Thursday, February 28, 2013

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

Her Royal Spyness (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries, #1)Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Downloaded from Audible.com. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

A very light satirical mystery set in 1930’s England. Georgie is 21, a Duke’s sister and 34th in line to the throne. Despite some intimacy with royalty, her family is dead broke so she escapes from a drafty estate in Scotland to London where she hopes to earn a living and avoid being forced to marry minor European royalty. Inevitably she finds herself embroiled in a couple of mysteries that she must of course solve to save herself and her family from disgrace or worse. Along the way, she gets support from her party girl school chum Belinda, gets swoony over a rakish Irish lad named Darcy O’Mara, and interacts with both the posh and less respectable halves of her family.

The story takes a while to take off but mostly because the characters and background are being established in a basically entertaining way. The book is meant to be light fare and amusing and it delivers on both counts in a competent way. All the characters are established types (Darcy = Irish rogue, Belinda = the party girl with a heart of gold, Georgie’s Granddad = the wise, practical but slyly noble cockney, Binky = the witless, oblivious aristocrat, etc… etc…) with very little depth but are essentially likeable. Georgie herself is rather bland but is made perhaps a little more interesting by her mix of modern and traditional values.

The narrator of this audio edition was quite good, handling all the accents pretty well and doing female and male, old and young voices pretty effortlessly. She does a plummy British accent very well and does especially well with the character who pronounces his Rs like Ws.

It was an enjoyable light read that didn’t make a huge impression. It could have been cleverer and funnier and less clich├ęd but it still managed to keep me interested all the way through. I will likely read the next in the series but am not dying to run out and read it now.


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Monday, February 25, 2013

Hexed by Kevin Hearne

Hexed (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #2)Hexed by Kevin Hearne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second in the Iron Druid Series featuring Atticus O’Sullivan a 2000+ year old Druid living in modern day Tempe, AZ. This book picks up very shortly after the end of book one. A magical power vacuum has opened up in Atticus’ part of Tempe after the destruction of half of the local coven. As a result, a fearsome and demon-spawning coven of witches is looking to take over. Atticus is forced to help the remaining members of the resident coven drive these invaders out along with some other magical threats in the area such as a fallen angel and a group of Bacchants. His anonymity has also been officially blown thanks to the events of book one.

I enjoyed this one a bit more than the first. I may have just entered into the rhythm of Kevin Hearne’s storytelling but I think the writing was a bit more natural. I found this book a good bit funnier - the humor in the first book seemed forced at times. The character of Atticus also seemed more even and consistent.

The one problem I am still having with these books is fairly minor though I am about to explain at a length disproportionate to its magnitude.  The books seem to be pretty geared for the geeky fanboy.  There's a lot of mentions of star wars, Lord of The Rings, Joss Whedon etc... but Atticus also seems to be surrounded by drop dead gorgeous ladies (and goddesses) most of whom can't wait to rip his clothes off.  Not very compelling for this lady reader/geeky fangirl?  The biggest sticking point I can't seem to get past is Granuaile because I feel like she's such a wasted opportunity for geek-girl worthy but still geek-boy friendly romance.  Granuaile is smart, cool headed, and independent which is all great but she's also meant to be smoking hot, a bartender and she and Atticus' relationship from the beginning is flirty.  He frequently goes drooly over her especially when she answers her apartment door in a skimpy nightie.  So yeah, geek boy wish fulfillment.  And as I mentioned in my review of book one, that's totally legitimate but it keeps me, as a woman who enjoys a little romance, from really being sucked in by the story.  I would have preferred Granuaile to be a ugly duckling sort of beauty - i.e. attractive but less ostentatiously so, who comes in contact with Atticus as a customer in his shop who he takes no special notice of until she comes to him for help with the "witch living in her head" problem.  She asks to be taken on as an apprentice and he notices she's smart so he takes her on.  The attraction would then build slowly as he got to know her more.  I'd also like it if she wasn't quite so competent.  And I'd be cool with her having a big crush on him from the very beginning.  I know this is a common trope and all pretty cliched but there's a reason these tropes are perpetuated - people dig them.  Anyway, if we had that kind of tertiary, slowly building romance building I wouldn't be able to put these down.  As is I can't really enjoy their relationship and there is nothing else in the books dragging me along in anticipation. 

Anyway, sorry for that rather esoteric rant.  I'm guessing the perception of a romance deficit is an issue special to me:)  Overall, this book's a rollicking adventure that never slows down. You will definitely need to read book one first as the storyline presented here is a direct continuation.


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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Water is useful when starting onions...Duh

This is to remind myself what a difference properly moistened starting mix makes.  These were both planted 2 weeks ago with roughly the same seeding rate.  The one on the right which looks sparse and has a few seedlings still just coming up was the first one I planted and I hadn't quite moistened the starting mix enough evidenced by the fact that the when watered the water pools on the top and takes a while to soak in.  I realized this before planting the second one and did a little more moistening for it and the water soaks in immediately.  I didn't realize it would make as much of a difference as it clearly did.


House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of MirthThe House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did not expect when I opened House of Mirth that I was embarking on a classical tragedy, complete with a misguided heroine, an easily swayed hero, a wicked witch, a good bit of wrong time, wrong place, and a whole lot of poor judgment, all placed in a corrupt setting. Change the language a bit and it could easily be taken for a Shakespearean or ancient Greek play.

It is the story of 2 years in the life of Lily Bart darling of the social elite in turn of the century New York. Lily is a complicated character. She is vain, selfish, snobbish and ornamental but she’s also smart and has this strong and somewhat incongruous sense of nobility. She knows that in order to get the beautiful and luxurious life she believes she needs she must marry well. But despite being beautiful and charming and having marriage as her main aim, she is 29 and can’t quite seem to bring herself to the point of consummation. She is convinced she cannot live without luxury but she also seems to be inwardly conflicted about living an inauthentic life. Her characterization is incredibly deft – she is frustrating but remains sympathetic throughout. And while there are a couple of people in particular who figure in Lily’s downfall, the rotten-to- the-core society and Lily herself seem equally culpable.

Edith Wharton is an incredible writer – the type of writer that produces turns of phrases and paragraphs that you want to commit to memory. This skill is on full display in House of Mirth. It’s a good story, good character study and a pretty incisive social commentary.My one complaint is that it felt a bit overlong. The last quarter of the book drags a little.

Highly recommend but don't expect a happy or quick ending.


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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Simply Love by Mary Balogh


Anne Jewell is the unwed mother of a 9 year old boy who, against the odds, has carved out a respectable life for herself teaching at a girl’s school in Bath.  Anne’s problem is that though she has many dear friends and a son she loves she is really very lonely.  

Sydnam Butler was horribly disfigured in the wars but against all odds has carved out a useful and productive life for himself as Steward on a Great Estate in Wales.  Sydnam’s problem however is that he’s lonely.  Hmmmm… are these two tortured souls meant to be together in a happily ever after?



This is the second Mary Balogh book I’ve read and I think it has convinced me that she is not the regency romance writer for me.  Sadly, our brief courtship is likely at an end.  I give her props in this book for tackling an unlikely hero and for bringing these two damaged folks together in a rather prosaic, i.e. not Grand, romance.  They have issues to deal with and she allows them to struggle with them…sort of.  But that’s pretty much where my admiration ends. 



That isn’t to say that Mary Balogh isn’t worth reading and I know a LOT of romance readers like her very much.  I think she is one of the more well-liked regency romance writers.  But as I’ve discovered somewhat recently about myself, I don’t like romances that take themselves too seriously and from a sample size of two, my impression is that Balogh writes very earnest romances.  Not my cup of tea. 



My unhappiness with this particular book may also have been related to listening to it.  I didn’t like the narrator’s voice (Rosalyn Landor) or way of speaking at all.  She’s obviously a gifted voice artist but the way she read Anne made her sound breathy and dreamy and her men, especially Sydnam sounded stuffy and too formal.  Balogh’s dialogue was incredibly flowery and showy which emphasized the too formal reading.  Anne shows a handful of seashells to Sydnam saying “Have you ever seen anything more exquisite?” 



Another big complaint was that it felt like Balogh was writing for the lowest common denominator.  She repeats herself over and over and over as if she doesn’t believe the reader will remember that Anne is an unwed mother and this is BAD.  Again the listening may have emphasized this and perhaps it wouldn’t be as noticeable in reading.  The point is, she writes like she must spoon feed her audience and fill in all the blanks for them.  I would have preferred a little less hand holding.



And perhaps the final blow was that the above flaws added together to really ruin the hero and heroine for me.  For all their “exciting” back story, I thought they could not be more colorless or boring.  I cared enough that I wanted to see how they would eventually come together and overcome the obstacles but if the cds had been stolen midway through I wouldn’t have tried tracking down the book or another copy. 



I want to emphasize that my major problem with the book is that it just wasn’t my cup of tea.  A lot of people love Mary Balogh and I’d be interested in hearing some recommendations from any of her fans.  I unfortunately can’t remember the one other of her books I’ve read, I just remember not liking it very much.  But perhaps I’ve just happened onto two of the duds?  Two is a very small sample size but I don’t really want to experiment any further unless someone has some recommendations?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Hounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #1)Hounded by Kevin Hearne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Atticus O’Sullivan is a 2000 year old druid living a quiet life in modern day Tempe, Arizona. He’s enjoying being settled down with a home and business of his own and his great big Irish Wolfhound, Oberon as his closest companion. This quiet life is not destined to last however as a 1000 year old feud with the Celtic god of love is about to come to a head…

Sounds like a ton of fun doesn’t it? And it is for the most part! It’s urban fantasy in the tradition of The Dresden Files and if you like Jim Butcher’s series you are also likely to enjoy this. Atticus isn’t a magical private eye like Dresden but he does seem to be someone who can deal with any magical kerfuffles that ruffle Tempe’s mundane modernity. Also shared with the Dresden Files series is the book’s very masculine slant. I mean that in the way that romances are stories with a feminine slant – it’s female wish fulfillment. The same can be said of this novel but for men and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but it did keep me, as a female reader, a little bit aloof from the character of Atticus.

But don’t get me wrong. Atticus is a great character who was a lot of fun to spend time with. He is able to communicate with his dog which adds a lot of charm (though I could have done without the corny, cartoonish obsession with French poodles) and makes me very envious. It’s also great how Hearne liberally sprinkles this adventure story with Celtic folklore and I like the world he creates where the various pantheons of Gods are all out there, hanging out and occasionally interacting with mortals ala Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Although the gods here are a little less house-trained. He also throws in vampires and werewolves and succubi and witches which could have seemed a little unfocused but blends pretty well into the story. I especially like his take on werewolves and how they operate.

Overall, pretty good fun. I look forward to the next two installments in the series!


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Evolution of Llamas

http://24.media.tumblr.com/6d84cab2f5f50044bcfb5a23dafe380d/tumblr_mhuz3iSQax1s3yrubo1_1280.jpg

I was directed to the following entertaining tumblr site through another blog:

WTFEvolution

It's fun to browse though I do question the inclusion of Llamas.  Evolution knew exactly what she was doing when it came to Llamas.  Don't question the Llamas!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Favorite Glee Episodes, S.3


Time for a little more Glee love. I felt like season three overall was pretty uneven: better then season 2 but not touching season 1.  The whole Finn and Rachel getting married and Quinn in a wheelchair thing were ridiculous however and not in a good way.  But it still had money great moments and a few of the better episodes of the series. Below are my favorite episodes in season 3. 


The Purple Piano Project

Why it’s a favorite:  It slides us into season 3 quite well, setting us up for this being all about the seniors and their varying degrees of confusion about their future.  And it’s no surprise that I can’t stop the goofy smiling at the Blaine and Kurt and Rachel and Kurt super cuteness .    Moments I love: “Paula Abdul is an Arab”; “Why’s that T-rex eating the jew”;  Kurt and Rachel’s duet,  the whole scene between Kurt and Blaine in the hallway (Blaine has never looked so smokin’– seriously is he wearing false eyelashes – boys should not have eyelashes…or smiles…like that) and then leading into Blaine’s fabulous audition singing “It’s Not Unusual”;  Rachel and Kurt’s pity party in the car after being gobsmacked by the other NYADA hopefuls “You make me wanna be your boyfriend” ;  “You can’t stop the beat” [Hairspray rocks!].

The First Time

Why it’s a favorite:  I love West Side Story.  I love Blaine. I love Kurt.  I love Blaine and Kurt.  There’s lots of great music as well as a lot of significant character growth too sink your teeth into.  Awesome moments: the scene between Kurt and Blaine in Blaine’s bedroom (this may be my favorite scene between Kurt and Blaine ever including the awesome one later in the ep.);  Blaine shooting down Sebastian at the Lima Bean; Tina breaking the mold in the should they or shouldn’t they consultation; Blaine dancing with Sebastian at the gay bar but continually shooting hopeful looks back at Kurt; “ I just want to make art and help people”;  Blaine and Kurt in the auditorium after the show (again, why can’t they bring this level of romance to the other couples on the show – the following scene between Finn and Rachel pales in comparison);  “One hand, One Heart”.

Hold on to Sixteen

Why it’s a favorite:  It’s a competition episode and I really enjoy the numbers in this competition which is surprising because no Rachel!  Also like the Trouble Tones numbers.  And because I agree with the sentiment – it’s always good to be the age you are.  Really good moments: The bitchy exchange between Kurt and Sebastian at the Lima Bean, red solo cup (this show doesn’t do enough country) and Kurt’s so NOT getting it; “Rich white girl problems”; hot!Blaine getting angry and going all fisticuffs on the bag; the redemption of Mike Chang – because dancing that good shouldn’t go to waste;  “I’m a survivor” mash-up; Tina kicking the shit out of “ABC”; “We Are Young”.

Choke

Why it’s a favorite: Because of what this means for Rachel and what it sets up for Nationals.  When she falls apart it is truly heartbreaking.  Kurt’s audition performance is a metric ton of fun plus a couple of other nice musical numbers help me overlook the weaker parts of this episode.  The good parts:  Kurt:“Or maybe I just need more candles.” Blaine: “Oh God no. No more candles.”;  Puckerman trying to seduce Ms. Dusenberry; “Now I know this room is America’s number one destination for cheap sappy moralizing…” pretty good description of the choir room, actually;  “Cell Block Tango”  even if it really did miss the point; “Is that a bear I’m hiding behind?, No it’s a bush. It looks like a bear.”; “Shake it out”; not crazy about the song Rachel sings at the end but the devastation of her performance is spot on.

Nationals

Why it’s a favorite: Well it’s the culmination of Rachel’s arc that began 3 episodes earlier.  It’s a competition ep that doesn’t include a poorly done PSA.  And I love me some Meat Loaf.  Plus, I think the show did a great job of gradually improving the New Directions over 3 seasons so that they really look like they deserve the trophy.  They look like just as good as Vocal Adrenaline looked in the first ep of the series while still being their special selves.  The best moments: “This sniping is as expository as it is wrong…”  Ah the meta;  Will not getting angry about the fight but recognizing it as passion – defuses the situation perfectly – it was one of the rare moments where Will kicks teacher ass; Jesse!;  Wait…Finn gets tips at the tire shop??! What kind of tire shop is this?  Have I been neglecting my car mechanics by only paying them the exorbitant fee they usually ask for?;  love the choreography for “Edge of Glory”;  Vocal Adrenaline’s numbers are super  fun and glad we got to see two numbers; Jesse intervening on Rachel’s behalf; the celebration montage back at McKinley; Emma finally being ready.

That's it!  What are your favorite episodes or moments in season 3?   Which character did you most want to punch?  Which did you most want to hug?  How did you think the season rated compared to season 1 or 2?  

Favorite episodes for season 1 of Glee.
Favorite episodes for season 2 of Glee.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Native Star by M.K. Hobson

The Native Star (Veneficas Americana, #1)The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became aware of this book through sporadic listening to the Escape Artists Podcasts which is basically an audio magazine that publishes short fantasy, science fiction and horror fiction. M.K. Hobson is an occasional contributor and host of the podcast and ever since the book was announced a couple years ago, I have been anxious to get my paws on it. I give this rather boring account just to illustrate that anticipation and expectations were high and Native Star lived up to all my hopes for what I hoped it would be. I LOVE when that happens with a book! I also thought I would recommend the Escape Pod Podcasts for anybody not aware of them – they are great.

Anyway, back to the review…

I tend to enjoy stories of America’s western pioneers, fantastical stories and stories with a little bit of romance. It is no wonder then that I loved Native Star as it contains all of these elements within its pages. It begins in the foothills of the California mountains circa 1876 in the small town of Lost Pine. This is an alternate history, so in the U.S. of this story, magic is widely practiced and studied. In fact M.K. Hobson has built a rather fascinating magical system which draws energy from the earth. There is much debate throughout the books as to whether the source of magic is a sentient entity or just mineral layers deep underground. In some ways this is the story that settles that debate.

Emily Edward’s is Lost Pine’s magic practitioner along with her adopted father Pap and they practice a homey form of earth magic to cure ailments and help with other things. They have recently been beset by university trained warlock, Dreadnought Stanton, who has a sort of University Extension type position requiring him to go out into the community and share his more up to date knowledge of magic with other practitioners. He’s arrogant, pedantic, and patronizing and Emily pretty much loathes him.

A freak accident at a nearby mine throws Emily and Dreadnought together in a perilous adventure that will lead them to the other side of the country in some very jagged lines.

So why did I like it so much?

1)The world building: This is not usually something I really gravitate towards but as previously mentioned the magic system and alternate history presented is very interesting and plausible. Hobson uses her characters well to flesh out the details of the world and how it functions and it never felt forced or awkward. The world building was balanced with well drawn characters and a fantastic plot so it wasn’t the entire meat of the novel.

2)I also really like books which have some humor and this is an area in which Native Star also excels. Dreadnought’s dry sarcastic wit is a joy and it is what keeps him likeable throughout despite his rather snobby and arrogant nature. The delivery by the book’s narrator Suehyla El-Attar was dead on. I wasn’t actually sure at first whether I liked how she read Stanton (very dead-pan, flat, emotionless) but by the end of the book I really liked it.

3)The characters in general, particularly Stanton and Emily are really wonderful. Hobson has a good way of making her imperfect characters exasperating and likeable all at the same time.

4)Stanton and Emily are a really good pair and the way their relationship develops is very realistic and organic.

Basically I found it to be a well constructed and well told story with humor, drama, adventure, aberrant jackrabbits, magic and romance. It was a “pageturner” which may be strange to say for an audio book but basically I was always anxious and happy to get back to listening. It was a lovely way to spend some reading time.


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The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistThe Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To start off with, I don’t know how to describe the plot of this book. It’s a mystery of sorts. It takes place in Victorian London. There’s a faux-Holmesian sleuth named Edward Moon – eccentric and meant to be blessed by a superior talent for noticing details and making deductions. But it is in no way a Sherlock Holmes type mystery – it’s much too grotesque for that. I’m not sure how this might be shelved genre-wise but if it were up to me I’d probably place it under horror rather than mystery.

It’s a book that seems to go out of its way to be ugly and the very opposite of charming. Everything is strange and ugly and mutated. The author is constantly using language that paints a truly dark and grotesque view of London and its inhabitants. For example in describing one obscenely obese character he copiously spills out words and phrases like gelatinous, oleaginous and “…his body wracked by suety shudders.”

Of course there is nothing wrong with this and the author does do an admirable job of creating a very vivid and particular vision of his really messed up world. Unfortunately, it was not a world I was really in the mood for or for which I had any liking. The characters are also somewhat indecipherable, bland and unlikeable, especially Moon who the story centers on. I think this is likely intentional as we discover later in the book that the narrator of this tale is quite unreliable and is likely presenting a distorted view of the world and its inhabitants.
While this feat of writing is in some ways praise worthy, I was left cold by the story, the characters, and the overall atmosphere of the book. At points the book seemed more concerned with shocking and/or discomfiting the reader with ever more grotesque characters or scenes rather than presenting a coherent story.

And there are a lot of other little quirky pieces that never knit into a cohesive whole for me. There’s randomly a character that lives backward in time and is constantly described as “the ugly man”. There are frequent references to what happened to Moon “..at Clapham” which is never explained and never enters into the story. The title of the book refers to Moon’s constant companion –The Somnambulist - a giant of a man who doesn’t speak and can have swords thrust through him without being hurt or bleeding.

Maybe there was some deeper meaning, maybe the author was playing with an homage to a certain type of story. I don’t know and I never cared enough to try and figure it out.


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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Berkeley Square (1998) - aka The crazy lives of Victorian nannies

 

BBC One 1998
Starring: Clair Wilkie,Victoria Smurfit,  Tabitha Wady
Created By: Suzanne Van de Velde
Written By: Deborah Cook, Lillie Ferrari, Suzanne Van De Velde
Directed By: Martin Hutchings, Richard Holthouse, Lesley Manning, Richard Signy

This is a Victorian age costume drama that focuses on the trials and tribulations of 3 very different nannies and the families they work for in the posh Berkeley Square. This was a recent addition to my local library's collection and I'm guessing it was likely added because of the Downton Abbey hysteria.  While it does not touch the production quality and sheer addictiveness of Downton Abbey, it does share some elements and would likely be enjoyed by DA addicts.

Berkeley Square is, at its heart, a soap opera mostly staying within the bounds of reality except for one particularly macabre and wacky storyline involving a baby swap.  It spends most of the time with its three central domestics with the occasional subplot involving their employers, particularly the St. Johns and the Lamson-Scribeners.  Each of the three nannies is quite different and has their own particular storyline which are woven together by their growing friendship and the associations between their employers.

Nanny Matty Wickham is probably my favorite.  She's a native Londoner who has already paid her dues in domestic service and is the only one of the three being hired on as head nanny.  She is very kind but also a very straight-laced and proper young lady who takes her job very seriously.  The St. John household which she enters is filled with vice - an estranged husband and wife who mostly ignore their children, a housekeeper, Mrs. McClusky, with some un-savoriness in her past and who isn't above hiring her relatives on the sly to fill the other domestic posts.  Matty and the housekeeper clash at first as Matty is seen as stuck up and demanding but their relationship is complicated when Mrs. McClusky's seemingly ne'er- do-well-and-in- trouble-with-the-law but very handsome son, Ned Jones is inserted into the household as a footmen.  Sparks fly; first of conflict, then of a different variety; between Ned and Matty.

Hannah Randall is an Irish ladies maid who fell in love with and bore the child of the son of her wealthy family.  When he is killed she is thrust upon the world, a single mother, no references, no seeming way of supporting herself.  She's strong-willed however and travels to London hoping to con her way into another domestic position.  When she gets a job as a nursemaid she must leave her child with her Polish landlady.  The family she goes into is the strangest with a horribly cold martinet head nanny and a truly creepy little boy named Bertram.  There are all sorts of shenanigans within this family as well as involving Hannah's former employers who's grandson she has.  This storyline is by far the most gothic and over-the-top.  Victoria Smurfit is a charismatic screen presence and does well with the overwrought storyline.

Finally, Lydia Weston is an ignorant country girl who is given the opportunity to become a nursemaid in a big London household.  This is a big social step up for her and much of her storyline centers around her naivete and lack of city manners.  

 The season is 10 episodes long and is chock-full of drama with a capital D.  I got pretty sucked in and was therefore disappointed to discover at the end of this series of episodes that the show was not continued for a 2nd season.  Some major story arcs are closed and resolved but the season does end with a number of loose ends that were obviously meant to fill the bulk of the next season.  So that would be my one caution - if you are someone who gets really put-out by unresolved stories I would beware.  Otherwise this is a great diversion in between episodes of Downton Abbey!