Downton Abbey, the London Season (2013)

Somber as it was during its primary episodes – as the Masterpiece Theatre viewers are discovering (Annie, seriously, your tweets on Sunday made me giggle and spike curiosity of your thoughts), I was still transfixed by the delights of the fourth season of Downton Abbey. With the U.S. DVD release finally happening this week, I figured it was time to share my thoughts on what was the proper finale for season four – the always anticipated Christmas special. 

During the summer of 1923, playing guardians over their headstrong cousin, Rose (Lily James), Robert and Cora (Hugh Bonvillle, Elizabeth McGovern) are preparing to take part in yet another London Season in order for Rose to come out like every other young woman in her social circle. Giddy with excitement over the pageantry and being presented to the monarchy, the family has taken up residence in their London home for the season including select servants, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Carson (Jim Carter) as well as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) who is finally beginning to return to her old self over a year past Matthew’s death. Joining in the festivities is Cora’s mother, Martha (Shirley MacClaine) – whose flamboyancy constantly clashes with the Crawley matriarch, Violet (Maggie Smith), and her son Harold (Paul Giamatti) who has never even been to London let alone met his nieces. As American’s the Levingson’s culture clashes greatly with that of the British aristocracy but when the young, Madeline (Poppy Drayton) is pawned off on Harold by her father in the hope that a match will be made between the wealthy Harold (whose money he'd like to use) and Madeline, Harold’s prejudice towards the British slowly begins to fade away...

At the Downton Abbey estate, Edith (Laura Carmichael) is suffering from guilt and second guessing a recent life-altering decision. Attempting to reassure her that her missing lover will be found, Rosalind (Samantha Bond) lends nothing more than affirmation that Edith made the right choice yet Edith’s heart continues to say differently.  Tom (Allen Leech) is still feeling misplaced in the family’s society – particularly with Rose’s London ball imminent and his expected attendance… only his own moral is called into question when – surprise! – Thomas (Rob James-Collier) makes trouble.

Rounding out what was surely a dramatic and sober albeit a necessary season of healing for the wildly popular Fellowes penned series was this 90-minute special and all I can say is – what a treat it was. By the time everything came to a close I was put in a happy mood and I took pleasure in many of the scenes or interactions throughout the episode – Anna is actually smiling again, folks. Aside from one revolution (that could be confirming suspicion or misleading us), everything that happens is pleasing and reveals more about the characters (especially Bates and Mary) we were already sure were loyal and upstanding. Mary is finally returning and even enjoys a bit of playful flirting with her would-be suitor Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) and has an important heart-to-heart with Tony (Tom Cullen). Rose is still a fun presence every episode though I confess I’m growing weary of Tom’s restlessness – his character needs resolution. Since first we met him, he’s matured to a point that he is no longer an outsider but an important member of the Crawley clan yet his constant feelings of inadequacy need to be put to rest. Either he stays (as so many of us wish for) and realizes he is indeed loved and important or he leaves to begin again. Then, of course there is the continued evil shenanigans of Thomas (can I just give a “hurrah” for Baxter – you go girl! Thank goodness someone finally put him in his place even if only temporarily) and then there is Edith. Sigh… I’m not sure she’ll ever understand the ramifications of her choices or will be ever gifted a happy ending. Poor thing may have a beautiful wardrobe but it seems she’s forever falling short of being truly happy.

Speaking of the costuming, same as always, it’s gorgeous. From Rose’s season ensemble to those gowns Edith dons, the beauty in each parlor or ball room spectacle is breath-taking. Those of us who’ve watched from the beginning will probably find the costuming particularly smashing since it’s evolved so much given its range of time frames – at the beginning, we’d just experienced the sinking of the RMS Titanic to now, fully engulfed in the roaring 20’s (further evidenced by the club scenes and Mary referring to Rose as a “flapper”). Furthermore weaving into the script are some cute bits of sleuthing as well as Daisy getting a small albeit darling story, all of which prove what a lighthearted bit of television this 90 minutes was. By the time the final moments rolled around I didn’t wish for it to end and if anything, my expectations are again in a tither over what’s to come for season five – not because the ending is a cliffhanger just because season four did anything but drive me away. Well done, Downton Abbey.

What about you friends, what is your thoughts on the season thus far? Or did you watch it all this week thanks to those marvelous U.S. DVD sets that arrived in our mailboxes this week..?
I'm curious for your thoughts. 

It Had to Be You by Susan May Warren

About the Book:
Author: Susan May Warren
Publisher: Tyndale
Publication Date: February 2014
Find the Review elsewhere:
Series: A Christiansen Family Novel – book 2
Genre: Fiction; Romance, Christian, Contemporary
Rating: 5 out of 5
Ever since reading my first Susan May Warren novel (Happily Ever After – way to hook a teenage romantic!), I have been a committed fan of Warren’s wordsmith. Since that very first Deep Haven book, this girl has been willing to return to the beloved north of the rustic Minnesota town. The second novel in Warren’s “spin-off” series (following the six novels in the Deep Haven series), It Had to Be You is Eden Christiansen’s story. As the responsible daughter of the family, Eden has always put aside her feelings and aspirations in favor of keeping baby brother, Owen in line during his pursuit of a career in the NHL. Wild and determined to push his sister out of his life, Eden is devastated when Owen is injured with the possibility he may never play again. This leads her into the life of team captain Jace Jacobsen. Jace is the Blue Ox’s “bad boy,” every stereotype of the image has been written about him and because of that neither Eden nor Jace knew each other beyond recognition when passing in the stadium halls. Eden has made assumptions about Jace and Jace never thought of Eden as anything other than Owen’s bossy cheerleader, but now these two unlikely people are about to discover there is more to a person than first impressions.

In many ways, Susan feels like the matriarch of contemporary fiction. She has a talent beyond any author I’ve read because of the poignant ways she strings words (emotions) together and secondly, she knows how to do all the genres with effortless grace – she’s tackled suspense, historical and contemporary, each one more beautifully than the last. If memory serves me correctly, Eden was a character who interested the reader from Take a Chance on Me and her story doesn’t disappoint. Book two tells her story in such a way that most if not all readers will relate to the heartbreak of Eden – she’s the one sister and daughter who feels “misplaced.” As if she hasn’t found her way in a family that already is confident in their place in life, society and Christ. Eden’s struggle felt genuine and her full circle realization was just as I’d have wished it to be – it took her “letting go” to realize where she was supposed to be was exactly where she was. Kudos to Susan for surprising the reader! I have to say that I didn’t expect Eden to make the decisions she did and it’s refreshing whenever the writer switches up the obvious. The second thing that was unexpected was Jace’s feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to also be struggling with past scars of belonging and finding out who he was. With Eden he became the best version of himself and the scenes between them took time to cultivate a healthy, sweet relationship anyone could root for – there’s a particularly lovely scene of the whole family together at their home up in Deep Haven. The Christiansen family is not just a fun group of people to know for 300+ pages, they’re a warm, big-hearted family that seems like good friends and whether or not it’s acceptable, I am floored by all these authors crafting genuine, crazy families for us to fall in love with.

Aside from the beauty of this story, I have to talk about one of my pet peeves which is the prose style – no matter how well I adore the story, if the format isn’t a favorite that tends to down the overall rating. Much as I liked the prior novel of this series, the back-and-forth perspective switch off “felt” awkward – I went into the novel thinking it was to be Derek and Ivy’s story and instead felt like the secondary characters (Jensen and Claire) were also prominently placed to the point that Derek and Ivy seemed to be overshadowed. In this novel, Susan uses the supporting friends and characters to help further the story instead of seemingly surpassing Jace and Eden’s own heartbreaks or spirits in need of healing, and fortuitously, it reads better, especially when everything reaches its pinnacle and we realize that everyone had a hand in helping to save someone – even if they don’t realize it. Compared to some of its peers, the spiritual message isn’t buried and shines as brightly as the characters; the novel made my mother cry and resonated with me with its emotional indicators. If you’re one of those readers who are a newbie to Warren’s novels, there is no better time to start. This is one author who is only getting better with each book and I cannot wait to find out what joy she has next for us to discover in this memorable Christiansen family saga.

This review originally appeared on Fiction Addict.

Synopsis: Eden Christiansen never imagined her role as her younger brother Owen's cheerleader would keep her on the sidelines of her own life. Sure, it feels good to be needed, but looking after the reckless NHL rookie leaves little time for Eden to focus on her own career. She dreamed of making a name for herself as a reporter, but is stuck writing obits--and starting to fear she doesn't have the chops to land a major story. If only someone would step up to mentor Owen . . . but she knows better than to expect help from team veteran and bad-boy enforcer Jace  Jacobsen. Jace has built his career on the infamous reputation of his aggressive behavior--on and off the ice. Now at a crossroads about his future in hockey, that reputation has him trapped. And the guilt-trip he's getting from Eden Christiansen isn't making things any easier. But when Owen's carelessness leads to a career-threatening injury and Eden stumbles upon a story that could be her big break, she and Jace are thrown together . . . and begin to wonder if they belong on the same team after all. - Goodreads

Coming Next from Susan May Warren: Hawaii was the last place Grace Christiansen ever imagined she’d vacation, much less fall in love. But when her family surprises her with a cooking retreat in paradise, she is pulled—or maybe yanked—away from her predictable, safe life and thrown headfirst into the adventure of a lifetime.

Max Sharpe may make his living on the ice as a pro hockey player, but he feels most at home in the kitchen. Which is why he lives for the three-week culinary vacation he takes each year in Hawaii. Upon being paired with Grace for a cooking competition, Max finds himself drawn to her passion, confidence, and perseverance. But just when Grace dares to dream of a future beyond her hometown, Max pulls away.

Wrestling with personal demons, Max fights against opening his heart to a love he knows he should never hope for. And as his secrets unfold, Grace is torn between the safe path in front of her and what her heart truly desires. If love means sacrificing her ideal happily ever after, Grace’s faith will face its toughest test yet
. - via Goodreads, July 2014
With thanks to the publisher, Tyndale House (thanks to Jen at Fiction Addict) for providing a complimentary ARC copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

The Mentalist, Season One (2008)

Intelligent shows are hard to come by. Sometimes even a concept that has been done before can still be clever if it’s covered by a bushel of talent and good “magic.” Fortunately, The Mentalist has both.

Living a lie is what Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) does best. Or he did. For many years, he masqueraded as a high-profile medium who could communicate with deceased loved ones. Off of other’s pain he made a good living for his family. Years later, his new role, as a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation (or the CBI) has ulterior motives attached.

The Art of Blogging

What is blogging?

That seems a valid question for which the answer is never just black and white. Prior to jumping into the world of blogging, I’d not had had any sort of answer or notion of it. Before I became serious about it, I really wasn’t versed on its ins and outs and in the two years before that, I actively read a select few – perhaps two or three max, and was impressed that they were not “professional” web pages but “merely” writers who were able to put their passions, expressions and a dramatic sense of their fandoms into a blogger format with subjects that brought it all together. (Plus a patience for HTML coding. *wink*) These writers did not just provide a place where I found helpful information but they were an inspiration to my aspirations of someday writing more “seriously.” Following my nearly three year blogging journey, it seemed like a fun test to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Plus I figured the fact that I began this blog post exactly a year ago meant I should either ditch it or hit that intimidating "publish."

Tips, feedback and your own stories would be most welcome in the comment section. (And thanks to Juju's comment below, I've tweaked some of my thoughts that I didn't express as clearly as I meant too.)
One thing in blogging that keeps cropping up is the importance of being inter-active in the circle you’ve designated as blogs you are inclined to trust or enjoy. I hear this in many social media avenues and think it also applies to blogging. Don’t be afraid to join in conversation. Or to share a differing opinion – so long as it’s respectful of the writers and fellow commenters, there is nothing wrong with that. Introduce yourself as a new reader and/or follower. As a friend recently phrased it, “you talk, I talk.” In other words, my stance on comments and conversation is personal. If you take the time to read these ramblings – and many of you have offered an abundance of conversation which I’ve enjoyed every second of, I am eager to join in your conversations, plus I’ve found many dear bloggers and friends.

If you are not willing to be someone who gives feedback to the bloggers who ask it of you, then the expectation to be given the same curtsey is unrealistic.
This never used to be something that I thought was necessary to blogging and perhaps I should specify that it's one thing that works best for my blogging. My motto has become something about blogging being a reflection on each individual writer and that it should be whatever the writer wants of it – and I still believe that 100%. However, for me consistency is something to consider prior to setting up a blog. Are you the sort of person who will have material to post twice a week? That’s not to say that for 52 weeks, you should post twice a week but there does need to be some form of patterns. It proves you are “serious” about what you are sharing and also informs your readers when there will be new material up and how often. If there are ideas floating in your mind, find the time when you get the most writing done and get some posts written up – even if they aren’t “exactly” what you want to say at least you’ll have something to work off of, and in this instance, the schedule tool can be the best bet. For example in addition to still having review archives from before blogging, I find I do all of my best "new," most efficient writing late at night when I pop in the earbuds and have no other “daily” distractions.

Here is a subject that will have many different creative conclusions, which is great since we all like something different. I like simple; the simpler a design, the better. In browsing, I’ve seen some that are nothing more than a white background with only their title scrawled at the top in a neat font and perhaps a “logo” of sorts incorporated. Don’t underestimate the “power” of the white. I do love a “welcoming,” personal feel yet whenever I contemplate a background, I tend to go back to that white space. Uncluttered sidebars are best yet should have any pertinent information easy to find. Keep the design classy, uncomplicated and simple. In the end, it makes easier reading.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. From personal experience this started out as an impersonal web space to post archives of film reviews. Now, I feel like it’s become something more. There have been some personal scribblings written (which I would like to expand on if only I could get past my nerves!), and the interaction that the readers have given this blog has also helped in opening my mind to some new things – and sharing that personal side of myself. It’s been a real pleasure and I thank you all for being a part of that – you inspire me!
If you visit a blog with a neat idea (say a meme that's new to you) or an idea that you are interested in expanding on, unless the blogger holds a patent on it, don’t be afraid to ask if the idea is something you can use for your blog. When I’ve “stolen” bloggers  - and I say this with the stipulation that usually it's been after asking them - concept, most of them are happy for another blogger to run with their ideas. With that being said, I do want to clarify, I don't in any way think it's right to use other's work as your own... this is simply an idea to consider if a blogger is using a meme-like post or it's something similar other bloggers have been participating in the blogosphere.

Social Media
I never thought I’d say this but social media is a great asset to any blogger. If you’re looking to drive more traffic to your blog, it’s a huge incentive to be on Twitter or even Pinterest. As a reviewer I appreciate using it to assist authors in any small way in getting word out on their recent novels. Plus so long as you’re disciplined not to let Twitter become an unhealthy obsession, it’s a wonderful place to interact with favorite authors or ask questions about certain issues that may have you stumped – issues related to blogging or various technical snags on favorite websites (like password lock-outs or the like).

So, these are some of the things that have helped me - and are my own thoughts on what works. What about you, friends?
Anything you have learned or feel is important to share with fellow bloggers?
The comments are all yours!

All written text © Copyright Rissi ( January 28th 2014

When Calls the Heart, Season One - Episode 3 (2014)

Janette Oke is one of the premiere authors of her time not to mention she was instrumental in bringing inspirational fiction into the recognition it now enjoys. In case you missed it, the Hallmark Channel has produced her Canadian West series into this scripted, nice-week, hour-long series and so far, any fan should know, if you’re missing this, then you’re missing a fabulous production. Here are some thoughts on the next episode, “A Telling Silence.” Hardships or no, Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) has proved she has some mettle no matter her city upbringing. With the women of Coal Valley finally understanding that Elizabeth is more than a pretty face, she sets about teaching their children and is troubled by the lack of communication from young Rosaleen. Not only does she refuse to speak, the girl won’t color or express any emotion. When she goes missing, the town learns new things about its members.

Meanwhile, life for the handsome Mountie posted in Coal Valley, Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing) is beginning to get difficult. With his job come new suspicions when it appears the church burning down was the result of arson.... at the hand of a respected community member.

Out of the episodes I’ve seen thus far, this one has been my least favorite though not because it does anything “wrong,” rather it just seemed lacking in importance as a 40-something minute long story. As a “bigger” piece of the puzzle in the 10-episdoe order, it fit very nicely. Some of these episodes I suspect won’t work as attractively as individual episodes though viewing them in the bigger puzzle will likely reveal a wholesome series that any fan of the Love Comes Softly series or CBS’ Christy will find beautiful viewing. Last time we chatted about this series, I do believe mentioning the scenery escaped me and really it’s a shame since the camera does scan some gorgeous countryside and fortunately unlike some of its counterparts even during scenes at the school house or elsewhere, the settings always seem authentic and believable to the period. Some characters aren’t in episode four though we get to see individual interaction between Elizabeth and one student which is nice lending some personalization to the relationship she has with them as well as the affection she has for them as humans and not just as minds to be crammed with knowledge.

 Of course, the moments between Lissing and Krakow continue to be fueled by fabulous chemistry – swoon – and if the next episode synopsis is any indication, we’re finally going to get an episode that focuses on that. Of course the fact that the hero is in uniform doesn’t hinder anything especially when it’s a man like Jack – something about a uniform does seem to appeal to us, girls, right!? And here ends my fangirl-ing. Uh-huh, moving on. What does start to build in this story is a mystery possibly surrounding one of the women who was left a widow as a result of the mining accident and if it plays out a bit – the script teasing us as to the truth behind it, I think it could make for a great plot line. There’s nothing like hints of mystery to keep even the best guesser curious.

For those of you who haven’t tuned in to see When Calls the Heart, be sure to check your listings – due to popular ratings the show is enjoying encore viewings or find the episodes on iTunes. For those of you who are watching the series, what do you think?

Be sure to catch ‘A Telling Silence’ tonight, January 25th on
The Hallmark Channel!  
Take a look at the preview for tonight’s episode:  

Dare to Love Again by Julie Lessman

About the Book:
Author: Julie Lessman
Publisher: Revell
Publication Date: 2014
Find the Review elsewhere:
Series: The Heart of San Francisco – Book 2
Genre: Fiction; Historical, Romance
Rating: 4 out of 5
Back with only her second novel in her newest series, Julie Lessman tackles the sassy Allison McClare’s story, heartaches and the risks she takes to fall in love again. Working with her mother, Caitlyn and cousin, Cassidy at the new school for girls the McClare women have opened on the crime-ridden Barbary Coast and now run, Allison isn’t the average society girl nor one likely to be intimidated. Or so the brute of a detective Nick Barone soon learns. Through a  series of events, Nick is hired to teach Allison self-defense and what started out as less-than-polite interactions between the two soon blossoms into friendship – even if it’s a tenuous one. While Allison craves independence and living life on the edge of what’s “safe,” Nick changes her outlook on life… he both infuriates her and with time manages to touch her heart. But no matter the time the pair spends together, will Allison be able to trust Nick…? Or is his past riddled with secrets that will again break Allison’s trust in men… and her heart?

Just like we’ve come to expect from Lessman’s style of storytelling, all of the “signatures” that are uniquely hers are fully accounted for. This book is occupied with familial ties, sparks flying and a sense of unrequited love. Staying true to her familiar elements, Julie explores blossoming (new) romance and counterbalances that against love that has spanned years. It’s an interesting splice though I cannot always get behind the latter yet fans of the love/hate romantic liaison attraction are going to love Nick and Allison's interactions and disputes. Detective Barone (pronounced with the long “e,” thank you) is a man who has carefully concealed his purpose for being close to the wealthy residents of Nob Hill and it’s these mysterious overtures that keep us guessing what Nick could be up too. We understand what is motivating his desire for revenge, just not the “who” or “what” it involves. Speaking of his moral character, Nick’s a decent fellow and though not my favorite hero, I didn’t mind him capturing Alli’s heart. Naturally, Alli is a spit-fire who wants to be taken seriously rather than be coddled by a protective family and would-be beau. Passion is always an intense theme in these novels and with Dare to Love Again, that thread has become more subtle and the prose is less about unhealthy passion between two lovers and more about learning to trust again though physical attraction doesn’t suffer in the least between Alli and Nick. Of that, I can assure potential readers, no one need worry – their attraction is still brimming with chemistry.

Anyone who is having a hard time letting go of the O’Conner clan needn’t fret over liking this new family because they are the same sort of big, boisterous, loving clan – there are still tears to be cried, games of chess (or pool!) to best each other at, sassy retorts to be delivered and a faith in God that trumps all else. If you read book one in the series, you’ll enjoy catching up with favorite characters (though I confess the lack of acknowledgement up to a point of the “big reveal” in the prior book did mildly confound me) and experience the awkward albeit endearing Meg come into her own (sending her away was an interesting move and though I suspect the author won’t, it’d be interesting to get Meg’s story from a different location perspective - especially one so grand). Any fan of Julie Lessman will enjoy Dare to Love Again. There’s plenty of mystery (think exciting climax!), romance and spunky characters. This reader is eager to see what comes next in the McClare line!

Synopsis: Spunky Allison McClare is determined to be a fearless, independent woman, resorting to a mammoth hat pin for protection on her way to and from the school where she teaches. But when she takes a notion to explore the wild Barbary Coast she quickly discovers she is no match for rum-soaked brute strength.

Detective Nick Barone would rather do almost anything than teach this petite socialite jiu-jitsu, but it seems he has little choice in the matter. Sparks fly every time the two meet until a grudging friendship develops into something deeper. But when Nick suddenly leaves town, Allison realizes he’s a fraud just like all the rest of the men she’s cared for. Does she dare love again?

Sincere thanks to the publisher, Revell for providing a complimentary copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

June in January (2014)

Romantic comedies, chick flicks - whatever coined term you wish to use for girly movies, are just one of my vices. With a new year to start afresh, television networks are just getting started on what is promising to be another year of family-friendly productions. When networks continue to put out such adorable films like this, the first in Hallmark's programming, it's easy to imagine it's going to be another fabulous year of programming... and it’s hard not to gush.

Dreams are all June Carver (Brooke D’Orsay) has left of her mother. Dreams and the wishes she’ll be able to make all she and her mother memorialized for June’s wedding day become reality. After two years of dating her wealthy lawyer boyfriend Alex (Wes Brown), June is finally going to be able to use that wedding book long packed away she and her mother put together. An engagement on New Year’s Eve leaves plenty of time for planning the perfect June wedding just like her parent’s had, just as she was named for. The one snare she didn’t see in her plan was Alex getting a job in Ohio and having to start that job the first of February. 

With pressure mounting to pull together the wedding she has envisioned since childhood in a mere four weeks, a soon-to-be mother-in-law (Marilu Henner) who hates June and to find a qualified nurse practitioner to replace her at the doctor’s office where she works, June is in over her head – what does this mean for her heart...?

Like the numerous wedding disaster-esque movies that have come before it, June in January is a charismatic piece of television. There was so much to enjoy about this movie not the least of which was its leading lady who I absolutely adore in her more familiar usual role as Paige Evans on the comedy Royal Pains (and some fans may also recognize Brooke from a prior Hallmark film, How to Fall in Love). And Wes Brown was a perfect, dashing leading man though I didn’t think he and Brooke were “perfect” together; something “felt” lacking in their scenes together wedding planning – as if maybe he overplayed typical male disinterest too much. Also a point of annoyance for some viewers may be the script’s tendency to play up the crazy obsession a woman can have with planning her wedding and sadly, this isn’t just fiction, it’s a reality; becoming over-involved in the planning of the wedding and because of that, relationships suffer.  

Beyond those minor nit-picking comments, this, the first original Hallmark film of the New Year is adorable. It was a nice switch-up to meet a couple whose relationship was already well established and made it seem all the more realistic also given they were “comfortable” with one another and weren’t written to fall in love in a month’s time all squeezed into 80-some minutes; knowing that Alex and June have dated for years instead of weeks helps sell the script and that’s what the film needed as icing on its cake. Throwing in a little “mean girl” drama to add some potential breaking points, a strict mother and a bunch of sweetness, fans of the genre cannot go wrong with this adorable romantic-comedy. It’s perfect for a girl’s night in or watching a romance with little sisters. Hallmark Channel has again produced a sweet treat that will coax a smile from any interested viewer.  
Catch the premiere of June in January tonight, Saturday the 18th
on the Hallmark Channel.
Have a look at the promo video:  

The Dancing Master by Julie Klassen

About the Book:
Author: Julie Klassen
Publisher: Bethany House
Publication Date: 2014
Find the Review elsewhere:
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Generally speaking, regency fiction – or really, most novels that fall within the historical fiction genre, is something I prefer when the British give us a spectacular new cinematic production. For some crazy reason, I love it when seen through the lens of vivid film but reading about it…? I just haven’t been able to fall into the fan base. For this reason, this is only the second novel I’ve read by the talented Julie Klassen which follows a young dancing instructor Alec Valcourt newly arrived from London to the small village of Beaworthy. Once there, living with his mother and sister under his uncle’s roof, Alec is anxious to set up a new academy only to learn that the estate landowner, Lady Midwinter has forbidden dancing of any kind to be participated in. When he meets Julia Midwinter, the woman’s impetuous daughter, Alec is surprised to find her desirous to go against her mother and learn the art of dance but also a young lady who has no scruples about who she flutters her eyes at. When past secrets begin to emerge, it’s up to Julia and Alec to restore happiness to the village that has tiptoed around Lady Midwinter for one too many years.

Whatever I may conclude about The Dancing Master, it’s inarguable that Klassen is a talented authoress and it’s easy to see why her style is so often compared to the greats. She has a flair for enticing familiarity to Austen and usually also sneaks in hints of mystery which explains the comparisons to the Bronte sisters. Her prose is stylistically gorgeous and descriptive which is what helps make the gorgeous cover design come alive – each of her scenes put us in mind of elegance personified and as such, we’ve no problem feeling as if we’re “living” in regency England through the lives of Alec, Julia and each supporting character we encounter. My reservations about this novel is more personal taste than objection to its content although I will say its "love story" fell flat - the romance is rarely built on which makes the romantic side less plausible. What portrays itself as a romance in a pretty picture of dance is actually a novel about a young man coming to grips with his past and a young woman learning that her past is riddled with secrets – and this is really where the story itself shines.

Klassen expertly weaves this story with red herrings and misdirection. While reading the latter half of the story (when this issue really upped its intrigue), I flip-flopped more than once over what the truth was and until the book was nearly done, never did guess what the “secret” was. It was fantastic how in and out of mystery the author teases her readers and while some of the characters themselves disappointed, Julia’s search for truth did not. While I superbly enjoyed the theme of the novel (dancing), its focus wasn’t as clear-cut as its peers. If you don’t mind the focal point of historical that uses its characters as individuals to tell a story, then The Dancing Master is for you. Within that, priority is spent on Alec – it’s he we get to know best whereas Julia feels more like a figure in the background and of course, we also are privy to Lady Midwinter’s perspective in select passages.

Unless I miss my guess, fans of Julie Klassen will enjoy being swept up in another historical revel, and if that’s your preference, then this elegant book will enchant any reader.

Synopsis: 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 Julie 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. - Goodreads

With thanks to the publisher (Bethany House) and the ladies at Litfuse for providing a complimentary copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

Read what others think of the Dancing Master.

The Wolverine (2013)

Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine

With another chapter coming this year and this movie from 2013 to help “bridge” that upcoming installment with ‘The Last Stand,’ the popular X-Men don’t seem to be losing momentum in the hearts of fans – or the box office. 

Drifting and being a loner is what Logan (Hugh Jackman) seems to do best. His life has become a shamble of what it once was and he’s now living a nomadic life in the mountains. No matter how far he runs he can’t shake the memories of Jean Grey nor can he escape Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young woman who has sought him out at the request of her boss, a man Logan once saved during World War II. Dying, Yashida wishes to thank Logan but once he arrives to speak with this long-ago acquaintance, Logan realizes the man has ulterior motives. Shortly after arriving, Yashida dies and Logan prepares to return home only tying into Yashida’s scheme is the kidnapping plot of his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), a woman, Logan takes upon himself to protect all while trying to stay one step ahead of the people on their trail. 

No matter what else happens or what may go “boom!” with the X-Men and their adventures, it seems fated for Logan to always be painted as a kind of tragic figure. The first time I met him, his tranquil life was disrupted and he was soon grieving the loss of the woman he loved. In The Wolverine he’s again still not over the loss of another woman he fell for and eventually, he seeks comfort in the arms of yet another woman who he winds up kissing good-bye. Oh, dear! It would appear, Logan is not a man who will get his happy ending. If a viewer can move beyond that, I didn’t dislike this edition to the X-Men trilogy. It’s a film that probably could stand on its own considering with exception to the epilogue scene that sets up the next movie, none of the characters from prior movies appear – there are no mutants for all intents and purposes, and in its place is a script that simply chronicles Logan rediscovering his purpose.

FILM REVIEW | X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Moving the story to a location or situation that we’ve not seen Logan – or any of his fellow mutants, conquer was interesting. I didn’t love nor hate it and was a bit disappointed at the start of the movie to find Logan moping… again. Once I adjusted my expectations, I enjoyed this installment. As usual, the stunts are a-m-a-z-i-n-g and probably in some respect “bigger” than its predecessors (not just by literal reasons). The climax is not only big in its scope but also manages to weave an emotional connotation into its reveal. Save for the beginning, the movie jumps right into the pulse-pounding action, and barely stops. Again, the acting is wonderful; it’s been ideal to watch a series keep the same person as a central character rather than a hero who comes in for one or two movies only to bow out eventually. Writers seem conflicted over whom they want Logan to be… and that is growing demeaning. Every cloud does have a silver lining and we accept the good with the bad; I like Logan being still at the forefront of this series but am beginning to feel like his story should be devoid of romantic entanglements. For me, just admitting this is unusual because I usually like the hero to find happiness, yet with the way things are going, Logan seems to always be saying good-bye.

Famke Janssen and Hugh Jackman

If you’re an avid fan of this series, then The Wolverine is a must-see. It’s got a decent script although I cannot pretend that I didn’t miss seeing some fan favorites return. Because of the general mood of the script, I will say, this film doesn’t retain the same light-heartedness as before though taking a more serious approach to the material works – plus Logan’s limits are tested beyond any of his other dutiful rescue missions or promise to protect and as a result of that, I’m particularly interested to see where ‘Days of Future Past’ is going to take this character. Though as with the entire series, who knows in what timeline order the upcoming movie will fall... that's the question to be asked. 

(Parental review: it’s implied Logan sleeps with a woman [there’s a shot of them lying together] and there are dream sequences while he’s in bed involving Logan remembering Jean [kissing]. There’s a scene of a man dancing with/caressing three women in a hotel room. There are a few other suggestive scenes as well as lots of curve-hugging, inappropriate clothing on various female characters. The body count piles up throughout the entire movie and some of it is a bit “graphic” or bloody – Logan rips an implement out of his chest, opponents clash with swords and end up bleeding out or a massive machine tears apart anything in its path. Logan’s person is brutally attacked in the climax. Bullets fly and there is a bar scuffle in the opening of the film. There’s also some drinking. Profanity includes an f-word, multiple uses of lesser profanities including sh*t, b*tch, etc. as well as abuse of God’s name. The film rates PG13.)

When Calls the Heart, Season One - Episodes 1 and 2 (2014)

Synonymous with prairie romances is the name Janette Oke. Her novels have sold millions worldwide in addition to her books being part of the reason inspirational fiction is what it is today. This accomplishment has not escaped the notice of the Hallmark Channel; the network has brought to life her Canadian series in an all-new original series for 2014. 

Life in the East has been privileged for young Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow); she’s accustomed to parties, pretty gowns and an unlimited source of books. But in spite of her pesky sister’s best efforts to dissuade her with horror stories of life in the wilderness, she’s determined to make it as a teacher in the mining town of Coal Valley. Armed with her fortitude and trunks full of knowledge, Elizabeth heads west only to be robbed along the way. Once there, things don’t get any better. She discovers that the town just recently experienced a tragedy when the women were left widowed after their husbands were killed in a mining accident and many of them lost older children that day and in a ripple effect, the families are being threatened with eviction.

With little confidence from the mothers that she can do the job of teacher justice, Elizabeth finds an ally in Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin), one of the women who lost her family that horrible day. Things get worse on her first day in the tiny town when Elizabeth burns down her house and to add more complications she clashes with the new Mountie posted to Coal Valley, Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing).

As a kind of introduction to this premiere, Hallmark aired a two-hour film with an entirely different cast (with exception to Loughlin) and I’m not sure if it’s better for a viewer to first watch that or to start afresh with this series. Some of the story told in the movie overlaps - briefly, in the opening of episode one and effectively dismisses the presence of the Mountie Elizabeth knew and traveled with from home, Edward Montclair. In his place steps this entirely new character, Jack. Perhaps her beau wasn’t well liked so writer’s decided to not pursue his character or maybe it was just a chance for the primary writer’s to reflect and make changes they felt would better the story. Either way, unless you wish to see Elizabeth and Wynn’s story be told (the characters who Oke’s original novels are about), you’re not missing much – speaking in terms of understanding the story, by skipping over the pilot film. If we are to assume that all that transpired in the film holds up (and I’m not convinced it’s meant to), then fans should know that this series is actually following the niece of Wynn and Elizabeth Delaney, not the same Elizabeth Thatcher we meet in the Canadian West books.

With fresh faces and a new leading lady, there was some skepticism as to whether or not fans would like the series as well however I have to say I think Erin makes a better heroine than Poppy Drayton. I liked both actresses… but I think Erin suits the role better whereas Poppy portrayed Elizabeth as more of a loveable, sputtering city girl, Erin puts more sass and fire into the role. After watching the premiere ("Lost and Found") and second episode (“Cease and Desist”), I was also impressed with the sparks of chemistry between Erin and Daniel. They had some amazing (read: stares across the room *wink*) moments together – such as him realizing Elizabeth wasn’t going to be bested (particularly cute is a school room scene involving her standing atop a table) and the ending of the second forty minutes was also telling. It took me a bit longer to warm to Daniel in the role though I think he’s going to be an interesting character and quite the match for Elizabeth’s stubbornness.

The introductory of the series could have opened better – especially considering the framework had been laid in the film, however there are some cute throwbacks to Elizabeth’s life with her family and of course, her constant scribbles in a journal. Setting off, this series has all it needs to be successful. It’s family-friendly (already a rarity), features some beautiful costuming and scenery and has also managed to assemble a talented cast which is of the upmost importance to any on-going series. To top things off, there is a troublemaker of a mining boss who, I suspect won't make anything easy. If you like anything of this genre or family programming in general, I’d love to know what you think of this series. If the first two installments are any indication, it’s going to be something worth tuning in to on Saturday evenings.

Are you looking forward to this series? 

Catch the premiere of When Calls the Heart this Saturday, January 11th. Take a look at the promo video:


The Hunters (2013)

Two of the best genres are adventure and fantasy – or also known as fairytale, so when I see those two genres synonymously tagging the same film, you can bet it’s one I’m going to watch.

The Flynn brothers haven’t had the most normal childhood. Eldest Paxton (Robbie Amell) is about to take a trip around the world on his yacht and then there is Tripp (Keenan Tracey), the troublemaker. He’s been kicked out of boarding schools one too many times and Paxton is tired of cleaning up his brother’s mess. Their parents are rarely around and as archeologists they travel often for their work. Sibling fights are about to be the least of Paxton and Tripp’s worries when mysterious things begin happening – like their parent’s going missing and their mother’s assistant Dylan (Alexa Vega) telling the brothers that their parents are actually Hunters; people who search for and protect ancient, historical artifacts. Now, it’s up to the three of them to uncover the secrets of the Flynn family past and reach mom Jordyn (Michele Forbes) before it’s too late.

Once upon a time, anyone who values family entertainment may remember NBC teaming with Walmart to bring family films to television every so often and that tradition has continued, only now they’ve found a home on Hallmark and already there have been some memorable movies (When Calls the Heart) to come out of the new partnership with an “exclusive” DVD release to WalMart that follows shortly after the airing. This is one of their newest titles and when first seeing the cast (which also includes Victor Garber), I thought it would prove to be a decent albeit predictable diversion but it wasn’t until I read the synopsis that I got all the more curious; the script is decently clever merging both history and contemporary subcultures. There is a lot of respect paid to the artifacts which plays against the cool gadgetry and “sleekness” of the script.

Surprisingly, the movie sets a slow pace and doesn’t really bother to play up its “adventure” aspects. Sure, there is a sense of excitement – a thread that is an undercurrent to the entire film, however it takes its sweet time threading its way through the end game and once we arrive there, there is a feeling of being incomplete. On the plus side, this is easily the sort of movie that lends itself to nothing but a happy ending, so despite the promise of more trouble, it’s a safe speculation to say things turn out well. Writers may have also had hopes of turning this into a film or series franchise which would explain why they didn’t want to be boxed in. Beyond the pace, the story was engrossing and of course, the cast quite good. Amell (Picture Perfect) and Tracey played off each other well as typical brothers and then, naturally Alexa Vega played the love-hate romance up with Amell’s character, something that was cute.

This is really The Hunters in a nutshell. There is some excitement and clever throwbacks to popular fairytales plus as the previous paragraph will attest too, the cast is hip. Locales add atmosphere to each scene and it was nice to watch an adventurous movie in which the “adventure” was more about smarts than force. All that’s left to say is kudos to the studios that are dedicated to putting out family-friendly entertainment that actually knows what that label means – it’s a refreshing thing to watch something without wondering when the next tactless event is coming.

(Parental Concerns: There are a few “intense” moments – a man disintegrates after reciting a chant. Two men are shot, a couple falls off a zip line. There may be a minor innuendo or profanity. The film is rated PG.)
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