Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review: Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly

Marrying the Captain (Channel Fleet #1)
By: Carla Kelly
Publisher: Harlequin Historical


Nana Massie, the only granddaughter of a poor but respectable Plymouth innkeeper, has every reason to distrust the naval men upon which her and her beloved Gran's livelihood depend. The illegitimate daughter of a lieutenant, now a lord of the Admiralty, she fled the education her father provided when he revealed his true plans for her future -- selling her as mistress to the highest bidder to cover his debts. She's resigned herself to a life of struggle and poverty, sure that no one could ever overlook her less-than-honorable antecedents. But when Captain Oliver Worthy, sick and exhausted, arrives at the Mulberry Inn, in spite of herself Nana begins to dream of a future unencumbered by the stain of her parentage.

Post Captain Oliver Worthy's ship limped into Plymouth, badly in need of repairs. Delivering the latest intelligence on Bonaparte's movements to the Admiralty, he receives a startling commission from his superior, Lord Ratliffe -- to stay at the Mulberry in Plymouth while his ship is in dry docks, and report on his daughter's movements. While Ratliffe is ostensibly concerned, Oliver is wary, even more so as he becomes acquainted with the lovely Nana. With his return to war looming, Oliver becomes increasingly concerned about protecting Nana from her father's schemes, and hatches one of his own -- can the man who swore to never marry take the risk of claiming a bride?

Oh people, this book. It's not that it was bad, exactly...more terminally boring. The period of the Napoleonic Wars and its impact on the personal and professional lives of naval men and their families is one rife with possibilities of conflict, tension, and genuine drama. And this coming from a woman who loved the Horatio Hornblower television series! Sadly, the possibilities of the time period are never fully realized on the page. Kelly flirts with adding a dash of spying intrigue to the plotline involving the historical Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes receiving British military secrets from Nana's father, but an possible intrigue feels so half-baked, too little, too late, by the time it appears in the storyline to raise the stakes for Nana and Oliver's future.

I could overlook a sluggish plotline if I had been able to become invested in the characters. While Nana and Oliver are perfectly nice people, and share some perfectly nice moments, I never felt any spark, any investment in their relationship. This was greatly hampered by the heroine's name -- I cannot take a grown woman who calls herself "Nana" seriously, especially when she's described as being practically a waif, with child-like eyes. :P She has a perfectly good name - Eleanor - why not use it, and let me imagine Oliver falling in love with an ADULT? So we have the child-like Nana making eyes at the war-weary Oliver. And all they do is think about how a relationship could never, ever work between them...for PAGES and PAGES. I'm all for a little angst, but not at the expense of relational development. I need sparkling dialogue and sharp characterizations -- not endless, depressing introspection. And I'm all for a man who is in touch with his emotions, but the amount of crying going on between Oliver and Nana is a bit overwhelming. :P

Despite my issues with this story, there is a sweetness to Oliver and Nana's romance, and as always it is refreshing to read a story where the parties involved consummate the relationship after marriage (however, it's worth noting that the wedding night squicked me out beyond belief...terribly, awkwardly written, blech...). Kelly clearly has a passion for this time period; however, the manner in which it translates to the page left me rather apathetic. There IS a sweetness to the romance, and some solid history for those interested in this time period. Kelly seems like a pretty popular author, and I've heard great things about the third installment in this series -- while I may try it someday, at this point I'm in no hurry.

About the book:

Ever since her father tried to sell her as a mistress to the highest bidder, Eleanor Massie has chosen to live in poverty. Her world changes overnight when Captain Oliver Worthy shows up at her struggling inn. Despite herself, Nana is drawn to her handsome guest....

Oliver planned to stay in Plymouth only long enough to report back to Lord Ratliffe--about Nana. But he soon senses that Lord Ratliffe is up to something, and Oliver will do anything to keep this courageous, beautiful woman safe--even marry her!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Downton Abbey Series 4, Part 7

Source: Pinterest link via HuffPo UK

Well, I've (obviously) fallen a bit behind in my Downton Abbey blogging, seeing as season four concluded on Sunday. But never fear, my goal is to catch up THIS WEEK, starting with part seven!

After the near-death experience with Downton's newest residents -- pigs! -- Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Blake (Julian Ovenden) are quite chummy. YES. I approve of this development, as the only other option on the horizon is Gillingham, and I think he's an idiot. (I wish Napier was a serious contender, but then who would Fellowes bring back at random times just to go SEE! SERIES CONTINUITY! I FORGET NO ONE!) Mary and Branson (Allen Leech) go to visit the pigs (because that's a thing now), now under the care of Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), the farmer who took over the family's tenancy following his father's death. Edith (Laura Carmichael) tags along for this visit, because visiting pigs IS a thing now and heck, anything is better than thinking about her pregnancy. Drewe is, apparently, a Pig Whisperer, and so Mary and Branson offer him the job of seeing to the animals' care. And because he's SO GOOD WITH PIGS, Edith gets STARS in her eyes, and we all know what she's thinking, right? The Pig Whisperer is the perfect man to RAISE MY BABY!! Oh, Edith...I suppose there are worse measures of one's character...and desperate times call for desperate measures...but at this moment this sorta feels like a new low. :P

With Robert (Hugh Bonneville) still in America getting his brother-in-law's scandal squared away (or something...still not sure WHAT exactly he's supposed to be facilitating regarding that mess), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is all stressed out organizing the annual church bazaar. I love how these annual events show up once, never to be repeated. LOL! She tries to get Rose (Lily James) to help, but that initiative is a non-starter (no surprise there, eh?), as Rose has better things to do, like arranging not-so-clandestine meetings with Jack Ross (Gary Carr) in neighboring Thirsk. This is NOT GOING TO END WELL, as the couple is spied by Branson getting cozy in a tea shop. Branson is completely out of his element in attempting to deal with something of this nature, so he foists the scandal-in-the-making off on Mary, who I believe I shall start calling The Fixer. *wink*

Edith is becoming increasingly desperate (and unhinged -- see above: random farmers make great fathers!), leading to a surprise visit to Downton from Rosamund (Samantha Bond). While Rosamund attempts to disguise the true purpose of her visit as being a dutiful daughter visiting her recently ill mama, Violet (Maggie Smith) of all people isn't fooled in the least. Maggie Smith has been an absolute GEM this season, as is her norm, but this hour she was on fire -- the Dowager's quips and looks and brilliantly funny moments kept coming at a rapid-fire pace throughout the entire installment! ABSOLUTE HEAVEN. (Also, Edith is supposed to be FIVE MONTHS pregnant in this episode? That is RIDICULOUS.)

Rosamund decides that rather than give the baby to a local farmer, she and Edith will take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Switzerland so she can LEARN FRENCH. Because going to Switzerland for that makes SO MUCH SENSE. Violet, smelling a rat, holds court (literally, this woman is a QUEEN of the screen!) -- and neither Edith nor Rosamund have a prayer of keeping their secret when faced with her eagle-eyed gaze, confirming Violet's suspicions that Edith is pregnant. The Dowager insists on paying for their trip -- and can I just tell you I LOVE these moments when Violet's heart is revealed, showing just how far she'll go for any member of her family. (Side note: I really hope that Edith's baby daddy doesn't just disappear in Germany. That would be a really lame send-off.)

Back-tracking a bit to catch up on a few other notable happenings, among them Ivy (Cara Theobold) receiving a letter from Alfred (Matt Milne), where he PROPOSES MARRIAGE, in between telling her about his father's death and his impending visit to Downton as a consequence. What the HECK, Alfred?! Ivy is taken aback to say the least, as is Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), but we all know Mrs. P. is more worried about Daisy's reaction than Ivy's future, right? LOL. To make a LONG story short(er), Ivy decides (thank goodness) to refuse Alfred, Daisy goes off on her (again) for breaking his heart and driving him away from Downton, and Mrs. P. takes pity on her and suggests she go visit her father-in-law Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), a.k.a. the only other person in Daisy's life with any sense. More on THAT in a moment. :)

Wishy-washy Gillingham (Tom Cullen) returns to Downton, again, because he JUST CAN'T QUIT MARY, but not before Anna (Joanne Froggatt) tearfully confesses the identity of her attacker -- Gillingham's valet. Mary is outraged and wants to do something, anything, to bring Green to justice, but Anna insists that the secret must be kept between them so Bates (Brendan Coyle) doesn't go off on the guy and end up in prison again. To Mary's credit, she tries to stop the visit, but wires are crossed and it's too late as Gillingham is already en route. When they arrive Bates comes out of the shoe-shining room (seriously, did anyone else notice that while Robert is in America, he is practically LIVING in there??) to notice Anna's reaction to the creep, and to hear that they live in Piccadilly (cue revenge plotting music).

After saying goodbye to Gillingham, AGAIN, Mary is sent into crisis management mode when Rose tells her that she's engaged to Jack Ross. Now, apparently Rose wants to marry Jack to really stick it to her mother, whom she hates (when did this start? also, your mother has been halfway across the world for MONTHS...get over it!), so you know this is a love match for the ages. *eyeroll* Mary plans a quick trip to London, accompanied by Anna, in order to try and talk Jack out of marrying her cousin. This whole storyline was really pointless, wasn't it? Because when they meet, instead of fighting for Rose, instead of having anything remotely resembling a meaningful conversation on the impact of interracial relationships during this time period, Jack has ALREADY decided to break the engagement. I repeat: What. Was. The. POINT?! Completely expected side note: while Anna is in London, Bates takes a day trip to York, which even Carson (Jim Carter) think is weird, but goes along with...yeah, sure, I buy that... :P AND Gillingham breaks his engagement. AND Mary gets him to agree to fire Green, but keeps Anna's secret.)

How are we all feeling about Branson's potential new love interest in the form of schoolteacher Sara Bunting (Daisy Lewis)? I'm...wary. Intrigued, but wary -- mainly because thus far she seems so set on accusing him of abandoning his principles by working for the Crawleys. I DID think the scene where he comes upon her with a broken-down car was cute, and I do like how her often annoyingly intrusive questions and assumptions force him to take stock of his relationship with the Crawleys -- and, at least thus far, make him realize that he IS a part of the family. He might not agree with them, but he does care about them, and that care is reciprocated. So in the sense that she is kind of forcing him to come to terms with his new life, I approve. But the constant needling about his politics...that could get old really fast. :P

Getting back to Violet being awesome -- she invites Isobel (Penelope Wilton) for tea because Mary's godfather, Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), who we met way back at the beginning of season three, is coming over. She apparently has no patience for his rather dour ways, but finds more entertainment in the occasion than she expected when Merton shows an unexpected interest in Isobel! Violet's shock and awe face was killing me -- and the icing on the cake was when Merton sends flowers to both women, care of Violet, and Isobel's arrangement is bigger! LOL! Not that I'm fond of Merton (yet), but I do think this is a VERY promising development for Isobel -- and while she's frustrated me on occasion, honestly I wouldn't wish the doctor on my worst enemy so a new guy is good! :)

Things actually happen for Molesley (Kevin Doyle) here! Concerned for Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) after overhearing Thomas (Rob James-Collier) bullying her about secrets, he attempts to befriend her, encouraging her to not let Thomas try to turn her into O'Brien 2.0 (well, not exactly those words, ha!). She starts looking at him like he's hung the moon or something, and he can just barely deal with it, and they share a cute moment at the fair when he beats Jimmy (Ed Speleers) at a strength test at the bazaar. Perhaps Molesley's never-ending sad-sack bad luck is finally turning around! Color me SHOCKED!!

During the bazaar, Daisy (Sophie McShera) pays a long overdue visit to her father-in-law, who encourages her to let go of her bitterness over the Ivy/Alfred situation and say goodbye, wishing him well and leaving their friendship on good terms. She takes his advice (of course, because when has he ever steered her wrong?), bringing him a basket of food as a peace offering of sorts and sincerely wishing him well. It's a wonderful moment, and so sweet to see how proud Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) are of her maturity. Also, not gonna lie, it's fun to see Alfred second-guessing himself and realizing that all this time, he may have been pining after the wrong girl (DUH). GO DAISY!

Wrapping things up, Robert and Thomas return from America during the bazaar, which is a hit (convenient timing, that). Gillingham shows up to give Mary the SHOCKING NEWS (not) that his valet was killed by "stumbling" (sure...) into the street and getting hit by a car. But poor Anna...instead of getting to feel relieved that she'll never have to see her rapist again, she's NOW worried about what Bates really did on his day off. He is such a sly fellow, eh? :P AND Blake shows up, just to tell Mary that HE CAN'T QUIT HER EITHER, and it's ON with Gillingham because he is NOT giving up without a fight.

EXCITING TIMES, right?! Finale recap coming soon!! :)

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: The Dancing Master by Julie Klassen

The Dancing Master
By: Julie Klassen
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1070-9


Julia Midwinter, the only child of Lady Amelia, the formidable leading citizen of the small village of Beaworthy, aches to escape the confines of the only home she's ever known and the stifling restrictions her mother has constructed around her life. Lady Amelia is a model of duty and responsibility, long-ago family tragedy causing her to forswear frivolous, potentially dangerous pursuits such as dancing -- for in the euphoric atmosphere of a public ball, one small slip can lead to morally bankrupt chaos. Frustrated and alone, Julia embraces every chance she can to raise her mother's ire, indulging in reckless behavior and flirtations, desperately seeking a sense of belonging, of life within the staid confines of Beaworthy. When the handsome Alec Valcourt arrives from London, she's immediately drawn to his good looks and charm -- particularly when she discovers that his chosen profession is that of dancing master, the one occupation her mother abhors most of all. Positive Alec can breathe new life into Beaworthy, Julia seeks every opportunity to further their acquaintance -- but the erstwhile dancing master proves to be a deeper riddle, and a more reticent recipient of her flirtations than she'd ever dreamed possible. Could the dancing master and his forbidden trade be the key she's long sought to breathe life into her restless spirit?

Alec Valcourt and his mother and sister retreated to his uncle's home in Beaworthy, fleeing rumors and disgrace in London, hoping for a fresh start. A third-generation dancing and fencing master, Alec hoped to bring his passion for the more graceful social arts to his new home, and perhaps establish his reputation anew, and restore honor to the Valcourt name. But Lady Amelia's ban on dancing proves to be a formidable obstacle, one a young man of little money and scant reputation can scarce afford to challenge. Against all reason he finds himself drawn to the fiery Julia, the one woman in the village forbidden to him by class and virtue of his profession. Spurred by Julia's passion for change, the unlikely pair finds themselves inexorably drawn into a delicate dance of their own making, one that threatens to bring to light long-held, painful secrets, and hold the promise of restoring life and dance to a community shadowed by guilt and condemnation. But exposing secrets doesn't come without a price -- a price Julia, Alec, and Amelia must each decide if they're willing to pay, for the chance to dance in the light of freedom requires both forgiveness and grace.

Julie Klassen's latest Regency romance is an exquisite exploration of the power of art and faith to transform a life. For one such as I who professes to be something of an Austen aficionado and an avid lover of both costume dramas and fiction that brings this time period to life, I'm rather nonplussed to admit that prior to delving into this novel I'd never heard of or realized the critical importance of a dancing master in developing the social skills that make up such a part of this time period. The role of a dancing master is a fascinating one to consider -- a purveyor, if you will, of valued social skills, but still outside the realm of complete acceptability into the highest echelons of society. His talents may be valued, and utilized, but there is a line that cannot be crossed, as Alec and his family tragically discover.

Considering the time period and subject matter, I was surprised The Dancing Master unexpectedly reminded me of a twentieth-century literary classic -- Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter. While Julia has far too many of her own immature traits and insecurities to overcome in order to be classified as a Pollyanna figure, in my view the over-arching theme of both stories is strikingly similar -- finding the good in every situation. Like Pollyanna's "Glad Game," Beaworthy and her residents have been stifled by Lady Amelia's desire to unofficially legislate a specific moral code in the wake of her personal family tragedies. It's only when truths are revealed and forgiveness offered that Amelia is able to at long last lay to rest the demons that have haunted her, freeing both her and her village to once again embrace the community and artistic expression offered by the long-dormant art of dance.

Julia is a fascinating heroine. Initially a bit prickly, her headstrong nature reminded me of Austen's Emma -- only even lacking that classic heroine's belief in her rightness. This is a girl intensely frustrated by her life and desperately seeking a sense of belonging, her bravado eventually revealed to mask intense pain. Although her mother offers love and affection, the secrets she holds dear -- and that Julia senses -- prevent the two from reaching an accord. It's only when the secrets surrounding Julia's birth are brought to light that she realizes that the acceptance and security she longs for cannot be found in another individual; rather, it's only in the grace of faith and forgiveness, freely offered and accepted, that she finds a lasting balm for her soul. I adore the slow-burning romance Klassen develops between Alec and Julia -- he is SUCH a gentleman, and while young and struggling to establish his career, he has an honorable core that makes him the perfect match for the fiery Miss Midwinter.

The Dancing Master is a joy from start to finish, an exquisite novel saturated with the understated beauty and power of the very art form it extols. Like Austen and Heyer, Klassen excels at building a community in her novels, and never more apparent than here as this is far more than Alec and Julia's love story -- instead, it is the tale of a community renewed and transformed, a love story, if you will, to the transforming power of faith and fellowship. I initially thought that perhaps this would be Klassen's most Austen-esque novel to date, missing the thread of intrigue that has peppered her earlier work, so I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong. Through carefully-meted detail and expertly-sketched characters, Klassen unfolds a tale of love, loss, and betrayal worthy of a Bronte sister. Once again the cost of secrets are weighed against the power of truth and forgiveness, all while skillfully illuminating a fascinating quarter of nineteenth-century English society. Klassen's novels are experiences to savor, and The Dancing Master is no exception -- a romance for the heart and soul.

About the book:

Finding himself the man of the family, London dancing master Alec Valcourt moves his mother and sister to remote Devonshire, hoping to start over. But he is stunned to learn the village matriarch has prohibited all dancing, for reasons buried deep in her past.

Alec finds an unlikely ally in the matriarch's daughter. Though he's initially wary of Julia Midwinter's reckless flirtation, he comes to realize her bold exterior disguises a vulnerable soul -- and hidden sorrows of her own.

Julia is quickly attracted to the handsome dancing master -- a man her mother would never approve of -- but she cannot imagine why Mr. Valcourt would leave London, or why he evades questions about his past. With Alec's help, can Julia uncover old secrets and restore life to her somber village...and to her mother's tattered heart?

Filled with mystery and romance, The Dancing Master brings to life the intriguing profession of those who taught essential social graces for ladies and gentlemen hoping to make a "good match" in Regency England.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne

The Forbidden Rose (Spymasters #1)
By: Joanna Bourne
Publisher: Berkley


Marguerite de Fleurignac, who once graced the halls of Versailles, has been left to forage in the French countryside following an attack on her family's chateau that saw her ancestral home turned to ash. But Marguerite has more to fear than wrath against once-powerful French aristocrats -- as the head of La Fleche, an organization responsible for ferreting those "sparrows" out of the country that find themselves condemned by the Committee of Public Safety, she stands to be branded a traitor to the Republic. La Fleche has been betrayed, and so Marguerite desperately goes to ground, hoping to see her network of spies and contacts safely dissolved -- but escaping the clutches of the radical Jacobins determined to make an example of her organization, and leaving behind the life-saving work that has consumed her life since the onset of the Revolution is more difficult than she'd ever dreamed. When a bookseller stumbles upon her gutted hiding place, Marguerite is sure she cannot trust him -- but equally determined to use him to guide her to Paris and her father. But the merchant is more than he seems, and Marguerite never expected his unwanted presence to blossom into an attraction that threatens everything she holds dear...

William Doyle, one of the British Service's top agents, was sent to the de Fleurignac chateau to find Marguerite's father, the man believed responsible for providing lists of British agents to the French government, who are then assassinated. With the Service bleeding its best and brightest, the lists must be destroyed, and there is no one better to lead William to the mad listmaker than his daughter Marguerite. Under the guise of Guillaume LeBreton, an scarred and unassuming merchant, William and his knife-wielding compatriot, a street-smart boy known as Hawker, agree to guide Marguerite to Paris. But much like himself, his enemy's daughter is more than she would seem, a woman of fire and intelligence who has him questioning his future with the Service. When a threat against Marguerite blinds William to the danger at his doorstep, the spymaster finds himself facing the guillotine, and as the erstwhile head of La Fleche Marguerite faces her greatest challenge yet -- rescuing the spy who has managed to capture her heart.

When I stumbled across The Forbidden Rose on a friend's "to-read" Goodreads shelf, I was immediately intrigued as I've always found the French Revolution to be a fascinating time period. And having cut my teeth reading historical fiction such as Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche and Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, I resolved to give Bourne's fiction a try immediately, and I'm so glad I did. But first I need to get this out of the way -- I have no idea what this cover or title has to do with the story itself. Marguerite and William spend nearly all of the novel dressed in sensible peasant's clothing, a far cry from the cravats and rich silks represented here, and as for the "rose" in the title -- I suppose that refers to Marguerite, but if that is the case a bird reference would've been much more appropriate. Not to mention the general design of the cover made me fear a sexed-up plotline -- and while that is an element of the storyline, this novel is happily more of a historical, suspense-laced adventure then the bodice-ripper cover could lead one to believe. But I digress. *wink*

Bourne excels at weaving complex, thrilling plots and crafting compelling characters.  She does an excellent job penning characters that feel authentic to the time period, damaged and struggling with what they've seen, experienced, and been forced to do in a time of war and revolution. While I would've liked Marguerite and William to develop more of an actual rapport and relationship before commencing a physical relationship (I feel like Bourne was chalking up the "insta-lust" as a "natural" off-shoot of two lonely people in wartime finding each other attractive...or something :P), by the halfway mark I was completely sold on their romance. I love how caring for Marguerite forces William to re-assess his dedication to the Service, and how his desire for her well-being allows Marguerite to blossom, to dream for the first time since the onset of the Revolution for a hope-filled future.

And I ADORED the supporting cast of characters. From the beloved friends (and in one case, former lover) that make up La Fleche's network to Marguerite's mad but mathematically genius father and villainous cousin, to the heart-breakingly youthful Justine, working as a spy under the protection of one of Paris's most  notorious madames, the individuals that people Marguerite and William's world are as colorful as the mad, bloody, exhilarating and dangerous by turns time in which they lived. But Hawker, Doyle's youthful spy-in-training and jack-of-all-trades outshines them all, stealing every scene in which he appears. With a maturity that belies his years and attitude in spades, Hawker is a force to be reckoned with and the character I most look forward to seeing develop as the series progresses.

While Bourne spends a significant amount of time reconciling Marguerite and William's disparate views on each other's work, and teasing the "mystery" of the extent of her father's involvement in contributing to Robespierre's Terror, once they reach Paris, this story is absolute GOLD. From William's imprisonment, forcing the ironclad-spy to face his mortality, to Marguerite's desperate efforts to stage a rescue, all set against the backdrop of events leading to Robespierre's downfall, Bourne spins a thrilling and complex web that captivated my imagination. From the halfway mark on, I literally could not turn pages fast enough, so eager was I to see the next twist unfurl on the page with heart-stopping intensity. This is the type of romantic, high adventure tale that I simply adore, hearkening back to classics the like of Sabatini and Orczy that define the genre.

Although I wasn't sold on the initial, wholly physical beginning as the foundation to William and Marguerite's relationship, as The Forbidden Rose progressed I grew to love how Bourne established a rapport between them. Once the intellectual and emotional connection was established I was sold, as they proved to be two characters who not only needed each other, but made each other the best version of themselves. And once in Paris, the story transforms into an exhilarating thrill ride, a fast-paced, old-fashioned adventure that kept my fingers flying to turn the pages. The Forbidden Rose is a fabulous adventure, shot through with a ribbon of sweet romance, and with a wealth of possibilities for future (chronological) installments waiting in the wings thanks to her colorful, compelling supporting cast (seriously, Doyle's boss is AWESOME - an 18th-century version of Judi Dench's M) waiting in the wings to star in their own tales, I cannot wait to revisit Bourne's fiction, and soon.

About the book:

Marguerite de Fleurignac, once privileged aristocrat, is on the run, disguised as penniless British governess Maggie Duncan. William Doyle, England's top spy, has a score to settle with her, recognized when he pulls her from her burned-out chateau. Drawn inexorably into mad revolutionary Paris, they gamble on a inadmissible love destined for betrayal.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons #2)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: HarperCollins


At eighteen, Anthony Bridgerton -- the eldest of the expansive family's brood of eight -- assumed the mantle of leadership in his family following his beloved father's untimely death. As the firstborn, Anthony viewed his father as a larger-than-life figure, a constant north star, the man against all others -- including himself -- could be measured and found wanting. To lose such a man to a freak accident like a bee sting was a tragedy even an eighteen-year-old Anthony could barely fathom, and holding his father in such esteem, Anthony instinctively determined that there was no way he could surpass his father even in years -- and so he must be destined to die at thirty-eight. With that deadline looming over his life, Anthony threw himself into the position of surrogate father and head-of-household with a fervor born of his desire to honor his father and his own deep and abiding love for his close-knit family. But with a very different kind of fervor he set himself to embrace all the vice and passions offered to a leading member of the ton, and in the process earned a reputation as one of London's most unrepentant rakes. However, when Anthony realizes he is a mere ten years away from that fateful age of thirty-eight, he decides that this season he must embrace his familial duty and at long last take a bride and have an heir. His one stipulation is that the woman in question must be one he could never love, for love would make his inevitable mortality unbearable. And so he sets his sights on this season's jewel, Edwina Sheffield -- she's beautiful and kind but leaves him cold, the perfect bride -- but he never counted on Edwina's older sister to be equal parts interfering and alluring...

At twenty-one, Kate Sheffield is finally enjoying her first season in London -- or she should be, if she was viewed as more than the radiant Edwina's older sister. Kate is resigned to the fact that she'll likely end a spinster, and that her younger half-sister will be the one to save mother and herself from an unenviable future of genteel poverty. She doesn't resent her sister's beauty or acclaim, but rather she resolves to use her position as the older sibling to make sure that Edwina marries well -- more than a wealthy man, Kate wants her sister to marry a good one. And thanks to the infamous Lady Whistledown's gossip column, she's positive that Anthony Bridgerton is the last man in the world who could make her sister happy.  When Kate meets Anthony, sparks fly -- she's determined to protect her sister from a rake of the worst sort (never mind his smoldering glances and smiles that turn her weak in the knees!) while he's maddened by her intractable opinion on his character and therefore his marriage to Edwina (never mind that it's her sister's lips he wants to kiss and whose image, uninvited, fills his dreams). Viscount Bridgerton will marry a Sheffield -- the only question is, will it be the sister he's chosen or the one who drives him mad, whose self-proclaimed mission in life is to foil his plans?

After falling in love with the quirky, exuberant Bridgerton clan in The Duke and I -- my introduction to Julia Quinn's writing -- I knew I wouldn't be able to long resist the pull to revisit their world. Everything I loved in Daphne and Simon's story reappears here in Anthony's tale -- the warmth, wit, and humor that I'm fast learning is a hallmark of Quinn's effervescent writing. From the first moments of Anthony and Kate's introduction, I was powerfully reminded of the spark that characterizes one of my all-time favorite romances -- that of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, with perhaps just a dash of the fire that sparks between another Kate and her unwanted suitor Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Here Quinn takes the familiar trope of warring, would-be lovers and breathes fresh life into it through her whip-smart characterizations and the situations -- from the ridiculous to the sublimely romantic -- that gradually weave a seductive web around Anthony and Kate, forcing them each to realize the one truth they'd rather die than admit -- that they just might be each other's perfect match.

I had some trouble buying Kate's self-proclaimed role as gatekeeper of her sister's future, particularly since she has such a warm relationship with her stepmother Mary, and Edwina never appears to be lacking for commonsense. That aside, Quinn sketches Kate's insecurities regarding her own self-worth and desirability with a sensitive brush. In a less accomplished author's hands, Kate's qualms, her self-image issues and fears could have become a farce, but as Kate begins to fall in love with Anthony, Quinn's deft characterization illuminates the fears, doubts, and self-image issues that have cause Kate to buy into the lie that she is somehow less than her beloved sister and makes her transformation all the sweeter. It's a delicate balance to achieve, but Quinn is a master at tapping into one's most closely-held doubts and fears, and seeing them excised on the page with warmth and compassion.

Overcoming fear is an over-arching theme throughout the novel -- not only Kate's fears of rejection, but Anthony's fear of his own mortality, birthed out of his beloved father's death. I loved Quinn's honest treatment of fear and grief here, for no matter the cause, she never belittles its oft-times crippling impact. As someone who has often fought her own battle with fear, I loved Quinn's honest, compassionate portrayal of such. As I discovered in The Duke and I, her often frothy, humorous writing belies the weightier subject matter she introduces as obstacles in her romances -- there she touched on the subject of the emotional abuse Simon suffered as a child, while here she delves into the emotional toll losing a parent has exacted on both Anthony and Kate's lives, and the danger in allowing one's fears to dictate how one lives life, and the liberty found in opening oneself to love, affirmation, and healing. It would've been easy, given the subject of Anthony's fears, to have his character seem less than "heroic," given the emotional component and the expectations of heroes to live up to their alpha potential in novels of this ilk. But in the hands of a master craftsman like Quinn, Anthony's character shines with depth, all the more alluring for the honesty with which his reluctant, unexpected love story inspires him to transform his life.

Quinn's trademark humor and breezy, fast-paced writing style make her second installment of the Bridgerton series shine. While Anthony and Kate's budding relationship is a tick more physical (*ahem*) initially than the intellectual camaraderie that characterized Daphne and Simon's early encounters, Quinn is fast proving herself to be a master at crafting relationships ultimately founded on a bedrock of emotional and intellectual compatibility. And for all Kate and Anthony relish trading verbal jabs when they first meet, it's their journey from adversaries to lovers, with a friendship founded on respect and honesty, and of, as Kate resolves, making the conscious decision to fall in love anew every single day that made my heart sing. The absolutely delightful dynamic between the close-knit Bridgertons, from the infamous Pall Mall game to the delicious, needling camaraderie between Anthony and his younger brothers (oh, I cannot WAIT for Colin's story!), the humorous antics of Kate's beloved corgi Newton -- all these elements are just the proverbial icing on the cake. The Viscount Who Loved Me is a thoroughly engaging, swoon-worthy love story -- a romance crafted of equal parts passion and intellect, Anthony and Kate's reluctant romance is a story to cherish.

About the book:

1814 promises to be another eventful season, but not, This Author believes, for Anthony Bridgerton, London's most elusive bachelor, who has shown no indication that he plans to marry. And in all truth, why should he? When it comes to playing the consummate rake, nobody does it better...
--Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, April 1814

But this time the gossip columnists have it wrong. Anthony Bridgerton hasn't just decided to marry--he's even chosen a wife! The only obstacle is his intended's older sister, Kate Sheffield--the most meddlesome woman ever to grace a London ballroom. The spirited schemer is driving Anthony mad with her determination to stop the betrothal, but when he closes his eyes at night, Kate's the woman haunting his increasingly erotic dreams...

Contrary to popular belief, Kate is quite sure that reformed rakes to not make the best husbands--and Anthony Bridgerton is the most wicked rogue of them all. Kate's determined to protect her sister--but she fears her own heart is vulnerable. And when Anthony's lips touch hers, she's suddenly afraid she might not be able to resist the reprehensible rake herself...

The UK cover!

The Chalice - now available in the UK!

The Chalice UKThe Chalice
by Nancy Bilyeau

Paperback Publication Date: February 13, 2014
Orion Publishing
Paperback; 432p
ISBN-13: 978-1409135807

Series: Joanna Stafford, Book Two
Genre: Historical Mystery

A curse to kill a king, a fight to save a nation. Follow young Joanna Stafford right into the dark heart of King Henry VIII's court in this stunning Tudor thriller.

England, 1538. The nation is reeling after the ruthless dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII.

Cast out of Dartford Priory, Joanna Stafford - feisty, courageous, but scarred by her recent encounter with rebellion at court - is trying to live a quiet life with her five-year-old charge, Arthur. But family connections draw her dangerously close to a treasonous plot and, repelled by violence and the whispered conspiracies around her, Joanna seeks a life with a man who loves her. But, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny. She must make a choice between those she cares for most, and taking her part in a mysterious prophecy foretold by three compelling seers.

Joanna embarks upon a testing journey, and, as she deciphers the meaning at the core of the prophecy, she learns that the fate of a king and the freedom of a nation rest in her hands.

You can read my review of The Chalice HERE.

Praise for The Chalice
"Expect treason, treachery, martyrs and more." — Choice magazine

"A time in which no one at all can be trusted and everyday life is laced with horror. Bilyeau paints this picture very, very well." — Reviewing the Evidence

"Bilyeau creates the atmosphere of 1530s London superbly." — Catholic Herald

"Bilyeau continues from her first novel the subtle, complex development of Joanna Stafford's character and combines that with a fast-paced, unexpected plot to hold the reader's interest on every page. — Historical Novel Society

"Joanna Stafford is a young novice caught up in power struggles familiar to readers of Hilary Mantel and C.J. Sansom, but with elements of magic that echo the historical thrillers of Kate Mosse." — S.J. PARRIS, author of HERESY, PROPHECY, AND SACRILEGE

"Second in this compelling and highly readable Tudor thriller series following the 16th century adventures of (now cast out) nun Joanna Stafford. Treason, conspiracies and a dangerous prophecy draw Joanna back from the quiet life she had made for herself after being cast out of Dartford Priory - but she isn’t prepared for the gravity of the situation she finds herself in or the responsibility she now holds. Nancy Bilyeau has followed up her impressive debut with an accomplished historical thriller perfect for fans of C. J. Sansom, Philippa Gregory and S. J. Parris." — Lovereading UK

“Sharply observed, cleverly paced and sympathetically written, this book more than fulfils the promise of THE CROWN, itself named as last year's most impressive debut novel by the CWA Ellis Peters judges. If Joanna Stafford is to return to see out the final years of Henry's tempestuous reign and the accession of his Catholic daughter Mary, I am sure I will not be alone in waiting eagerly for her.” —

“A stunning debut. One of the best historical novels I have ever read — ALISON WEIR

THE CHALICE offers a fresh, dynamic look into Tudor England's most powerful, volatile personalities: Henry VIII, the Duke of Norfolk, Stephen Gardiner and Bloody Mary Tudor. Heroine and former nun Joanna Stafford is beautiful, bold and in lethal danger. Bilyeau writes compellingly of people and places that demand your attention and don't let you go even after the last exciting page” — KAREN HARPER, bestselling author of MISTRESS OF MOURNING

“Rarely have the terrors of Henry VIII's reformation been so exciting. Court intrigue, bloody executions, and haunting emotional entanglements create a heady brew of mystery and adventure that sweeps us from the devastation of the ransacked cloisters to the dangerous spy centers of London and the Low Countries, as ex-novice Joanna Stafford fights to save her way of life and fulfill an ancient prophecy, before everything she loves is destroyed.” — C.W. GORTNER, author of THE QUEEN'S VOW

“Bilyeau paints a moving portrait of Catholicism during the Reformation and of reclusive, spiritual people adjusting to the world outside the cloister. This intriguing and suspenseful historical novel pairs well with C. J. Sansom's Dissolution (2003) and has the insightful feminine perspective of Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Heretic's Wife (2010).” — BOOKLIST

“As in The Crown, Bilyeau's writing style means that the story reads almost flawlessly. The narrative really makes the reader throw themselves into the story, and makes it so the book is really difficult to put down. I was really very impressed with Bilyeau's writing (As I was in The Crown), and honestly can't recommend this book highly enough.” — LOYALTY BINDS ME

“THE CHALICE is a compelling and pacey time machine to the 16th Century. And when you're returned to the present, you'll have enjoyed an adventure and gained a new perspective on a past you'd wrongly thought to be a done deal.” — Andrew Pyper, author of THE DEMONOLOGIST

“The Chalice is a gripping, tightly-plotted mystery, with a beguiling heroine at its heart, that vividly conjures up the complex dangers of Reformation England. Bilyeau's deftness of touch and complete control over her complex material make for a truly exciting and compelling read.”— ELIZABETH FREMANTLE author of QUEEN'S GAMBIT

“THE CHALICE is brimming with sinister portents, twisted allegiances, religious superstition and political intrigue. It's a darkly fascinating Tudor brew that leaves you thirsting for more.” — PATRICIA BRACEWELL, author of SHADOW ON THE CROWN

Watch the Book Trailer

Buy the Book
Amazon UK
Book Depository
Orion Publishing

About the Author
Nancy BilyeauNancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay "Zenobia" placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and "Loving Marys" reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013.

Some earlier milestones: In 1661, Nancy's ancestor, Pierre Billiou, emigrated from France to what was then New Amsterdam when he and his family sailed on the St. Jean de Baptiste to escape persecution for their Protestant beliefs. Pierre built the first stone house on Staten Island and is considered the borough's founder. His little white house is on the national register of historic homes and is still standing to this day.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Author Links
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Nancy Bilyeau Gives an Inside Peek Behind THE CHALICE

Book Blast Schedule
Monday, February 17
Mari Reads
Book Drunkard
Closed the Cover
Historical Tapestry
Royalty Free Fiction
Passages to the Past
Just One More Chapter

Tuesday, February 18
Princess of Eboli
Words and Peace
Big Book, Little Book
Curling Up By the Fire
Peeking Between the Pages
Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Historical Fiction Obsession

Wednesday, February 19
Broken Teepee
Kincavel Korner
A Bookish Affair
CelticLady's Reviews
The True Book Addict
Teresa's Reading Corner

Thursday, February 20
Drey's Library
Booktalk & More
Must Read Faster
Reading the Ages
The Maiden's Court
Historical Fiction Connection
Sharon's Garden of Book Reviews

Friday, February 21
HF Book Muse-News
On the Tudor Trail
Flashlight Commentary
Ageless Pages Reviews
Muse in the Fog Book Reviews
Confessions of an Avid Reader

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson

The Baker Street Letters
By: Michael Robertson
Publisher: Minotaur
ASIN: B002LA0A16


Reggie Heath's life should not be so complicated. A successful attorney, he's long dated Laura, a smart and gorgeous actress (incidentally his brother's ex), enjoys new chambers on Baker Street, and has a promising slate of cases. But Laura seems more interested in furthering her career -- in AMERICA -- than him any longer, and his hapless brother Nigel is on the verge of seeing his own law career jettisoned for good unless he can pass his reinstatement hearing. However, to Reggie's chagrin Nigel seems more concerned with the letters arriving at their new chamber offices than reclaiming his career -- letters addressed to one Sherlock Holmes, which find their way to Reggie's office as the new leaseholder of the 221b Baker Street address. 

Nigel quickly becomes fascinated with the human interest side of the letters -- the desperation that often drove individuals to reach out to the world's greatest (fictional) detective's only known address -- in particular a two-decades old one from a little girl halfway across the world in search of her missing father. When that girl writes back, Nigel breaks every rule of no-contact written in Reggie's lease to find the woman behind the letters in America, leaving Reggie to do damage control over his reinstatement hearing and, worst of all, deal with the body of a dead clerk found in Nigel's office. Convinced of his brother's innocence, Reggie follows him to America, determined to uncover the truth behind the letters and stop Nigel from destroying his life on a fool's errand. But one he arrives in Los Angeles, Reggie quickly discovers that Nigel may have accidentally involved them both in a dangerous, decades-long conspiracy of fraud, murder, and secrets powerful people will do anything to make sure stay buried...

A few weeks ago this was a Kindle $1.99 deal, and as a sucker for anything with a Sherlock Holmes connection I snapped it up immediately. The concept behind this novel is absolute GOLD. What if current residents of 221b Baker Street found themselves the recipient of Sherlock Holmes's mail -- everything from childish tributes to cases worthy of the Great Detective himself -- and though they shouldn't get involved, they find that they just can't help stepping into Sherlock's legendary shoes. Unfortunately, this spectacular premise falls woefully short in its execution, leaving this one of the more colorless "tributes" to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's timeless literary creation that I've encountered.

The biggest issue I had with this novel was the choice to make Reggie the central character. I couldn't connect with him at all -- I never got a sense of what drives him, of why I should care whether or not Laura wants to leave him (honestly, until the very end of the book I was convinced she could do better with literally ANYONE else!), or -- and perhaps most egregiously -- that as a supposedly successful lawyer he has no idea of his office lease terms. *eyeroll* And then there's the fact that he has apparently been quite comfortable treating his only sibling as an idiot for years, never realizing until this Sherlock-letter-writing-crisis that maybe, just maybe, he's as much or more to blame for Nigel's problems through his habitual selfishness. 

 Pacing is another issue -- the first half of the novel advances in fits and starts. I kept turning pages because I just *knew* this concept had to pay off -- and to some extent, it does. The action building towards the novel's climactic scene, deep in the bowels of a subway tunnel site, is surprisingly interesting (considering that unlike my brother, I have no interest in geologic surveys - ha!). But for a novel where one is asked to believe that letters addressed to a famous fictional detective not only turn Reggie and Nigel's lives upside-down -- they nearly die as a result -- the mystery itself has sadly little to do with the character of Sherlock or the story canon. While I adore the canon, I'm no purist, as steampunk-inspired Sherlock stories are a recent favorite of mine -- so taking that one step farther, a canonical connection isn't strictly necessary. But the premise is so rich, and the possibilities of giving Sherlockians canonical nods seems endless -- and as a consequence, the lack of a tie to Holmes, aside from his address, feels like a gigantic missed opportunity to celebrate this novel's ostensibly clever premise. 

The Baker Street Letters is a debut full of sadly unrealized -- or perhaps more accurately stated, under-utilized -- promise. Uneven pacing and wooden, flat characterizations make the story lag where it should sing. Were the pacing better and the characters more compelling, I could overlook the lack of a better Sherlock connection to the "meat" of the story -- but without those elements to hook the reader, to truly get one invested in the storyline, the unrealized potential of the Baker Street connection left me craving Doyle's original stories, or at the very least Sherlock-inspired fiction with more zest and life. While this debut left me wanting, there is a lot of potential to this conceit as a proposed series, and with stronger characterizations and tighter plotting, as well as OWNING the Sherlockian possibilities, future installments of Reggie and Nigel's investigations could hold promise. 

About the book:

First in a spectacular new series about two brother lawyers who lease offices on London’s Baker Street--and begin receiving mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes

In Los Angeles, a geological surveyor maps out a proposed subway route--and then goes missing. His eight-year-old daughter, in her desperation, turns to the one person she thinks might help--she writes a letter to Sherlock Holmes.

That letter creates an uproar at 221b Baker Street, which now houses the law offices of attorney and man about town Reggie Heath and his hapless brother, Nigel. Instead of filing the letter like he’s supposed to, Nigel decides to investigate. Soon he’s flying off to Los Angeles, inconsiderately leaving a very dead body on the floor in his office. Big brother Reggie follows Nigel to California, as does Reggie’s sometime lover, Laura---a quick-witted stage actress who’s captured the hearts of both brothers.

When Nigel is arrested, Reggie must use all his wits to solve a case that Sherlock Holmes would have savored and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans will adore.

A Boy and His Dog

Prepare to cry...but it is SO worth it, I promise!

X-Men: Cats edition

I give you X-Men: Cats! First up, Wolverine Cat:

And Cyclops Cat:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Murder on the Home Front - this Sunday on PBS!

This is another film I feel as though I've been waiting ages for PBS to air -- Murder on the Home Front, based on the wartime memoirs of Molly Lefebure. It's slated to air this Sunday following Downton Abbey, but check local listings to confirm!

Grimm: Love Is in the Air

This is adorable.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Downton Abbey Series 4, Part 6

Source: Pinterest link via Masterpiece

I know there's been some controversy over the quality of this season of Downton Abbey, but on balance (poor Anna's shocker of a storyline aside) this is shaping up to be one of my favorite seasons. I know this probably isn't a popular viewpoint, but Matthew Who? *wink* Sure, there have been some storylines that have worn thin (i.e., anything involving Rose), but on balance I think the show has done an excellent job moving Downton forward into the brave new world of the 1920's.

This installment opens with an urgent missive from Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) mother, requesting Robert's (Hugh Bonneville) presence in America ASAP in order to lend some sort of English aristocratic credibility to his embattled brother-in-law. (And it turns out I was right about his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal! High school history FTW!) Robert is all "do I HAVE to go?" and Cora is all "you're the BEST HUSBAND EVER if you do," so of course, powerless to resist his wife's charms off he goes to make plans to leave for America (no small feat in 1923 either). (Side note: I love Robert & Cora's marriage, but perhaps never more so than this season. Well done, Fellowes.)

But Robert being Robert wouldn't leave for America without his valet, placing Bates (Brendan Coyle) in the horrifically awkward position of leaving Anna (Joanne Froggatt) just as they're trying to recover, or resigning his position without notice or explanation, leaving him likely without a reference. Anna attempts to put a brave face on the situation, insisting he go, but when Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) learns of the plans she takes matters into her own hands and goes to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to plead Anna's case. And so Mary has to be told of the horror Anna has endured, and she immediately goes to her father, convincing him to take Thomas (Rob James-Collier) to America in Bates's stead.

Mary has gotten a lot of flak over the course of this series -- most of it undeserved in my view -- for being too stand-offish. But underneath her public persona is, I believe, an extraordinarily caring woman who feels very deeply about her family, home, and friends. And it is never more apparent than here of just how much she values Anna, as she tries to cross the boundaries of class and employment to offer her support and friendship. I LOVED that.

Of course Thomas thinks he's won the friggin' lottery when he receives the news that he's going to America. This apparently puts him in an expansive mood as he's rather nice to Jimmy (Ed Speleers), making some off-hand comment about how he hopes the footman, thwarted in his pursuit of Ivy (Cara Theobold), is stepping out with a nice "village girl" when he gets back. But then he has to go and ruin the illusion of niceness by charging Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) with finding out exactly WHY Bates is staying at Downton (clearly Thomas has never heard that saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth...the ingrate :P). I have a terrible feeling that just WHY Baxter is -- apparently reluctantly -- in Thomas's power is an issue that is never going to be resolved. Oh well, c'est la vie!

After the family gathers to bid Robert a fond "bon voyage!," a very ill-looking Violet (Maggie Smith) quickly retreats back to her home, and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) bums a ride from Branson (Allen Leech) back to the village. I really enjoyed their exchange here -- both have been dealt heavy losses, but Isobel is really coming back to life now and uses this time to encourage Branson to do the same. She convinces him to attend a political lecture in nearby Ripon, and he agrees. However, she soon realizes she must cancel the engagement when she discovers just how sick Violet actually is, and SUPERHERO NURSE ISOBEL kicks into high gear, immediately summoning Dr. Clarkson (David Robb). He diagnoses bronchitis, and I had my doubts (because when has this man EVER been right??), but hey he turns out to be right for once, and charges Isobel with Violet's 24/7 nursing care in order to prevent pneumonia from setting in.

Props to Isobel here, because not only do she and Violet have a prickly relationship at the best of times, but she basically stays awake for something crazy like TWO DAYS, refusing any help because she views this as an opportunity to pay the Crawley family back for making her one of their own (or something to that effect, her exact quote escapes me now). When Violet finally turns the corner and realizes to whom she owes thanks for her care, her reaction is PRICELESS. I loved the scene where the two play cards, and Violet has this resigned look on her face, like "I am never ever EVER going to be able to get rid of this woman now." If the scripts start moving these two into reluctant BFF territory I will just die laughing...the comic possibilities are endless!

While Isobel is off nursing Violet, the rest of Downton (namely Mary) is concerned with the arrival of the PIGS! (This is not a euphemism for the lower-classes or anything like that, lol! ACTUAL PIGS!) Mary is all about this latest venture, which receives the hard-to-please Blake's (Julian Ovenden) support, though she's irked that he seems to feel all their efforts to make Downton a viable enterprise are doomed to fail. This episode succeeded in making Blake a viable and compelling potential love interest for Mary, developing into a classic case of pride versus prejudice. :) She thinks he's too egalitarian, wanting to see the old families fail, while he thinks she is too superior -- a privileged lady who is too aloof and knows what she wants but is unwilling to dirty her hands in order to see her plans succeed.

But oh how Mary proves him wrong. Following an intimate dinner consisting of just Mary, Blake, and Cora (isn't this COZY), Blake suggests they take a post-dinner stroll to check out the pigs (does he ever know how to woo a woman!). Mary agrees, but only because she's into the PIGS and not Blake, and she doesn't want to scandalize her mother by rudely refusing. But instead of marveling at Downton's latest additions, they discover the pigs NEARLY DEAD FROM DEHYDRATION!! I mean they had the pigs dropped off and then just left them there? (So maybe Blake has a point...) But there's no time like the present for a little TEAM-BUILDING EXERCISE, and the two unlikely allies join forces to haul water for the parched critters. This is EPIC...both of them covered in mud, Mary's gorgeous dress ruined, Blake all disbelief that she's doing this at all, and best of all, no one at the house is overly concerned that Mary is out all night at the pig sty with Blake. THAT cracked me up! So they've bonded, and she actually COOKS HIM EGGS (!!!) -- nearly giving Ivy a heart attack when she finds them in the kitchen -- and poor Napier (Brendan Patricks) is apparently left out in the cold for good. The guy cannot catch a break where Mary is concerned, can he? If they play this right, I think Blake could be an excellent match for Mary -- he has the backbone to challenge her but also, I think, to be an extremely supportive ally. It won't be easy, but goodness I think it could be worthwhile. *wink*

Now let's talk about Edith (Laura Carmichael) for a moment, shall we? The poor girl is still barely holding it together in the wake of the news that Gregson is still missing, and the confirmation of her pregnancy. Under the pretext of returning to London to check on business matters, she makes an appointment to obtain an illegal abortion. On the eve of the event she breaks down and confesses her secret to Rosamund (Samantha Bond). Rosamund urges her to reconsider -- what if Gregson returns? -- but Edith can see no way out of her situation, no way to live with the social stigma that would be branded on her were she to "go public" as an unwed mother. These scenes just broke my heart -- while Rosamund was an excellent mother figure, I do so wish Edith felt she could've confided in Cora -- that woman desperately wants to be there for her daughter. The two keep the appointment, but once they arrive and Edith overhears another sobbing patient, she finds she can't go through with it -- so she makes the choice to keep the baby. I foresee a trip to Europe in her future, and a carefully placed adoption, hmmm?

Rose (Lily James) accompanied Edith to London, all to -- surprise, surprise -- visit Jack Ross (Gary Carr). How these two developed such an intense romance in the pre-cell phone age is beyond me. I mean WHERE ARE THE SPARKS?! I've been fairly tolerant of Rose overall, but this episode she crossed all sorts of lines, pitching juvenile fits when Edith wants to cut short their London stay, or when Rosamund wants to know her plans...just ridiculous, super-annoying, childish behavior. This was the grating Rose that was first introduced in season three, well before that year's infamous Christmas special where she seemed so dialed back and borderline normal (for her age, at any rate). This over-the-top, hysterical, conniving version is SO ANNOYING. Please, please make it stop, Fellowes!

Wrapping things up, there is a whole subplot where Carson (Jim Carter), Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) try to keep Alfred (Matt Milne) from visiting Downton because they don't want to deal with the conflict sure to arise from such a visit between Ivy and Daisy (Sophie McShera). I'm a bit over the whole "love triangle" thing between the three of them, but Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore were HILARIOUS, making excuses about trying to nix his visit because they think they all have the flu or something. :) Of far more interest to me was seeing Branson attend the political lecture solo, where he has a "meet cute" with one Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis). I'd read that Lewis was cast as a potential love interest for Branson, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out -- politically-minded, and too cute for words in her smart ensemble? I see loads of possibilities here, Tom!

The episode ends on an ominous note as Gillingham (Tom Cullen) returns to Downton to make eyes at Mary or something (he is SO colorless when compared to Blake!), bringing along his scummy valet Green (Nigel Harmon). Poor Anna is unable to conceal her shock when she finds Green back in Downton's kitchen, and after he makes some comments about being unable to stand Dame Nellie's singing during his last stay, forcing him to leave the concert, Bates begins to put two and two together, and there's murder in his eyes. But honestly I think Green should be more afraid of Mrs. Hughes, as corners him in the boot room and gives him absolute hell, in full-on mama bear mode. She is NOT a woman to trifle with, that Mrs. Hughes!

Only two weeks left this season, can you believe it?!

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: Whisper of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Whisper of Jasmine (City of Jasmine #0.5)
By: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA


When socialite Delilah Drummond's husband Johnny breaks the news that he's enlisted, she refuses to cry -- rather, she'll do what Delilah does best, and throw a New Year's Eve party to remember. She's determined that she and Johnny will ring in the year 1915 in style, making memories to treasure while they're far apart, separated by the conflict riddling Europe. In typical Delilah style this will be the party to remember, and as such she can't resist a bit of good-natured match-making between a few select invitees -- among them the dashing explorer Gabriel Stark, and the charming, if down-on-her-luck Evie Merriweather. Gabriel and Evie aren't intended for each other, but on that London night, with the magical promise of the new year in the air, when their eyes lock across the room sparks fly and they begin to write their own love story. But with the specter of war hovering over the festivities, and Gabriel's every move watched by those who would seek to utilize his special skill set and bravado in service to king and country, can a romance sparked by the magic of New Year's hope to survive the realities of a world at war?

Whisper of Jasmine is Deanna Raybourn's latest novella, a stunning prequel to her forthcoming release City of Jasmine (due to release February 25!). Similar in tone to last year's novella, Far in the Wilds, this story showcases Raybourn's penchant for penning an unforgettable, pitch-perfect Edwardian-era adventure. I didn't realize going into this story that Whisper of Jasmine features Delilah Drummond, heroine of A Spear of Summer Grass, the full-length follow-up to Far in the Wilds. Somehow 2013 got away from me without reading that novel, a fact I plan to rectify THIS MONTH. Knowing that novel deals with Delilah coming to terms with the aftermath of the Great War in her own life, this glimpse into her pre-war life is bittersweet and heart-rending -- but beautifully, vividly rendered on the page.

Simply put, I ADORED this introduction to Evie and Gabriel. The orphaned Evie, long shuttered between relations and struggling to make ends meet, is a wonderfully spunky, vibrant heroine. And I ADORED her Aunt Dove's role as an eccentric fairy godmother/adventuress, whose refurbished Worth gown gives Evie an entrance to Delilah's party that rivals any Cinderella herself. For a story set against the grim backdrop of the Great War, this story is a beautiful, gorgeous, heart-stopping (and humorous) fairy tale. I loved every second. And the clues dropped throughout the narrative regarding Gabriel's war work were the icing on the cake -- a swoon-worthy, whirlwind romance and a dash of old-fashioned spy-craft? A dream come true! 

Whisper of Jasmine positively sparkles, and I cannot WAIT to discover the rest of Evie and Gabriel's story -- and the promised return of Aunt Dove's witticisms! -- in City of Jasmine. This novella is an absolute delight from start to finish -- very, very well-done Ms. Raybourn!

About the book:

New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn transports readers to a magical New Year's Eve party in 1914, where two guests will discover the passion of a lifetime in this prequel novella…

Notorious socialite Delilah Drummond won't be deterred by the war. Instead, she decides to throw the event of the year, and she's handing out invitations with an eye for wanton fun and wild abandon.

There is the dashing explorer and archaeologist Gabriel Stark, a man at a crossroads in his life. Brilliant and restless, he's just committed to a secret enterprise that forces him to play a public role very different from the man he truly is.

And then there is the charming if flighty Evangeline Merriweather. Evie has dreamed her whole life of adventure. Little does she know, she's about to get more than she bargained for. Especially after her vivacious Aunt Dove acts as fairy godmother, if a saucy one, providing a scandalous gown and a whisper of jasmine on her skin….

Evie will shake cool Gabriel to his core, but just how far are they willing to take love at first sight?
One seductive night will change Evie forever. Watch for her next adventure, in the City of Jasmine.

Mr. Selfridge Season 2 preview!

Mr. Selfridge returns to Masterpiece on March 30th with its second season -- check out the trailer below:

I am SO excited about this, especially since I learned that the dishy Gregory Fitoussi will be returning as Henri.

I mean HELLLOOOOO!!!!!!!!! I can't deal with that face. :)

If you didn't watch the first season yet, there's plenty of time to catch up -- and if you need more convincing, check out Evangeline Holland's "10 Reasons Why You Should Give ITV/PBS's Mr. Selfridge Another Try."

*Image: Pinterest/source. Photo copyright PBS/ITV. No copyright infringement intended.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Remembering Shirley Temple

I was saddened to hear of Shirley Temple's passing this morning -- some of my fondest and most vivid memories of movie-watching as a child are of enjoying her films -- I particularly remember Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Story of Seabiscuit, and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. These TCM tributes always break my heart, but seeing these film clips I know I just HAVE to re-visit a few of her films in the coming weeks. Thanks for the memories, Shirley!

Review: Rutherford Park by Elizabeth Cooke

Rutherford Park
By: Elizabeth Cooke
Publisher: Berkley


Rutherford Park -- the Yorkshire seat of the Cavendish family -- is a bastion of English tradition and respectability. But its historic halls shelter dangerous secrets and passions both upstairs and down, a simmering vein of tension that belies the family's respectable exterior. The dawning of 1914 and the promise of Christmas and New Year's finds certain members of the family and household staff in a reflective mood, hungry for a change that they cannot define, the scope and impact of which they cannot fathom. After twenty years of marriage, Octavia finds herself chafing against the restrictions marriage to William has placed upon her life. Hailing from a family who owed their fortunes to wool mills, Octavia once dreamed of a love match, only to find herself trapped in a marriage as stale as the traditions that hold Rutherford Hall moribund. Her son, Harry, longs to shed his responsibilities as heir and become a pilot, while his sister, Louisa, dreams of her upcoming season and hopes for thrilling romantic assignations, with nary a thought of the cost, safely ensconced in her family's aura of unassailable respectability. But as the new year rises old secrets come to light as a woman from William's past could compromise everything he's built thanks to his iron control, while below stairs a housemaid's broken heart threatens to shatter the line of demarcation between the upstairs family and those who serve them. For those who call Rutherford Hall home, 1914 finds the once-staid house a cauldron of simmering passions and tensions, and all it will take is one small spark of rebellion or tragedy to set it alight, changing a way of life forever.

Ever since Downton Abbey debuted, capturing my -- and a large portion of the British-loving public's -- imagination and renewing interest in upstairs, downstairs tales (like the self-same show that once enthralled the public for five years), there has been a boom in fiction of this ilk, with varying results. Last year I discovered Phillip Rock's Greville trilogy, truly superlative storytelling which to my mind perfectly captures the flavor of such dramas on the page -- and in many respects exceeds its filmic counterparts in characterization and story-craft. Rutherford Park looked to be the most promising successor to the gold standard set by Rock's novels that I've encountered yet, and to some extent meets that mark -- but with mixed results.

Cooke is an accomplished wordsmith, capable of a gorgeous turn of phrase, oft-times deftly evoking the glamour and grime of this bygone age with her carefully-crafted prose. But her biggest strength is also this novel's greatest drawback, as Cooke's dreamy, evocative prose slows the narrative pace to a sluggish crawl. There is a wealth of potentially compelling material within its pages, but her descriptive, narrative-heavy storytelling -- while setting the scene in a serviceable manner -- advances the storytelling in fits and starts. This is a relatively short novel, clocking in at only 333 pages, divided into only ten chapters, yet it felt in desperate need of trimming in order to advance to the "meat" of the storyline -- the various characters standing on the precipice of great change, and their world hurtling towards the Great War. And with only ten chapters, ranging in length from roughly twenty to sixty (SIXTY!!) pages, the nuggets of compelling storytelling material find themselves buried within pages of prose that, while often beautifully rendered, nevertheless slows the forward momentum of the storyline to a crawl.

That said, those who love Downton Abbey-esque storylines of this type will find their perseverance rewarded by this book's final third, where the characters and plotlines thus far introduced come to fruition. By far the best and strongest aspect of Rutherford Park is its examination of aristocratic family life, and Cooke's exploration of how the strict social structure and values of the day could fracture relations between tradition-bound parents and their modern-minded children, foreshadowing the impact of the war on their family and class. My favorite storyline (SPOILERS) involves Octavia's affair with the American John Gould, and how that forces her husband to awaken to the realization of what his never-yielding insistence on clinging to the status quo might cost him in terms of family and legacy. While I'm dying for Gould to get a happy ending,what I loved is how their brief affair illustrates the importance of working on one's marriage and never taking it for granted. Both Octavia and William are arguably culpable, but the crises they face relative to their relationship and in the lives of their children serve as a powerful illustration of the importance of communication and of never taking one's closest relationships for granted. Because in the volatile world facing the family, survival depends not on clinging to what always has been, but facing the future under-girded by a foundation relational development as one's best hope for a lasting legacy. 

Despite its sluggish pace, Rutherford Park is an often engaging novel about a world on the cusp of profound change. In fact, one could possibly argue that the novel's somewhat cumbersome pacing ultimately serves to underscore Cooke's larger purpose -- setting the Cavendish family, and the servants in their orbit, on a trajectory from leisurely tradition to change, spurred by the crucible of war that will leave its impact on every level of society. The novel builds towards a crisis in Louisa's life that serves as an impetus to bring husband and wife, parents and children together with a level of honesty that was previously unfathomable, setting the stage for future dramatic developments that hold great promise. Cooke is a talented writer with a wonderful feel for the time period, and while the execution of this novel prevents me from naming it a favorite among the ranks of Downton-type fiction, I am looking forward to seeing where Cooke takes her characters next. 

About the book:

Snow had fallen in the night, and now the great house, standing at the head of the valley, seemed like a five-hundred-year old ship sailing in a white ocean…

For the Cavendish family, Rutherford Park is much more than a place to call home. It is a way of life marked by rigid rules and lavish rewards, governed by unspoken desires…

Lady of the house Octavia Cavendish lives like a bird in a gilded cage. With her family’s fortune, her husband, William, has made significant additions to the estate, but he too feels bound—by the obligations of his title as well as his vows. Their son, Harry, is expected to follow in his footsteps, but the boy has dreams of his own, like pursuing the new adventure of aerial flight. Meanwhile, below stairs, a housemaid named Emily holds a secret that could undo the Cavendish name.

On Christmas Eve 1913, Octavia catches a glimpse of her husband in an intimate moment with his beautiful and scandalous distant cousin. She then spies the housemaid Emily out in the snow, walking toward the river, about to make her own secret known to the world. As the clouds of war gather on the horizon, an epic tale of longing and betrayal is about to unfold at Rutherford Park…