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Dark Angel Review

If you think PBS Masterpiece is just about duchesses and romance and afternoon tea, then think again. Dark Angel is their newest release, starring Joanne Froggatt (our favorite ladies’ maid Anna from Downton Abbey) who plays a completely different character in this short two-episode piece. Directed by Brian Percival (known for his work on Downton Abbey and for directing North & South), Dark Angel introduces us to Mary Ann, a woman from County Durham in the north of England. At first, the story seems to be one of a struggling family, trying to make ends meet with too many children to feed, and though Mary Ann and her husband have seen hard times, they seem like they can make it work. But sooner than one would expect, the story spirals into darkness as Mary Ann strives (in a very unconventional way) against her dismal lot in life. If you didn’t know already, Mary Ann is the infamous Mary Ann Cotton, a true-story serial killer known for poisoning her (multiple) husbands and children with arsenic.

I told you it wasn’t Downton Abbey.

Mary Ann Cotton – Image in Public Domain

Dark Angel tries to get a personal angle on Mary Ann. What motivated her? Why would she kill so many of her family? The obvious answer would be money: Mary Ann received the life insurance money from each of her dead husbands. But was that her only motivation? In Dark Angel, we see a woman who has little choice in her life and for her body. She does not seem to want children, yet she is always pregnant. Because of this, she is tied down at home and unable to break out from poverty. As her mother tells her, “it’s just how life is for women.” She’s lonely, overworked, and has no control over her own life. Unfortunately, instead of making things work and finding other ways to vent, she tries to escape by getting rid of the people she thinks are in her way. Even when we feel connected to her as a character (or maybe, because of this), it is still shocking to watch her get the arsenic out of the cabinet and spoon it into her victim’s tea like a bit of sugar. 

Because it is only a two-episode mini series, the events of Mary Ann’s life are very compacted into the limited time of Dark Angel. I felt a little rushed watching it, and I couldn’t process one event in time before something else happened on screen. It felt like the narrative time passed too quickly, and Mary Ann’s many children were born and died (from sickness? or poison?) too fast. I would have liked to see more of Mary Ann’s husbands and children, but perhaps the filmmakers were trying to keep the focus on this woman who quickly unraveled into a murderer.

That said, Dark Angel is an interesting look into Mary Ann Cotton’s life, how she might have felt and what she was looking for. As the PBS press release worded so well: “Female serial killers are so rare that criminologists continue to debate what makes them tick. Is it a thirst for power, a desire for material gain, or a sadistic delight in undermining gender stereotypes when they ask, ‘Why don’t I make you a nice cup of tea?’”

Dark Angel is available now on DVD from PBS!

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Memoir Review of My History by Antonia Fraser and BOOK GIVEAWAY

London-born and Oxford-bred, Lady Antonia Fraser, queen of biography, remembers her own life in My History: A Memoir of Growing Up. With anecdotes that speak to Fraser’s love of, and later career in, biographical history, this winding journey of memory will appeal to lovers of Fraser’s work as well as Anglophiles who want to explore life in England during the 1930s and 1940s. The book follows Fraser’s memories from early childhood through her beginnings in publishing.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

A magical remembering of the bells ringing in Oxford start us out in the first chapter. Not yet three years old, Fraser witnesses King George V and Queen Mary on their Silver Jubilee, standing in a tower in Oxford. Throughout her childhood she speaks of castles and ancestral haunts. With such beginnings and surroundings, who can be surprised by Fraser’s later obsession with the history of the British?

Much of the first section of the book talks about Fraser’s parents, both of whom were very passionate politically and professionally. Coming from a privileged British family, Fraser was given a front row seat to her country’s workings as both her parents were involved in the government. She tells of canvassing door-to-door in her parents behalf and working on her mother’s campaign. This was a time Fraser remembers fondly.

Lady Margaret Hall Oxford “LMH Quad” by Sarah from UK

Those who are well-read in Fraser’s work will likely not be surprised by her interest in strong, fascinating women in history, such as Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots. This attraction to the female anecdotes of history can be seen starting in Fraser’s childhood. Reading the works of Henrietta Marshall from the young age of four, Fraser quickly gained an interest in the aged past, and especially the noted women of history. As she read about Mary, Queen of Scots, Fraser put herself in the place of the fated Queen; this speaks to her intuitive ability to connect the past with modern readers.

Perhaps another reason Fraser portrays strong female characters is because of her mother as well as her own upbringing. Watching her mother run for government and speak with passion about her beliefs perhaps inspired the daughter in her own independence and personal passion. Fraser recounts the years she spent at a school once known as a strictly boys’ school and how she felt somewhat special about being in the small number of girls present. These experiences no doubt helped build Fraser’s own character as she later made a name for herself in publishing.

Through vivid details and charming narratives, Fraser brings her own life to the realm of biography. She peruses her past with a historian’s analysis combined with a grandmother’s reminiscence. It’s as if Fraser is taking a step aside from her lifetime career of literary work to make meaning of her experience and bring it all full circle.

Those familiar with the biographies of Antonia Fraser will find her childhood background enlightening, connecting pieces of her own past to her future fascination with history. But even those for whom My History is their first book by Fraser will enjoy her personal stories, her tales of living through World War II, school at Oxford, and her growing up surrounded by British politicians. For Anglophiles, My History provides a look at an England changing from pre-war to post-war; it gives the reader glances at the streets of Oxford as well as the publishing realm during the mid-century.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up will be published in the U.S. October 13, 2015, but you can you pre-order your copy here.

Don’t forget to enter the book giveaway below! Doubleday has provided me with 2 copies of this wonderful book for my readers, so comment away and spread the word! Just follow the link and use your email to sign in. Then leave a comment or follow me on Twitter to enter the giveaway. Be sure to submit your entry THROUGH the Rafflecopter link below. Please let me know if this is not working for you and we will work it out :)

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Other works by Antonia Fraser:

Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Wives of Henry VIII

Mary Queen of Scots

The Weaker Vessel

The Gunpowder Plot
Thank you to Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for providing a galley for review.  

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Review of “London Road: Linked Stories” by Tessa McGovern

As the end of summer simmers down and autumn approaches, you may be looking forward to some quiet afternoon reading. Just the thing for a relaxing bookfest on the sofa, London Road: Linked Stories by Tessa Smith McGovern is a group of short short stories taking place in my favorite of all places: England.

london road cover

London Road: Linked Stories by Tessa Smith McGovern

The scene opens on an unusually hot morning outside, of all places, Chorley Prison. We meet Janice Bailey, recent inmate, as she sets off on a journey to London to restart her life. All she has to go on are a few pounds and a friend’s recommendation to a halfway house in the city. Having been in prison for manslaughter in self-defense, she doubts that anyone will ever take her in or give her a shot.

This lovely group of stories is essentially about second chances. Janice has a second chance to live again, with new friends, a new job, and new purpose. With each story, we meet a new character, someone linked with the rest. All the characters have come together in the city to find a new way of life, pulling the past’s baggage along with them. We meet Mandy, known for petty theft, on probation in a literary reading group. We meet Isobel, who’s on antipsychotic drugs and has a difficult relationship with her mother. We meet women who are obsessive, afraid, lonely. What do they have in common? They all come to this boarding house in London where life throws them one more chance to stay alive and keep going.

With the montage-feeling of Love Actually. London Road is written to lift your spirits and show you the hope that follows tragedy. Each character has been through life’s worst, but by the end, they find resolution and something to help them along. I suppose this is what the title could refer to: the journey each character takes from bad to good, from hopeless to purposeful.
Because of this forward-looking perspective, I recommend this book to anyone looking for an easy, uplifting read. Each story is quite short, and the entire book could be read in an afternoon.While at times I would have like a more in-depth look at the characters’ lives, it’s good to remember that these stories are purposed as flash fiction. McGovern manages to combine good storytelling and conciseness in London Road. I especially recommend this book to my fellow Anglophiles as the book also includes references to the Queen, afternoon tea, and pubs. What’s not to like?

You can find the e-book for free or $0.99 (depending on your Amazon membership) here!

Thanks to BookTrib for providing me with London Road to review.

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The Crimson Field Review

Boulogne, France. 1915. The world has cracked apart in devastating war. Soldiers eat, sleep, and die in muddy trenches dug across Europe. Those who aren’t killed are often injured and taken away from the front line to recover. They are not even taken to a full hospital but to an open-air camp on the French seaside. More importantly, however, they are taken care of by a group of healers: the nurses and doctors, military and civilian, who dedicate every moment they can to getting these wounded men back on their feet.

Programme Name: The Crimson Field - TX: n/a - Episode: Generics (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: (c/w from back left) Sister Joan Livesey (SURANNE JONES), Sister Margaret Quayle (KERRY FOX), Matron Grace Carter (HERMIONE NORRIS), Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Brett (KEVIN DOYLE), Kitty Trevelyan (OONA CHAPLIN), Captain Thomas Gillan (RICHARD RANKIN), Captain Miles Hesketh-Thorne (ALEX WYNDHAM), Corporal Peter Foley (JACK GORDON), Flora Marshall (ALICE ST CLAIR), Rosalie Berwick (MARIANNE OLDHAM) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Todd Anthony

The Cast of Crimson Field (C) BBC – Photographer: Todd Anthony

The Crimson Field gives an inside look on the lives of the nurses caring for British soldiers. With only a few months training, the three main characters start out on the job naïve as they have obviously grown up with the finer things of life, but they quickly gain experience with injuries, blood, and death.These girls prove their strength parallel to the millions of men fighting on the front.This may be France in the middle of World War I, but the doctors and nurses have claimed this tiny spot of land as British, hence the china teacups.

One of the things I enjoy the most about The Crimson Field is how the show looks into the complex dark side of World War I. History (told by the victors) likes to keep the story of the war as clean for the winning side as possible. The war was seen as a fight of good against evil in the world. But what this show brings out is the personal psychological trauma that war brings to those involved. Mental illness was highly misunderstood at the time and often equated with cowardice or lack of manly loyalty. We see one soldier, Lance Corporal Prentiss, sent back to the front when he is obviously suffering a form of post-traumatic stress. This has devastating effects on his health and well-being, and he is only one example of the many who suffered hell.

Programme Name: The Crimson Field - TX: n/a - Episode: Generics (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:   - (C) BBC - Photographer: Nick Briggs

Red Cross Nurses – The Crimson Field (C) BBC – Photographer: Nick Briggs

The Nurses

Kitty Trevelyan (played by Oona Chaplin of Game of Thrones fame) at first has trouble with the standardized rules of the hospital, but soon she wins her way into the hearts of soldiers and doctors alike. As the show progresses, Kitty’s secret past is revealed bit by bit, leading the viewer more into her world of pain and regret.

Rosalie Berwick (Marianne Oldham) is a less likable character, but still relatable. It seems that she has never married and reached the age which her society defines as “old maid.” Her volunteer work is an escape from a kind of social prison, and she only “wish[es] she’d been braver sooner.” Unfortunately, her inexperienced past has grown a deep fear inside her, and fear can be mistaken as self-righteousness.

Flora Mashall (Alice St. Clair) is young-hearted and still innocent enough to be surprised by ugly side effects of battle and surgery. Though she at first seems like she will be the first sent home, she manages to show her innate strength when under stress. Soon after her arrival, Flora boasts about her skill with bandages, and the matron promptly sends her to boil, dry, and roll a hideous pile of bloody post-surgery cloths. She doesn’t complain though and gets to work.

Two other nurses who play important roles are Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris) and Sister Joan Livesey (Suranne Jones). Grace is head of the rest of the nurses, which means she makes the difficult decisions and bears the greatest burden for the sufferers who have come to the hospital. With her understanding and compassion, she is a good nurse, and with her resolve and strength, she is a great leader.

Sister Joan arrives shortly after the three volunteer nurses. She has more experience at nursing and is welcomed as a pair of expert hands. But she also has secrets in her past, and the war that rages close by haunts her in a way no one knows.

Of course, these are not the only important characters, as we have dashing doctors in Captain Thomas Gillan (Richard Rankin) and Captain Miles Hesketh-Thorne (Alex Wyndham), as well as an exemplary leader in Lieutenant Colonel Roland Brett (Kevin Doyle of Downton Abbey). But The Crimson Field is essentially about the women on the front, who may not have been fighting the battles but were winning the war by saving soldiers from death or comforting them in their last moments.

Programme Name: The Crimson Field - TX: n/a - Episode: Generics (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Flora Marshall (ALICE ST CLAIR), Kitty Trevelyan (OONA CHAPLIN), Rosalie Berwick (MARIANNE OLDHAM) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Todd Antony

Rosalie, Kitty, and Flora – The Crimson Field (C) BBC – Photographer: Todd Antony

The Crimson Field is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution. Thank you to PBS for providing me with a copy for the review!

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The Man in a Three-Cornered Hat: A Review of Poldark

For over forty years, PBS Masterpiece has been good to us Anglophiles. As our main importer of many of BBC’s classic television series, Masterpiece has given us such memorable visual feasts as Jeeves and Wooster; Upstairs, Downstairs; Agatha Christie’s Poirot; and Sherlock. If you, like me, thought Downton Abbey was the peak of Masterpiece’s best programs, then think again. Poldark, the latest English drama to invade America, has been sending its fans indoors every Sunday night to enjoy the most recent episode. With the release of Poldark on DVD and Blu-ray this week, those of us who missed it on television can catch up. (Follow the link at the end of the post to enter my giveaway of 5 Blu-ray sets of Poldark!)

Poldark overlooking the cliffs of Cornwall  © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Poldark overlooking the cliffs of Cornwall
© ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

The Plot

Episode One opens on unusual territory for BBC: the thick woods of Colonial Virginia, 1781. We are introduced to Captain Ross Poldark (how’s that for a hero’s name?), a British soldier who seems dissatisfied with the American Revolution and his own lot in life. After two years and an injury that leaves a scar down the side of his face, Poldark returns home to his family estate in Cornwall, England. Only, neither his family nor his estate is the same as when he left.

His father having died in his absence, Poldark’s only family left are his uncle and cousins who live on an adjacent property. They at first welcome home the man they thought had died in battle, but when Poldark learns that his former love interest, Elizabeth, is now engaged to his cousin, his family relations start to decay.

If coming home to a dead father and unrequited love isn’t enough, Poldark returns to his inherited estate which has been essentially abandoned to the decay of dust and rodents. Poldark, worn down by combat and the corrosion of his entire life, works to restore his home, a difficult task considering the poverty-stricken economy Cornwall has acquired since the war. His two current servants being next to useless, Poldark does much of the work of rebuilding walls and upkeep himself. His lack of funds and food eventually drive him to seek investors in order to reopen his abandoned copper mine, in the hopes that his luck will turn.

Meanwhile, Poldark, whose local reputation is slightly less than respected, takes an interest in others who have likewise nothing to lose. He meets Demelza, a red-headed girl dressed as a boy to escape her father’s abusive supervision. Despite his inadequate money for food, Poldark takes her in as a kitchen maid and even fights off a hoard of brutish relatives when they arrive to claim her. As Poldark struggles to survive, we see him grow into his circumstances, helping those around him in his community.

The Cast

Captain Ross Poldark, played by Aidan Turner (known for his role as Kili in The Hobbit trilogy), is our complicated hero. Known as the gambler that he was in his youth,, Poldark has been changed by his experiences in the war. His life has been darkened by tragedy, and he approaches life’s uncertainty with a calm, confident demeanor. He is not just a likeable hero; he is lovable. We love him because of his determination in the face of loss, his compassion on Demelza, and (of course) his sexy, brooding charm.

Captain Ross Poldark  © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Captain Ross Poldark
© ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Elizabeth, the girl Poldark left behind, is played by Icelandic actress Heida Reed (from the film One Day). Although at first we find her attractive and pitiable (how could she know Poldark was still alive?), before long, we realize that she ties herself to her circumstances by obeying her culture’s rules of decorum and going through with the marriage to Poldark’s cousin Francis. She still feels something for Poldark, however, but this only makes matters worse when she risks reputation-damaging gossip by seeking his attention in public.

Ross Poldark with © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Ross Poldark with © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Demelza, the red-headed girl who transforms from being dirty, afraid, and dressed like a boy, into a clear-eyed, beautiful, and supportive companion to Poldark, is played by Eleanor Tomlinson, who is no stranger to English television drama, having played in The White Queen and Death Comes to Pemberley. Demelza provides a refreshing contrast to Elizabeth: she tackles life’s hardships head-on and stays by Poldark’s side no matter what. Over time Demelza comes into her own and we can quickly imagine her

Demelza  © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Demelza
© ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Three-cornered hats off, if you please, to playwright-screenwriter Debbie Hosfield for her adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels. It’s been forty years since the first television adaptation of the series, and Hosfield, together with directors Edward Bazalgette and William McGregor, has refreshed modern television with a renewed old story.

I’d also like to note the gorgeous score by Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley. The soaring violins run along with the dramatic views of cliffs and ocean swells, adding that extra dimension to film which deserves to be recognized in its own right. The scenery itself is absolutely breathtaking as the show was filmed on location in Cornwall. Overall, Poldark shouldn’t be missed as it captures all the elements that make a great Masterpiece!

Poldark is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution. I’d like to thank PBS Distribution for providing me with the material I needed for this review.
If you would like a chance to win your very own  Blu-ray set of Poldark, enter our giveaway here. But hurry, the end date is midnight EST on Monday, July 20th!

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