shaken to the core at the possibility of losing her new husband to prison.

Now a few months into 1920, spring brings the promise of renewal, rebirth, and the frenzied excitement that comes from planning a society wedding. The household is anticipating the arrival of Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Cora's mother, for Mary and Matthew's wedding with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation -- after all, she is so very "American" (ha!). Carson (Jim Carter) is stressing about Downton being rather short-staffed -- the war may be over, but its impact continues to be felt throughout society and large estates such as Downton are particularly hard-hit in the conflict's economic aftermath. But the ever-loyal Carson has NO CLUE exactly how bad things are for the Crawleys. The well-intentioned (but far from business savvy) Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is summoned to his London solicitor where he's informed that the bulk of Cora's fortune is gone -- lost in an ill-fated Canadian railroad investment. Without an immediate (and LARGE) infusion of capital, Robert stands to lose Downton and see the estate he's devoted his life to sold piecemeal. Talk about a buzzkill...Mary does not strike me as someone who'd do well with "making do" or getting married on the cheap!

Robert being Robert takes this financial bombshell and internalizes it, arriving back at Downton and having a minor freak-out at the news that they've hired a new footman -- Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), the one and only O'Brien's (Siobhan Finneran) nephew. So he institutes the 1920 version of a hiring freeze, which means the household staff is forced to operate without the extra maid and kitchen staff they've been expecting to hire -- but under Carson's ever-vigilant eye, they must maintain the same exacting standards of service. Now, the introduction of O'Brien-as-loving-aunt is an interesting one -- are we to think the schemer has something resembling a maternal instinct towards her nephew, or is she looking at the opportunity to bring family on-staff at Downton as a chance to expand her sphere or influence? Or is it perhaps a mixture of both? Thus far I'm quite favorably impressed by Alfred -- not only is he taller than me (I'm 6'2", and Milne is 6'4", so the tall jokes were cracking me up!), but he seems quite nice and (thus far) not prone to his aunt's scheming -- so maybe that isn't a family trait. *wink*

The scene when Robert finally breaks down and tells Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) that he's lost her fortune is a perfect illustration of just how much I love this couple. The are without a doubt one of the strongest portraits of marriage, and the commitment that relationship requires to work, on-screen today. They've had their ups and downs, yes -- but they work through them and always, always come back to each other -- and I love that. Cora exhibits some "American" sass and spunk when she takes the news in stride, resolving to make Mary and Matthew's upcoming nuptials one last glittering "hurrah" the family can always remember -- at least until Fellowes throws a hail Mary into the script and saves the house for future generations of Crawleys. :)

Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) are ADORABLY cute preparing for their wedding -- this has been a long time coming, hasn't it? Given that this is SUCH a soap opera all I can say is enjoy it while it lasts, people. There are hints of less-than-perfect bliss between the happy couple, though, as Matthew is (understandably) less than thrilled with the idea of moving into Downton as soon as they return from their honeymoon -- but Mary is all for it as it is her home, and since Matthew is the heir why not just move in already? Oh Mary...loosen up, m'dear. The ghost of Lavinia returns to haunt Matthew on the eve of the wedding as he receives the shocking news that he is the likely heir to Lavinia's father's substantial fortune. He temporarily keeps that news close to the vest as he is apparently still eaten up with guilt for being HONEST ABOUT HIS FEELINGS for Mary with Lavinia and then having her drop dead. LET IT GO ALREADY, MATTHEW. *rollseyes*

Robert opts to tell Mary about the family's reversal of fortune as he realizes that oh, it might be a good idea since she expects to inherit. Mary immediately starts to double-down and go into Downton survival mode, as more than her mother and sisters her identity is, like her father's wrapped up in Downton and their position in the world relative to the estate. She and the rest of the family are temporarily distracted from wedding prep and money drama by the surprise arrival of Branson (Allen Leech) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) from Ireland -- an anonymous benefactor sent them the money needed so they could attend Mary's wedding. This is the couple's first visit to Downton since their marriage, and Branson is on the defensive from the start (though to be fair that is not without cause -- even Carson is determined to make his view of the erstwhile chauffeur known by subtle slights at the dinner table!). I was really happy to see that -- aside from Branson's apparent inability to keep his mouth shut about Irish politics -- Sybil and Branson seemed so happy and normal. Sybil was not destined for the trappings of a high society life and I loved hearing how much she enjoyed just being "Mrs. Branson" at their home.

More family drama arrives in the form of the long-awaited Martha Levinson. Shirley MacLaine is as bold, brassy, and awesome as I'd hoped she'd be -- the perfect, take-no-prisoners American foil for the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith). She has even less of a filter for her opinions than Violet, but she obviously cares very deeply for her family -- and as a later scene with Edith reveals (which makes up for their initial greeting), isn't adverse to being a bit more emotionally available than the stiff-upper-lip Crawley norm. When Violet learns that the family stands to lose Downton, she and Mary hatch a plan to impress Martha with the home's historic and economic importance in the community -- a maneuver with oft-times hilarious results as its patently obvious that the savvy Martha knows when and why she's being played. I get where Mary is coming from, but really it is a bit beyond the pale for her to expect her American grandmother to forfeit a portion of her (albeit independently wealthy) uncle's inheritance to cover the Crawley family folly. It's a nice way to explore the tension between those who embrace the changing times in a spirit of "make-do" or "adapt or die" while others, like Mary and Violet, are determined to cling to vestiges of past -- and perhaps unrealistic? -- glories. I loved Martha's sass, blunt way with words, and her pragmatism, and I desperately wish she'd been written into more than just the first two hours of this season. *sigh*

So with all of those pieces for dramatic possibilities in place, things start to get really good. Just when I was starting to think it was really looking hopeless for Branson to achieve any measure of acceptance by the Crawleys, at a pre-wedding dinner a former wannabe suitor of Sybil's spikes his drink -- and he ends up getting VERY loud and obnoxious. Unexpected rescue comes in the form of weirdo neighbor Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst), who witnessed the "prank" (I like how drugging someone is a "prank" at a proper English dinner like this) and then Matthew who immediately asks Branson to be his best man. More about the Matthew/Branson friendship in a second -- first I need to talk about Sir Anthony. When he was first introduced in season one as a potential suitor for Edith (Laura Carmichael), I thought -- eh, this might work. But then season two came along, and he hurt his arm and got all sappy and googly eyed ALL THE FRIGGIN' TIME, and ever since then every time Edith throws herself at him I just wanna scream "RUN!!! You can do better girl!!!" I don't know what it is but between the sappy manner and the weird hand sling and the COMPLETE AND UTTER LACK of any sort of initiative re: Edith leaves me with little goodwill for the poor guy. All of that to say while I totally get where Edith is coming from -- trust me, girl, I know it sometimes REALLY sucks to be single -- I loved the fact that Robert tried to show Anthony the door. I mean if HE believes Edith can do better, deserves a little spark in her love life, c'mon girl KEEP THE FAITH!!!

But back to Branson and Matthew (I don't know that I'll ever be able to call Branson "Tom"). Their developing friendship is one of my favorite aspects of this episode. Even though they hail from very different backgrounds, they both share a common bond as "outsiders" marrying into the Crawley family -- and that is a point of unity that Branson quite astutely capitalizes on when a fight between Matthew and Mary threatens their marriage. For all I think Mary needs to LET GO of the status quo a bit, when she learns that if Matthew inherits Lavinia's father's fortune he plans to give it away I was with her in being a bit peeved about it. Matthew has GOT to let go of the whole "I'm so friggin' awesome I killed Lavinia by refusing to love her" thing. But again, that said Mary does take it a bit too far with the whole "YOU'RE NOT ON OUR SIDE" clearly they both have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to meeting in the middle on any future disagreements. But thankfully for all concerned Branson is in residence and steps up with a priceless insight, telling Matthew that "as long as Lady Mary walks the earth you'll never be happy with another." People, THAT is just one of the reasons I've been Team Branson from day one -- I always knew he was capable of such awesomeness. *wink*

Matthew and Mary make nice on the eve of their wedding with a positively adorable conversation separated by a closed door -- so sweet! And then the day of their long-awaited marriage dawns. I love love LOVED seeing everyone at Downton and in the village throw themselves into the celebration -- it was indeed the local equivalent of a royal wedding. And seeing the radiant joy on Mary's face as she walked out Downton's door on her father's arm brought tears to my eyes -- this has been a journey fraught with tension and uncertainty. But her gorgeous gown and veil, the look on Matthew's face -- it made all the drama of the first two seasons worthwhile for me.

Downstairs is full of as much drama and upheaval as the impact of Robert's sudden economy and the stress of the wedding plans hit home. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) fast became one of my favorite characters through the events of season two -- she is really coming into her own. Upset that the hiring freeze has prevented her promised promotion to Mrs. Patmore's (Lesley Nichol) assistant, she allows Thomas's needling to convince her to go on strike, with hilarious results. I loved how Mrs. Patmore just refused to acknowledge it until Daisy wore down and relented. *wink* I'm also quite excited about the possibility of a little romance in Daisy's life as she is repeatedly caught making eyes at the new footman, Alfred, and wondering WHY ON EARTH he seems so susceptible to the fast "charms" of Martha's maid Reed (Lucille Sharp). Since McShera is only 5'2", the idea of her and the 6'4" Alfred is BEYOND cute. I desperately hope that possibility gets further explored this season!

On a more stressful note, beloved housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) confides in Mrs. Patmore that she's discovered a lump in her breast and fears cancer. The support Mrs. Patmore subsequently shows Mrs. Hughes reveals a depth of friendship -- a sisterhood, almost -- and understanding between the two women that was truly wonderful to see play out. With their lives devoted to the service of others, while each may have extended family, they each sacrificed the chance for a family of their own for a lifetime in service -- and in a very real sense their friendship and camaraderie are all they have to lean on when disaster threatens to strike. I have gotta say after Dr. Clarkson's (David Robb) flu diagnosis debacle last season I would be really petrified at the thought of him being my primary care doctor when facing something like cancer...but needs must I suppose. Fellowes infuses Mrs. Hughes's tense appointments with a much-needed dose of humor from the well-intentioned Mrs. Patmore -- one would think she's the patient. It just broke my heart seeing Mrs. Hughes hold the worry and fear inside, refusing as yet to confide in Mr. Carter -- but I loved how, at the end of the day, he could sense that something was wrong. Seriously Mr. Carter and Mrs. Hughes might as well be married they're such a team!

I'm really excited about the possibility of former allies O'Brien and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) as adversaries this season -- talk about a downstairs shake-up. *wink* O'Brien's undisguised ambition to further her nephew's career sets poor Alfred at odds with the wily Thomas, resulting in a "scandalous" episode where the former wrecks Matthew's tailcoat. Payback is swift as "someone" (*ahem*) absconds with all of the earl's dress shirts, forcing him to show up "scandalously" under-dressed for a formal dinner, rattling his mother so much that she mistakes him for a waiter. *wink* As long as Alfred isn't corrupted by his aunt, because Daisy deserves a NICE guy, I'm all for O'Brien and Thomas continually trying to undermine each other for a change!

Meanwhile Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) continue to deal remarkably well with the whole prison thing keeping them separated. Anna is more determined than ever to prove her husband's innocence and sets about investigating any and all clues that SKANK VERA may have left behind. I was surprised by how well the prison visitations scenes worked for me -- I was thinking it would feel a tad overdone, even by this show's standards. But Bates and Anna's relationship is so sweet, without being cloying, and mature (when compared to many others on the show) that I really liked seeing their commitment to each other in the midst of the most adverse of circumstances. Also, it was great to see a glimpse of Bates the badass I always knew he was when he lets his new cellmate know in no uncertain terms that he will not be threatened. :)

Finishing things up I suppose I should mention that Isobel's (Penelope Wilton) latest cause is running a home for "women who have fallen over" (as Martha puts it -- ha!). Isobel was fairly mellow in this installment, which was good since she has a LOT of ground to make up for annoying the heck out of me last season. But her rehabilitation home for wayward women means that Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is still on this show with all of her baby-out-of-wedlock drama. And arrrggghhh I am SO over Ethel!!! But whatevs. Another character that does absolutely nothing for me is poor Moseley (Kevin Doyle), though heaven knows he probably does deserve to be Matthew's valet more than Alfred, no matter WHAT O'Brien thinks. At least now that Anna is married maybe he'll quit making eyes at her all the friggin' time!

I'm absolutely thrilled that Downton Abbey is back on my television screen. The premiere was a delight from start to finish, delivering all of the gloss and drama that I've come to expect (and love) from the show. Yes, it's pure soap opera, but with a setting I love to lose myself in and characters I adore, I could care less. I love this drama, and long may it reign. :)