The Last Hellion

By Loretta Chase

This was my second book by Loretta Chase and it does measure up to Lord of Scoundrels. I listened to it on audible read by the very talented Kate Reading who has a voice perfectly matched to both of the dynamic couples in the books. I wearied of Historical Romances quite some time ago, but Loretta Chase reminds me of why I used to gobble them up. When I finished the first novel, I was hoping that it wouldn’t be the last I saw of the unforgettable Lord and Lady Dain so I was very pleased to see them again in this, and not just in passing. Not to mention the large and very surprising role the dutchess’s hapless silly brother Bertie has in it!

In 1820s London Lydia Grenville is a crusading journalist who also writes best-selling serials in secret. She meets our bad boy hero Vere Mallory, Lord Ainsworth, after practically running him down in her carriage while in hot pursuit of a bawd who has kidnapped still another young innocent country girl for nefarious purposes. He follows her with mayhem in mind and they face off in a dark alley which ends with the Amazonian Lydia, as always accompanied by her mastiff Susan, knocking him down in the mud. In full public view. Coralie temporarily escapes Lydia’s wrath but the rescued country girl, genteel and well-educated Tamsin, becomes Lydia’s girl Friday. There are many subplots in this which makes the book a bit episodic. It is very action-packed. Lydia continues to pursue and outwit Coralie, the infamous and evil madam, steals back Tamsin’s stolen rubies, rescues a pitiful new mother from prison, participates in a dangerous and exciting carriage race, and foils a kidnapping. Somehow Ainsworth always seems to be around to either lend a hand or to complicate matters, to Lydia’s frustration. It is a passionate battle of wills and they are evenly matched. They fall in lust, then love, quarreling and fighting every inch of the way right up to the altar (she lost a bet). Meanwhile, we learn about their tragic backstories and uncover the mystery of Lydia’s parentage. Tamsin is no slouch either and has her own story and romance as well.

It’s a wild ride and very entertaining with lots of caustic and amusing banter, comedy, adventure, and drama. Social conditions and women’s issues are given due attention. To top it off, the passionate and satisfying romance was free from silly misunderstandings, deceptions, and stupidity. They were made for each other for many reasons, but mostly because they both hide hearts of gold.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When Love Springs

What Does that Title Even Mean?

Adorkableness is hard to do right and Rhiannon Fish was way over the top in this. No one acts this nutty, bubbly, and cute in real life without blowing a gasket. It was exhausting, but thank goodness she did manage to tone it down later in the movie.

Ms. Fish plays Rory, a “junior publicist” whose big dream is to become a partner in her firm. She works for the owner, a very angry and unpleasant task master who holds Rory’s ambition over her head to pile on the work. She and her goofy sister (she carries around a toaster) are joining her parents on vacation at the B&B where they first met to help them renew their vows. Rory has agreed to work while on vacation but continually misses deadline after deadline because she is so distracted by A) The handsome son of the Inn owner who is running the thing while his Dad is out of town, B) Her old boyfriend who dumped her and has shown up at the B&B with a beautiful new girlfriend, and C) Her scheme in which she gets Noah the B&B guy to pose as her new boyfriend to make old boyfriend jealous and save face. In return, she will use her expertise to rebrand the B&B to impress an important travel critic who can hopefully save the Inn with a good review.

Despite a towel shortage, no WiFi, no televisions in the rooms, no pool, and no employees, the big push to wow the travel critic is for her sister to design a new logo.

The fake boyfriend plan and the usual entertaining shenanigans that trope entails kind of falls by the wayside while Rory and Noah swan around the countryside falling for each other. I should say falling further, because it was pretty much a coup de foudre for them both. No old boyfriend in sight. Rory is all set to ditch her job with her always-irate boss when Noah declares his undying…friendship. Rory is understandably confused as was I.  I guess it had something to do with Rory hugging her ex Jason after his new girlfriend dumped him. Seemed pretty obvious she was just being nice, but whatever. With Rory’s guidance, the B&B leans into the homey, no-frills, or fancy amenities vibe. When Penny the travel critic finally shows up she is impressed and writes a favorable article. Rory’s boss calls her (irate as usual) about the article because Rory has broken faith with her by neglecting her work and missing deadlines all the while working for someone else. I really couldn’t blame her for being angry. But Rory, Instead of just quitting because, Wow, her scary boss really really hates her, and her future with the company is now kaput anyway, she fights with Noah and ditches her parents’ ceremony in order to be back on the job Monday morning.

When next we see her, she is back at the B&B just in time for her parents’ celebration. She has seen the light, but we are cheated as the whole “Take this job and shove it, you crazy b***h” happens off-stage.

Even though the plot didn’t live up to expectations, there were some bright spots. Rhiannon Fish’s wardrobe was sophisticated and stylish. Loved the polka dot halter dress which was actually not the color in the above picture, but a very pretty eggplant purple. The scenery was gorgeous, although someone fell a little too much in love with the split screens. James William O’Halloran as Noah is a find. He is very attractive and really effective as the love interest. His appeal was enhanced by the actor who played Rory’s ex, who was fine, but looked like a kid next to him. It was never believable that Rory would be even mildly tempted to give him a second chance with Noah gazing at her hotly. Finally, Rory’s family was a plus. I liked her sister, who ditched the toaster, and her parents in particular were sweet, understanding, and sensible. Fun and odd fact: The entire cast is from Australia. A grumpy**6**.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Penny Plain

by O. Douglas (Anna Masterson Buchan)

I couldn’t take any pleasure in myself if my face were made up.” Pamela swung round on her chair and laid her hands on Jean’s shoulders. “Jean,” she said, “you’re within an ace of being a prig.

“Jean, I’m afraid you’re a chirping optimist. You’ll reduce me to the depths of depression if you insist on being so bright. Rather help me to rail against fate, and so cheer me.”

This started off fairly promisingly with the rich and fashionable but very likable and down-to-earth Miss Pamela Reston retreating to the small Scottish village of Priorsford because she has become bored with the social whirl of London and wants to rest and rediscover herself and the joy of living. Her exotic ways have quite an impact on the villagers there and vice versa. Of particular interest is the very well-read Jean Jardine, her next-door neighbor, and her little family who are genteelly poor, but very happy and delightful. Some of the initial exposition, Pamela’s description of the town and her new neighbors takes place in letters to her brother, Biddy, Lord Bidborough, who is on business in India. The tone reminded me of the letters compromising 2 Jean Webster books, Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. Of course, we know that Pamela’s description of her new friend and her charming family is going to intrigue Biddy to no end and that he will come to Priorsford the first chance he gets to visit his sister and proceed to quickly fall in love with both Jean and her family. Unfortunately, the letters ceased way too soon. As the book’s focus shifted to Jean and her three brothers, It wasn’t long before it started to remind me of the children’s classic, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

This book was a mainstay of my childhood reading history. I read it over and over, loving it very much, although I was an adult before I could ever find the longed-for sequels to the original story, in which Polly Pepper and her family (3 brothers, and the youngest little sister Phronsie) grow up into upstanding citizens and get married. I won’t go into all of the parallels, but the main one is the utter and unremitting goodness of both Polly Pepper and Jean Jardine, the two heroines, and their self-sacrificing devotion to their brothers. But I am no longer an innocent and naive little girl appreciative of a stellar role model like Polly Pepper. Jean was just too good for me.

I was led to the author of Penny Plain by her association with a favorite “old-timey” author, D.E. Stevenson. Loving her novels, I am no stranger to lovely, kind, and good heroines. But I am afraid that Jean was just too much. I started to lose touch with her when she gave a bedraggled sad stranger a valuable and treasured book when he confides that it contains a song that his mother used to sing to him when he was a child. She pretty much lost me when she turned down Biddy’s inevitable marriage proposal because “We belong to different worlds” and also,

“My feelings,” said Jean, “don’t matter at all. Even if there was nothing else in the way, what about Davie and Jock and the dear Mhor? I must always stick to them—at least until they don’t need me any longer.”

Girl. But praise be, it turns out that the poor stranger was in fact a very wealthy but dying man who leaves his entire fortune to Jean because of her little act of generosity. Even though Jean and her little family have been living pretty much hand to mouth, she views this windfall not with joy and gratitude, but with suspicion and fear. She doesn’t want it. She is persuaded to see the value of her legacy (she can use the fortune to do good works and give to charity! Yay!) Eventually, she even buys a spiffy car and buys some nice clothes in Glasglow. Another big plus is that now she is worthy of Lord Biddy!

There were enough enjoyable things about this novel that kept me going to the end fairly happily. Most of the character sketches of the Jardines and their neighbors were well done and engaging. Most of the townspeople were very lovable and even the two flies in the ointment the snobby Mrs. Duff-Whalley and her shallow, fashionable, but surprisingly self-aware daughter were entertaining and had a few layers to their personality. I loved the wise and gentle parson and his merry big-hearted wife, Mrs. Macdonald, and their little story. She liked the place kept so tidy that her sons had been wont to say bitterly, as they spent an hour of their precious Saturdays helping, that she dusted the branches and wiped the faces of the flowers with a handkerchief. I was moved by how Jean helps Miss Abbot the dour local seamstress who is going blind but is too proud to ask for help. But sometimes the book took off on short tangents that had nothing to do with anything and added nothing to the plot or character development. Peter the beloved family dog going missing for example. It was further hampered by the use of archaic words and long passages written in the Scottish vernacular and in dialect, which unlike in most books set in Scotland that I have read, was largely indecipherable without a lot of effort and research. In addition, the book is littered with cultural and literary references that were no doubt familiar to readers of the day (World War I era) but which have since been lost to obscurity. (a song called Strathairlie, “Mary Slessor of Calabar”, Mrs. Wishart, Maggie Tulliver, Ethel Newcome, Beatrix Esmond, Clara Middleton, John Splendid, the Scylla of affectation nor the Charybdis of off-handedness, King Cophetua, and on and on. I looked up everything I didn’t “get”, or tried to. As an aside, Mary Slessor needs to have a movie made about her life.

If I had had a daughter, I would have given her this book to read as a child and been very happy if she liked it. But in the future, when I next want to read a wholesome old-fashioned novel, I’ll just stick with D.E. Stevenson or Elizabeth Cadell.
**2 1/2 stars**

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

P.S. In looking up Five Little Peppers for this review, I discovered that there was a series of movies based on their adventures and some of them are available on YouTube. Can’t wait! And I just may re-read the book.

Hearts in the Game

Error on the Pitcher

This one started out well, but in the end, it kind of collapsed under the weight of mystifying motivations and irrational feelings and decisions on the part of the hero, which was key to the whole purpose of the story.

Erin Cahill plays Hazel, a NYC-based publicist known to be the best in her field. She is hired to get a star pitcher, coincidentally her former high school boyfriend who broke her heart, some good publicity and rehabilitate his image. No team wants him due to him mysteriously freezing on the mound in the 7th game of the World Series, losing his former team the championship. As a baseball fan, I understood the concern. The New York Mets are thinking about hiring him, but not without positive publicity high profile enough to assure the owners and the fans that it won’t happen again. It goes without saying that this must include the explanation of his breakdown on the mound. Ideally, the explanation must not destroy his reputation further but restore it. But Diego refuses to talk about it to anyone. It is completely off the table. When Hazel meets him and his agent, she is treated with hostility and sarcasm by Diego. I was intrigued by the mystery of what in the world she did to him to deserve his snarky anger. Hazel succeeds in convincing him to trust her and gets him an interview with a respected magazine and journalist, Morgan, on the condition that it takes place back in their hometown (which neither has visited for, I’m guessing, about 10 years). Once back in Ashtabula County Ohio, it soon becomes clear that Hazel also has some beef with her old best friend who wanted to be a writer once but now is a teacher, a wife, and a mother. So, three mysteries to keep my interest going, although by now, I realized that this movie was not holding up to its early promise. This is because the romance part including the big misunderstanding is telegraphed clearly at the beginning and it’s old and boring. Since Diego stubbornly refuses to disclose the reason for his breakdown, the only reasonable conclusion is that it must be very very bad, intolerable, inexcusable, unforgivable, and humiliating! So there is still hope for a couple of shocking reveals, a touching redemption, and a strong ending.

I’ll skip right to the chase which is why this movie fizzled so badly. **spoilers** Let’s start with the high school breakup. It turns out Diego stood Hazel up the night of the Senior Prom. But why? Because he found out that night that his beloved mother was sick with cancer. But he didn’t have the decency to call her and explain. He just ghosted her on prom night. Dude! I guess that explains the initial hostility on his part towards Hazel. Not! Then, when he finally explains after a romantic evening, Hazel apologizes to him for not being the type of person he could confide in. What. Moving on.

 It turns out the big secret as to why he lost his team the World Series is because it was the anniversary of his mother’s death and he always has a panic attack on the anniversary of his mother’s death. Plus it was additionally triggered by seeing a mother in the stands who looked like his mother and her child. Yes, that certainly is shameful. I can certainly understand why he is killing his career by keeping that nefarious information secret. Not!

On to the big misunderstanding with 20 minutes to go. He overhears Morgan the journalist telling Hazel the article is dead, because Diego will not explain why he froze on the mound. He becomes irate because Hazel “sold him out.” Huh? Surely the article being pulled proves that Hazel did not sell him out. Quite the contrary. He leaves the diner in a rage after bullying poor Hazel into admitting she promised Morgan the true story when he told her it was not up for discussion. So what? (”I was just going to read my biggest secret as a headline????!!!!!”). But first, he yells at Hazel over his shoulder while running out of the diner where this drama occurs, to go ahead and “tell Morgan anything you want to tell her.” Drama queen. Of course, Hazel keeps his shameful secret even though it will ruin her career. Later, Diego finds out from his agent what he already knew, that the article has been killed, which makes him so happy(??????) that he invites Morgan the journalist to his house to interview him and tells her the whole freaking truth, including how he lost the “love of his life” on Prom Night. It just made no sense. This Diego guy, our hero, was dangerously irrational and erratic with no judgment, common sense, or balance.

As for the third mystery, the cause of Hazel’s fallout with her girlfriend, it was a big nothing. I won’t even go into that side of the story. In the final couple of minutes of this mess, we learn that Diego is now a Met, and has pitched a no-hitter on his first outing, Hazel is representing her old girlfriend who is now a best-selling author, and Diego and Hazel are together forever in New York City. Hallmark really piled on the happy endings with this one. To top it off, Diego is being touted by the press as a  champion of mental health. Snort. Now it is certainly possible that Hallmark had the laudable intention of addressing the serious issue of mental health. But they whiffed. He comes across as emotionally stunted and asinine, not mentally ill. What exactly was Diego’s problem? So much machismo that he could not admit to softer emotions? Mommy issues? Unhealthy grieving process? Self-hatred? Plain old arrogance? Self-sabotage? Anger management problem? I would hardly call one panic attack a year as having a mental health problem. Or not being able to talk about it and then being able to talk about it. Don’t look too closely at the future of Diego and Hazel’s relationship. Be like Hazel and ignore all of the red flags.

On a historical note, Hazel’s best friend and personal assistant is Jax, played by a non-binary actress, Donia Kash. it is never stated, but it is inferred that the character is also non-binary. Donia/Jax was one of the few bright spots in this production.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

A Pinch of Portugal

Hallmark Pulls a Fast One

I was not looking forward to this one despite its setting in Portugal which, unlike France and Italy has never been used as a backdrop for a Hallmark movie. I think I saw Heather Hemmens in something or other and she was fine. The previews seemed to set up the usual scenario of the beautiful, competent but underestimated heroine meeting the native hunk who shows her the sights while they commence falling for each other.

Heather plays Anna, a prep cook for a world-famous and difficult celebrity chef. They travel the world along with their little crew: the producer, the editor, and the cameraman. But this time, Dean, the Chef, is in contract negotiations so the support staff is sent on ahead to start shooting what they can without him. The second I saw the cameraman who was a dead ringer for Chris Hemsworth (Thor) I thought, “Too bad he’s not the hero”. I like him! Further cementing my approval, he opened his mouth, and out popped an Australian accent! I was kind of smitten despite his blondness. But it is made pretty clear early on that they are just best buddies. And we still had the designated dark-haired handsome hero on the horizon. They have a meet-cute at his farmer’s market and while they sniff and rhapsodize over all of the vegetables, they have lengthy conversations and flirt like mad. Our hero was very smiley. We learn his dream is to own his own restaurant. A girl who dreams of settling down and doing things her own way as a Chef and a guy that wants to open his own restaurant? Yep.  A perfect match. But things started to take a turn at the 41-minute mark. Did I just imagine that smoldering look? It seemed to come out of nowhere. I could scarcely believe it. While the volatile star chef continues to not show up, things started to get interesting. I was actually in doubt as to who was supposed to be the love interest until the 1 hour and 17-minute mark. Hallmark really pulled a fast one, and I heartily approve!

Besides the scenery and the yummy-looking food, there were some other really nice touches in this one.

  • Anna’s supportive mother.
  • Anna’s journey from an awkward fill-in to finally finding her niche and making the job her own was well done and believable. Heather Hemmens was really good, especially in the cooking while seasick scene.
  • Brooklyn, the cute editor, started out as a nothing character but turned out to be a real dark horse. She has one of the funniest lines in the movie. When Anna is taking out her anger on the vegetables she is chopping, She stops her, “You should really use your words. Violence is not the answer.”
  • Some surprises and twists: the sudden reappearance of the evil Chef who behaves like a real jerk. And the hidden agenda of another character that I for one did not see coming.
  • The happy rehabilitation of the bad guy was a surprise but was well-founded and understandable. I liked the way it was done.
  • There is a crisis at the end, but it was not a big misunderstanding between the couple. The romance was nuanced and drama free, but totally involving. My breath was bated.

Hallmark showed some sophistication with the script and casting, and the actors did not disappoint. Of course, Portugal did not hurt either.  There was not a silly minute in it (except possibly the weird moment when Anna grabbed Thor’s delicious-looking ice cream cone and threw it in the garbage.) And last but not least, Anna wore sensible shoes throughout and not only in the traipsing about Lisbon montage.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.


by Jennifer Crusie

Most of the books I read aren’t exactly mentally or emotionally taxing, however well written and enjoyable most of them are. But I was in the mood for something even less challenging than usual. I picked up this one by the lauded award-winning Jennifer Crusie knowing that this one was one of her early “category” romances re-marketed as a mainstream if short novel. Its first iteration was as Harlequin Temptation # 463 way back in 1993. Digression Warning! So many best-selling novelists first got their start writing old Harlequins and Silhouettes, Candlelights, or Loveswepts. I am sure they must be gratified when their publishers bring back their old very lightly regarded series or category books as “legitimate” novels. Pro tip: if you are a former reader of these “catagories” be sure to do your research before purchasing an unfamiliar-looking book by Debbie Macomber, Jayne Ann Krentz (or her many pen names), Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, or many others. You may have already read it. In fact, I probably had read this particular book 30 years ago, but of course, I didn’t remember any of it this go-round, so it didn’t matter.

He shuddered. Kate reminded him of Valerie and his ex-wife, Tiffany. Women like that always got what they wanted no matter what it took, not caring who they trampled on to get their way. Efficient. Calculating. Manipulative. Most likely she’d come to the resort to sharpen her golf game, get a tan, snare a husband, and improve her stock portfolio. God preserve me from a woman like that, he thought, and grinned again. God wouldn’t have to preserve him from a woman like Kate Svenson. She’d made it very clear that she wasn’t interested.

Kate has a high-powered career as a business consultant to multinational corporations at her father’s firm. She specializes in businesses that are in trouble and she is very very good at it. But she is a little sick and tired of the people she has to deal with and feels like her life is slipping away. She wants marriage and a family along with her career. She has been engaged three times to suitable men (successful and ambitious, handsome, and good guys) but all three times she broke it off. Something wasn’t right. Encouraged by her best friend Jessie, she decides to apply her business acumen to getting a husband. She determines that a resort catering to her type of man in Tobey’s Corners, Kentucky is just the ticket and books a 2-week vacation there. Unfortunately, every time she goes on a date with a man there that fits her profile, he ends up badly injured or almost dying. This is much to the amusement of the resort owner’s laconic and very attractive brother who is the groundskeeper.

“We gave him CPR. He’s going to be all right,” Kate said. “The doctor said so.” “Dating you is like dating death,” Jake said. Kate looked exasperated. “Nobody has died.” “Not yet.”

Later, she couldn’t remember whether she had tried to stop or Donald’s trying to ruin her potatoes the way he’d ruined everything else had made her temporarily insane. Whatever the reason, she stabbed him with the sharp, narrow, old-fashioned fork and hit a vein in the back of his hand. Donald screamed, and she shoved his hand away so he wouldn’t get blood on her potatoes. “I’m so sorry, Donald,” she said and took another bite…
“What’d you do, bite him?” “He should be so lucky,” Kate said. “I stabbed him.” Jake handed her a drink. “Try not to injure anybody else, okay?” “He deserved it,” Kate said. “I’m sure he did. But if you go around wounding every guy who deserves it, you’ll be taking out most of the hotel.”

They actually hit it off and become friends because they are as far away from each other’s romantic types as can be. He is a lazy and unambitious underachiever, and she is the type of woman who will try to change him and make him move to the big bad city.

It pretty much plays out romantically as you think it will but with some interesting side trips. Kate decides to help a local country bar owner increase her profits and ends up bartending there which she is excellent at, thank you very much. She unexpectedly makes friends with a young Barbie Doll-like fellow vacationer who is there to sow her wild oats before settling down with her rich much older fiance. Things don’t go according to plan. Of course, we have an antagonist, Valerie, who is sleeping with Will, Jake’s brother. She is the ambitious social director who has a much-inflated opinion of herself and her future both with Will and the resort.

“…I’m indispensable.” “Lucky you,” Kate said uneasily. She felt a sudden need to get far away from Valerie, as if she had something contagious that she might catch. Like maybe ruthless ambition and a total lack of humanity. 

Times have changed a lot since 1993. Some aspects of Jake and Kate’s relationship are dated and will not sit well with modern sensibilities. Some are quite ahead of their time and would warm the hearts of progressive feminist-leaning type readers. I was really surprised when Kate takes up for Valerie when her “just deserts” time arrives near the end. She is a bitch and Kate very much dislikes and disapproves of her and her schtick but it didn’t negate the fact that she was treated shabbily by nice Will. When she delivers some home truths to the brothers, it leads to some drama and complications which weren’t easily or totally predictably resolved. But Kate always has the high road and doesn’t back down.

It met all my expectations. It was very funny with a hero and heroine who were well-developed and somewhat unusual. It wasn’t what I would call “gripping” or a page-turner by any means. You pretty much know how it will play out, with some surprises and tensions here and there in the journey to the happy ending. Leisurely read in between other activities, it took me 2 1/2 weeks to finish it. And the book was an enjoyable pressure-free 2 1/2 week “something to read” which really hit the spot.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Wedding Cottage

Nothing to fix except the Cottage

In watching the previews for this one, I was irritated to see that Erin’s eyelashes looked very black and furry. Over-the-top false eyelashes are on my list of make-up “no-nos”. Ahem Natalie Hall. Plus I had already yelled at her a while back for this very issue. However, she won me over pretty quickly and I soon forgot about them. Erin was very good in this and I also appreciated that the upper half of her face helped her convey the appropriate emotions unlike some of her peers. In fact, the whole cast was great, and her chemistry with Brendan Penny could not be denied. I normally don’t talk about “chemistry” because I think it’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder, and it’s kind of cliche, IMO. But to me, those two had “it.”

Erin plays Vanessa, a former Wedding Planner who has moved on to writing wedding guides. To promote her first one she has chosen a deserving couple as the winner of a free wedding of their dreams. They want to be married at The Wedding Cottage in Stoney Bridge, Vermont, where her grandparents were married. To Vanessa’s dismay, she soon finds out that the historic and famous Wedding Cottage has been closed permanently for 5 years upon the death of the elderly owners. Advertising a closed venue in her guidebook and disappointing her hand-picked couple would be very bad publicity and a severe blow to her credibility. She goes up to Stoney Bridge to see what she can do and is further alarmed by the state of disrepair the old cottage is in. The owners’ hostile and grouchy grandson appears and tells her to get lost. He is in a bad mood because he is a famous sculptor, and, like all artists and writers in Hallmarks, is blocked and can’t do his thing. And (of course) he has a looming deadline. I loved Brendan Penny in this. He needs to keep the scruffy beard and do more cantankerous heroes. He was a good foil for cheerful and very very animated Erin. He is dead set against a wedding in the Wedding Cottage but finally relents at Erin’s desperation and her offer to restore the old building to its former glory all at her expense. She has to beg him to take this very sweet deal which seemed a little improbable. It isn’t long before Brendan starts to soften towards Vanessa and the project, and even starts to pitch in to help.

I liked the relationship-building in this one. The attraction and subsequent falling in love did not come out of nowhere. I didn’t count them, but I bet there were at least 4 or 5 kissing scenes as opposed to the usual lone smooch at the very end.  Although the plot was basically wedding planner theme 101 and very predictable, the script flowed well and made sense with some nice touches (grandma’s paintings), good dialogue (You don’t have to bow!), and funny scenes. Erin and Brendan made the most of these opportunities for comedy. That was not Vanessa wrestling with the leaf blower, but Erin having a ball with it. The new bride and groom were charming and Matreya Scarrwene especially as the bride was absolutely adorable. That smile! The scenery was very pretty. Finally, the plot of Brendan regaining his sculpting mojo by rejecting his old dark urban rebel approach to his art and embracing the peace and beauty of the countryside worked well. His sculpture (in wood rather than metal) was beautiful and even sexy, reflecting his new hopeful relationship with Vanessa. A job well done.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Romance Retreat

Dana and Draco

This was an uncharacteristically funny script especially for what people are assuming is a Hallmark-type movie. It has nothing much in common with your typical Hallmark or Hallmark-clone templates other than that it is a romantic comedy. It has some wit and a lot to say about the Yoga and New-Age culture which it fondly sends up along with the journalistic tabloid ethic that will sacrifice truth and fairness in favor of click-bait.

Dana, a workaholic journalist is going on vacation with her fed-up-with-her boyfriend. Because she is so cluelessly obsessed with her career and her phone, rather than paying attention to real life, she thinks she is going to an Indonesian Beach while she ends up in the wilds of Canada with no cell service or internet. Amanda Shull does a great job, exposing our heroine’s unattractive traits and mindset while still making her likable. We root for her (while we are rolling our eyes at her earlier behavior) as her character changes and grows.

In Canada, she finally gets dumped by the guy that brung her due to her attitude and neglect. She ends up becoming friendly with an incognito tech genius/millionaire that she is coincidentally doing an expose’ on. Hilarity and a sweet romance ensue.

Stefan, the love interest is played by Morgan David Jones who is either Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton’s doppelganger or his better-looking older brother. I would be favorably disposed on his behalf because of this resemblance anyway, but his performance does not disappoint.

This is not a Hallmark movie, but aired on UPtv. In addition to the witty and funny script and the out-of-the-box subject matter, the director is the late Steve DiMarco. He was a respected if eccentric television director of a legit and large body of work and not in the Hallmark “stable.” He passed away last month. RIP.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

January 29, 2021

The Blessing Bracelet

The Blessing Bracelet, Part 2: “Failure and Shattered Dreams”

There are a few things that really get my goat when it comes to Hallmark movies. One is inappropriate or strange makeup choices, and another is how out of touch with non-fictional business and financial realities Hallmark writers are. And don’t get me started on the magic suitcases because that has nothing to do with this particular story. And Amanda Shull’s makeup I had no problem with. There are so many examples of naivete and ignorance about financial matters from trying to save a store with hardly any merchandise, to dealing in products that will only sell one month of the year,  to people with little or no income who live in beautiful expensive homes.  Although I will circle back to the heroine’s bracelet business, I do want to talk about the more positive aspects of this movie.

First, this was very much a faith-based story with lots of church in it. I am not much of a church-goer anymore but I did like this aspect very much. It was a tad preachy, but the message was about hope, gratitude, and forgiveness and who can get upset about that advice and guidance, even though it comes from a minister as well as friends and family?  Amanda Shull is very good as Dawn, a single mother who is still trying to dig herself out of the financial mess her irresponsible ex-husband left her in when he took off 3 years ago. Luckily she has the little ray of sunshine that is her 13-year-old son to keep her spirits up. His one (and only) fault is that he keeps hounding her for a dog in every scene he is in. No pun intended. The bank is about to foreclose on her house, and though she goes there personally to beg for mercy it’s no dice because of all of her credit card debt and her car payments on top of her not paying her mortgage. She is pinning all of her hopes on trying to find a second job. It all seems pretty hopeless.

While getting ready for a night out with the girls she runs across one of her old “blessing bracelets” that she and her still best buddy used to make to raise money for a high school project. She starts to wear it and uses the 4 beads to count the few good things in her life. Kind of like a rosary but with bigger and fewer beads. It gives her a more positive confident attitude in spite of her crushing debt and the blessings start to pour in. She goes back to church. The rest of Dawn’s story is about how the bracelets and her new attitude save her house and get her out of debt once she starts to sell them.  The love story part is between her and the bank manager who has been unwittingly foreclosing on her. They don’t know who each other is because they first meet outside of the bank when he takes his pooch to the vet clinic which is her real job. Carlo Marks is well cast as Ben, the too-nice-for-his-own-good foreclosure guy. He is excellent as usual. Dawn and Ben are both very attractive and very kind and sweet and a perfect match. Ben also bonds with her son via said dog. Why isn’t this prize married already? Because he is “married to his job” (which he hates) is the only explanation we are given.

This was a good Hallmark with an uplifting message, some tension and suspense, and a nice romance between two good and likable people who you really root for. Hallmark usually handles religion and church-oriented stories pretty well: low-key, positive, and no Jesus talk, keeping things vague and all-encompassing. This one was no exception. I wish I could say the same about the way they handle money matters. A business plan that relies on an unsustainable no overhead and free labor does not bear looking at too closely. But of course that is exactly what I am going to do!

The whole enterprise gets started when she finally finds a second job (Blessing #1) as a waitress to help with her debt. The waitress who is training her tells her she gets better tips when she gives each of her customers a piece of candy. Dawn decides to give her customers her Blessing Bracelets. Whoa! That’s quite a leap! From a mint or a butterscotch button to free bracelets? I don’t know, if my waitress gave me a piece of jewelry along with my bill, I would think it was super creepy and sketchy. But maybe that’s just me.  And between her full-time job, part-time job, raising her son, and volunteering for her church, when does she have time to make them all? A lady from her church wants to buy 30 of them for her prayer group. This leads to a website and, the 30 bracelets are so popular that it leads to a second order for 500 from the same woman.  But when she can’t fill the huge order, the ladies of the same church (presumably including the prayer group who just bought 30 of them) pitch in to help her make the bracelets voluntarily for free.  It just doesn’t add up. It’s fairly clear that the bracelets are being bought by women affiliated with this church or their friends. They are buying the same bracelets they are making for free? That is just super nice and generous to do that, even for church ladies. And then further complicating the fantastical nature of this bracelet selling, orders are pouring in from the new website, and a local store wants to carry the bracelets, orders 1000 of them, and needs them by Easter. I paused on the website and they are selling for 24 to 30 dollars each retail. If you do the math, that is a chunk of change. Is she selling them to the head of the church group wholesale? Then to add to the already incestuous nature of this enterprise, Dawn announces that she is donating 15% of the sales back to the same church. That’s nice of her, considering. My eyes were rolling while my head was spinning trying to put it all together. And the pastor is so touched and grateful! It doesn’t even occur to her that maybe Dawn wants to keep her flock as free labor even when selling to stores and her retail website.

My favorite part was when her smarmy husband comes crawling out of the woodwork after 3 years, bearing a 10,000 dollar check for her, the first of many, he says.  Despite his apologies and claims that he has changed, it soon becomes clear that he has not changed a bit. She turns down the money and gives him a piece of her mind. A very good scene and I was cheering for her, but should she really have turned that money down? He is her son’s father, and he really owes her that support for his son’s sake. The roof over the boy’s head was still in danger from the bank at this point.

The final straw was when Ben (remember Ben?) quits his job foreclosing on people in order to help customers start new businesses. He buys a storefront in order to rent it to Dawn for her new bracelet business without even consulting her! Maintaining a bricks and mortar store is quite different than selling online, or so I’m told. Even if her son is willing to manage it (after school?) just for “free pizza.” At first, she thought he was giving it to her! “You bought this for me?!”  Of course, she couldn’t accept such a gift, but what if she had followed that with “Thank you!! Thank You!!”? That would have been a super awkward conversation.  “Well no, I really love you, and happy you are forgiving me for almost foreclosing on you when I didn’t know who you were but it’s not a gift. I’m renting it to you, not giving it to you. Your first payment is due Tuesday.”

I approach faith-based stories with an, I hope, open mind but on the other hand I am always on the watch for sanctimony and emotional manipulation. (Hello CCB and Gack/Gaff) In this case, the message was really nice and I liked Dawn, Ben, and their story a lot as a whole. Unfortunately, the bracelet selling may have been the answer to Dawn’s prayers, but there were just too many questions about it for me. Young Justin does get a puppy in the end, in case you were wondering.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Search for the Glowing Hand (Judy Bolton #37)

By Margaret Sutton

When a Muslim family is burned out of their store and Mosque, Judy gets involved. Who set the fires and why? And who pulled the fire alarm across town diverting the firefighters from the real fire? Suspicion has landed on 10-year-old Ken Topping because his hands now glow under ultraviolet light. The police had coated the alarm handle with a chemical to catch those responsible. But Judy thinks he is innocent partly because Ken is friends with the Muslim boy who was injured in the fire.

As Judy investigates, she discovers an organized international group of bigots that share more than a passing resemblance to groups who are operating today, almost 60 years after Margaret Sutton wrote this book. They are called The Wasps (John Birch Society?), and yes, they are against anyone who is not White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Their mission is to infiltrate high schools and church groups to spread their hate disguised as Patriotism and traditional Christian values. A number of Judy’s acquaintances, including the snobby trouble-making Vincent family, have found much to like in their agenda.

While trying to find the real culprits, Judy finds plenty of excitement, including riots in the streets of usually peaceful Farringdon. A house that the Muslim family, The Wards, was buying in an exclusive neighborhood is set on fire and burned. According to Lindsay Stroh, Margaret Sutton’s daughter, The issue of inclusion and diversity hit close to home for Margaret. Her nephew Victor married a Muslim woman and also converted to Islam himself. Margaret was also heavily involved in encouraging the integration of her community and joined Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. This book is based on an actual incident, as all of the Judy Boltons are. One of Lindsay’s schoolmates was Indian and when they moved into a wealthy white neighborhood, they were the victims of arson.

Unfortunately, Margaret’s message for her young readers was muddled somewhat by the introduction of the controversy of the local high schools becoming co-ed instead of Boys Only and Girls Only. The ”Anti-Wasps” who were protesting the segregated schools were almost as unsympathetic as The Wasps. Also, a number of loose ends were left untied, and we never really see if or how the original families who were against “Heathens” living in their exclusive neighborhood had a change of heart. We are told that the whole community banded together to welcome the Wards and their mosque to the neighborhood once the outsiders were arrested by Peter and the rest of the FBI. A little too pat and rushed.

According to a friend and fellow member of The Judy Bolton Discussion Group, William Land, Some of the problems with some of Margaret’s later books could possibly be laid at the feet of the publishers who considerably reduced the page count of the Judy Bolton books and other children’s series starting in the 1960s. Sometimes Margaret seems to have been trying to tackle too much in the fewer pages allotted to them. Also, the series was coming to an end and Margaret still had a lot to say (my speculation entirely).

Nevertheless, despite its lack of clarity and lingering questions, This book deserves 5 stars for the difficult and controversial issues that Margaret Sutton addressed in this particular volume. Especially for the time it was written. There are a lot of tense scenes, and Judy proves her moral and physical courage on more than one occasion. She was a real heroine in this. I’m sure many of Margaret’s young readers were influenced by her take on the integration and inclusion of those of different faiths and ethnicities. Although there is no doubt where Judy and her friends stand on the issues, it is not always easy, simple, and straightforward for all of the characters we meet in this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.