Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: Pressing the Issue by Daryl Wood Gerber (Cookbook Nook Mysteries #6)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great to return to the fun characters
Cons: Mystery could have been twistier
The Bottom Line:
Renaissance Fair death
Means new visit with Jenna
So great to be back

Verily, Thee Shalt Enjoy This Tale

Over the last couple of years, Berkley has dumped the vast majority of their cozy mysteries.  As a long time reader of their books, it has saddened me to see so many character I love disappear like that.  However, a few authors have found new homes for their series.  One of those is Daryl Wood Gerber, who is continuing the Cookbook Nook Mysteries with Pressing the Issue.

It’s April in Crystal Cover, California, and that means the Renaissance Fair has come to town.  Okay, so it’s a smaller fair than in many places, but it has taken over the town pier, and everyone is looking forward to a good time.  Jenna Hart has packed the Cookbook Nook with a variety of cookbooks based on the theme, and she is looking forward to having a good time as well.

A local vineyard owner, Nick, is the king of the fair, something he gladly does every year.  He and his family have been well respected for years in the community.  So, it is a shock when Jenna and some friends find his dead body one evening.  Despite Nick’s good reputation, someone didn’t like him.  Can Jenna figure out who it was?

The last book in the series ended on a bit of a somber note, so I was glad to revisit Jenna and her family and friends for that reason alone.  It also means that there is a spoiler warning here.  The events of the previous book will be spoiled for you if you jump in here.  That just means you need to read the previous book in the series, right?

Fans of the series will be as delighted as I was to return to these characters.  Jenna has a real community around her, and I enjoyed seeing them all again and watch how their lives and relationships are flourishing.  Yes, there is plenty of room for the new characters as well.

Plus there’s the town, which always has some kind of fun festival going on.  I haven’t been to a Renaissance Fair in years, but reading about it here was enough to make me want to visit one.

The first couple of chapters spent some time introducing the suspects and victim as well as updating us on the lives of the series regulars.  It was nice to be able to ease back into their lives.  It isn’t that long before Nick is killed, and then we are off and running with an ever-changing set of motives, clues, and suspects.  I did figured part of it out fairly early, but there were still many pieces of the puzzle I needed to fully understand what was going on, and I was having such fun with the characters that I didn’t mind that much.

And, of course, there are recipes.  We get a variety of dishes, including Cornish Pasties, Ginger Cheesecake, Shepherd’s Pie, and Sin-in-a-Cup Frozen Cheesecake Bites to name a few.  Your mouth will be watering long before you get to them, so it’s nice to be able to try these treats.

Fans of the series will be thrilled to see Jenna and the gang again in Pressing the Issue.  There may be a new publisher, but the characters are as charming as ever.

Need more Jenna?  Here are the Cookbook Nook Mysteries in order.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great characters, lots of fun
Cons: Pacing
The Bottom Line:
New superhero
Gets entertaining movie
A bit long, still fun

Finding Fun in Superhero Movies Again

Marvel’s marketing is definitely working.  By making all of their movies different chapters in the same story, I feel like I have to keep watching to keep up with them all.  Otherwise, I probably would have skipped a few of them, and Black Panther is probably one of them.  Instead, I was there on opening day to meet the newest superhero to grace the big screen with his own film.

We meet T’Challa, aka Blank Panther (Chadwick Boseman), as he is about to become king of his people.  While the rest of the world thinks it is a nation of poor farmers, in actuality, Wakanda is rich and technologically superior to the rest of the world thanks to a special element they discovered centuries ago.

T’Challa has barely taken the throne when word reaches Wakanda that Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen some of this element and is planning to sell it on the black market.  What no one knows is that Klaue is working with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordon) who has his own agenda.  T’Challa heads out to try to stop Klaue.  What will happen?

Like I suspect most people, I watch superhero movies to have fun.  I view them as pure escapism.  When they take themselves too seriously, I lose that sense of fun (I’m looking at you most of the DC Comics movies).  On the other hand, I do want them to take themselves seriously enough that I care about the outcome (Thor: Ragnarok, I’m looking at you).  This movie strikes that perfect balance.  The action scenes are delightful, and there are some great lines.  Still, the movie takes itself seriously enough that we care about the outcome.

This is a hard balance for a film to have, and the actors do a great job of pulling it off.  There isn’t a bad actor in the bunch, and they make us care about the outcome.

Do I really need to mention special effects at this point?  They are fantastic, and further help pull us into this fanciful movie.

You’ll notice I was talking about having fun earlier.  I was a little afraid we’d be lectured a few times in the movie, and they start to go there but they managed to pull back before it goes too far.  And I certainly will not argue with the overall message that we are all brothers and sisters who should be helping each other out.  Sadly, that is a lesson that we have never mastered in human history.

My real complaint comes from the length.  At two hours and fifteen minutes, it feels long.  I’m not sure what could have been cut to make the film better, so many that’s just me.

This being Marvel, there are scenes after the credits start to roll.  There are two in fact, so be sure you sit through both of them.

Since we’d already met him, it’s nice to see Black Panther get a full movie so we can really get to know him.  This is a fun superhero movie that will please any fan of the genre.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book Review: The Haunted Lighthouse by Penny Warner (Code Busters Club #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun mystery filled with history and codes
Cons: Characters are thin
The Bottom Line:
Alcatraz treasure?
Code Busters are on the case
Lots of fun for kids

The Code Busters Hunt for Treasure

I can remember as a kid being hooked on codes, and trying to use them to communicate with my friends.  That’s why the idea behind the Code Busters series is so smart.  Heck, even as an adult, I love the idea of using codes to communicate.  So I was glad to rejoin these kids in The Haunted Lighthouse.

Cody and the rest of the Code Busters are excited for the next school day because their classes are going on a combined field trip to Alcatraz.  The night before they leave, Cody gets a strange e-mail message.  Then the four friends get part of a note on their front door step in the morning.  It seems to imply that there might be a treasure on the island.  Can they figure out what is going on while on the field trip?

Now you might be wondering exactly how this plot ties into the title of the book.  I will say that there is a lighthouse, and there is some discussion about a few places being haunted.  However, if you are looking for a typical ghostly middle grade mystery, you will be disappointed.

However, that’s not a reason to skip this book.  I was actually impressed with how things unfolded as the book went along.  There were some twists I didn’t see coming, and I had fun along the way.

The characters are a bit on the simple side, but that’s the nature of the book.  We are dealing with a 180-page middle grade novel, after all, and there isn’t time to give us more complex characters.  I know as a kid I certainly didn’t mind, and I’m sure today’s kids won’t mind either.

And the codes!  We are introduced to several I’d never heard of here as well as several I expected.  As the characters encounter the codes, they discuss how to solve them, so we can learn about the codes and solve the puzzles presented as well.  Plus, there is more information on the codes in the back of the book as well as the solutions so you can check your work.

I must admit, even though I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have never been to Alcatraz.  The bits of the history interjected here were fascinating to me, and they didn’t slow the story down at all.  I bet kids will love learning about it as well.

Even though the title is a little misleading, there is much to love about The Haunted Lighthouse.  Just watch for an increase in codes after your kids read the book.

This review is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

February 17th's Weekly TV Thoughts

Yes, I did watch lots and lots of Olympics, but I'm not going to comment on any of them.  Here are my regular shows that I watched this week.

Legends of Tomorrow – You know, there was a reason I didn’t watch Constantine.  I enjoyed parts of the episode, but overall it wasn’t the best episode of the season.  And why did they include Snart?  He could have just stayed on Earth X for all the good he really did on our Earth.  Trying to help Nora backfired.  So sorry to see that.  And was that a sneak peak into the future of Arrow, or was that referring to when Oliver was arrested in the fall?  The timeline of this show in relation to others is all very confusing at this point.

The Amazing Race – I always hate to see a team go out from losing a passport.  However, I think it was a blessing that it wasn’t a non-elimination leg.  They never would have caught back up.  I was impressed with how she handled it.  She was the strong on, something I didn’t expect at all.  The competitive eaters needed to be there for that eating challenge.  And I hope I don’t have nightmares about it, especially the other team member having to wear the scorpions.  Yikes!  My skin was crawling.  I’m glad Yale was eliminated.  I’m still hoping Big Brother is the final team to go.

Friday, February 16, 2018

February 16th's Book Beginning and Friday 56

And it's Friday, so that must mean it is time for Book Beginning and Friday 56.

This week, I'm featuring Hummus and Homicide by Tina Kashian.

This is the first in a new series.  It officially goes on sale 2/27, but I'll have a review for it this upcoming Thursdays.

Here's how the book begins:

"Lucy Berberian!  Is that you?"

Short and sweet, right?  Jumping ahead to page 56, we find:

"Your call said there was a body," the young officer said.  "Where is it?"
"Out back."

I know, I know, no surprise that there's a dead body in a murder mystery, right?  Still, I thought it was a fun teaser.

Have a great weekend.  I hope you'll come back Thursday for my review of this book.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue by Cathy Ace (Cait Morgan #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Interesting mystery with complex characters
Cons: Cait at times
The Bottom Line:
A death at dinner
Ruins Cait’s working vacation
And starts this series

Deadly Trip to Nice

There are so many authors and books out there I just can’t get to them all despite my best efforts.  (And yes, I do try.)  That’s why I just bought Cathy Ace’s first mystery at Malice Domestic last year, and I’m just now reading it.  The Corpse with the Silver Tongue introduces us to Cait Morgan, a criminologist who seems to find murder wherever she goes.

Cait Morgan is a professor who specializes in criminal psychology.  Originally from Wales, she has settled in British Columbia.  However, as this book opens, she finds herself in Nice in the southern part of France, presenting a paper for a colleague who got sick at the last minute.  She’s getting a long weekend out of it at the college’s expense, so she’s quite happy.

Then she runs into Alistair Townsend at the hotel bar.  She used to work for the man before she got her masters degree, and she loathed him.  But she can’t quite say no to an invitation from him, so she finds herself attending a birthday dinner that night for Alistair’s wife.

Alistair has traded his advertising agency in for an escargot farm.  While everyone is enjoying the escargot at dinner that night, Alistair drops over dead.  Before the police and medical personnel arrive, others are starting to feel sick.  Something suspicious is going on, and the police think Cait is part of it.  Can she figure out what is happening?

Cait is an interesting main character, more so than in many of the books I read.  Not only does she have her psychology background, but she has an impressive memory.  She reminds me of the classic mystery characters a bit more than most modern sleuths in this way.  And like some of those classic characters, she also has a habit of judging people based on first impressions, a weakness she recognizes and fights against over the course of the book.  At times, her commentary on the characters can be a bit much, but that’s usually when something happens to remind her about judging others.

The rest of the cast are just as interesting, with layers to them that need to be peeled back as the case unfolds.  They prove to be more complex than they first appear, which keeps Cait and us guessing as the story unfolds.

And there is an interesting tale here.  While Cait’s past with Alistair initially colors her thoughts on his death, she quickly begins to look at other motives.  That’s all I’m going to say because you need to see where the plot goes for yourself.  I was impressed at the end with the clues scattered through the story and how Cait pieced things together.  I did have a couple of niggles with the climax, but they are minor overall.

Since these books are from a smaller press, it is easy to miss them.  I know I did at first.  If you are looking for something different, it’s worth hunting down The Corpse with the Silver Tongue.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ornament Review: Snowtop Santa - 2017 Hallmark Table Top Decoration

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Beautiful larger piece with fun light effect
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Larger Snowtop piece
Adds a twinkling light effect
Collectors will love

I’m Enjoying This Table Top Santa Snowman

I was going to resist Snowtop Santa.  No really, I was.  You can stop laughing now.  While I love the Snowtop Lodge series, this is a more expensive tabletop release from Hallmark, and I don’t have a lot of places to set out pieces like this.  Then I caved, and I’m glad I did.

This piece has a few nods to this year’s ornament sized entry in the Snowtop Lodge series, Benny M. Merrymaker.  Both snowmen share a similar face and smile, both are wearing Santa hats, and both are holding wreaths.  But there the similarities end.  Snowtop Santa is wearing a plaid scarf that has hints of green in the mostly red and white pattern.  And the scene on the lower part of his body is very different.  It features a snowy village on Christmas Eve.  How do we know it is Christmas Eve?  We can see Santa flying away after leaving toys for all the good children there.  The details on this scene are amazing – better than we normally get on the ornaments since this is a bigger piece.  There is glitter that adds some fun sparkle to the whole thing as well.

The main reason I wound up buying this piece is because of the optional light effect.  The stars in the scene have holes in them, and the piece includes a battery operated fake candle.  Turn it on, and you can see light flickering through the holes, making it look like the stars are twinkling.  I absolutely love it!  It’s a wonderful touch.  Unfortunately, the candle does seem to get dimmer after you’ve had it on for a while, but after you turn it off for a little while, you’ll find that it is at full strength again.

As I said, this is a table top piece, so you’ll find it has a sturdy, flat base.  There is no way to hang it on your tree, but that’s okay.  It’s about ten and a half inches tall, so it would take up way too much space on the tree, and it’s so heavy it wouldn’t stay on a branch.  However, under the tree, it would look fantastic.  Since it is made mostly from porcelain, you’ll want to make sure you put it someplace where there is no danger of it getting knocked over and broken.

I’m so glad I bought Snowtop Santa.  The light effect makes this beautiful piece even more special.  I’m looking forward to putting him under my tree for years to come.

And he looks great with the rest of the Snowtop Lodge series.

Original Price: $49.95, or $29.95 with the purchase of any ornament

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Review: As You Wish by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Delightful behind the scenes stories of a movie I love
Cons: Finding cons in this book is inconceivable
The Bottom Line:
Behind scenes stories
About a well-loved movie
All fans need to read

Loving Look Behind the Scenes of a Beloved Movie

Like millions of others, I love The Princess Bride, so naturally Cary Elwes’ book As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from The Making of The Princess Bride caught my attention as soon as I heard about it.  And there it sat on my “to buy and read someday soonish” list until a friend sent me a copy.  I’m glad she did because I completely enjoyed the book.

For those who might not know, Cary Elwes played the hero of The Princess Bride – Westley.  And the book is pretty much what you’d expect, stories from the making of the film.  He starts with how he was cast at the age of 23 without many credits and proceeds through meeting his cast mates, filming the movie, and fencing practice.  You can’t forget about the fencing.

My only niggle with the book comes from the subtitle.  I don’t know that I would consider any of the stories here “inconceivable.”  Obviously, he was going for the tie in to film, which is certainly fun.  But based on what I know about movie making (which admittedly isn’t much), I didn’t find anything shocking here.

Believe me, for any fan of the movie, that is a very minor complaint.  I would pick this book up and not want to put it down.  Pages would fly by as I pictured the behind the scenes stories he was telling and how they fit into the movie I know and love.  And yes, there are a couple of scenes I won’t look at the same way again now that I know a bit about what went on behind the scenes.

Don’t let that last sentence worry you – if you are a fan of this movie there is nothing here to turn you off to the movie.  Cary doesn’t tell any bad stories.  There are very few stories about anything negative happening during the filming of the movie, and those that are here come across as humorous.  I don’t know if there are any truly bad stories to tell about the filming, but if there are, you won’t find them here.  And I’m perfectly fine with that.

What comes across instead is how much fun Cary had while making this film.  Yes, there was hard work involved, but looking back at it all these years later, he remembers the time fondly.  Clearly, he and his cast mates had a good time together.  I often think when that is the case, it comes across on the screen.  Maybe that’s why we’ve all fallen for this movie.

While most of the book is Cary’s memories, he does include side stories from his co-stars, the writer, and director.  These help flesh things out and are a lot of fun.  If I had one complaint, Cary doesn’t tell any stories he wasn’t part of, so if you want to hear anything about the scenes he wasn’t in, you’ll be disappointed.  But honestly, he’s in almost every scene of the film, so that’s hardly an issue.

What comes across in all the stories shared is just how much everyone is proud to be part of this film.  You can tell they are so thrilled that the film has found such an enduring place in movie history even if it wasn’t the box office success it should have been when it first came out.

Reading this book made me want to rewatch the movie again, something I hadn’t done for years.  I’d forgotten just how good it really is.

If you are a fan of The Princess Bride but have yet to pick up As You Wish, you really need to do that today.  This is a wonderful behind the scenes look you’ll savor.

And in the inconceivable event that you’ve never watched the movie, here’s my review of The Princess Bride.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Movie Review: Gnomeo and Juliet

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Very fun take on Shakespeare
Cons: Characters could be stronger
The Bottom Line:
Different Shakespeare
Proves to be plenty of fun
Give this film a chance

Different Take on Shakespeare Mostly Works

I pretty much dismissed Gnomeo and Juliet when it first came out, but I started reconsidering when I watched the previews for the upcoming Sherlock Gnomes.  Since this new movie is a sequel, I decided to go back and give the original a chance, and I’m glad I did.

As you’d expect from the title, this animated movie retells the story of Romeo and Juliet with garden gnomes.  You can see why I was skeptical, right?  The gnomes live in neighboring gardens, one belonging to Mr. Capulet and the other to Miss Montague.  For our ease, they are also color coordinated, the gnomes in one garden are all red, the other all blue.

While no one quite remembers what started the feud, both these neighbors and their gnomes hate each other.  One night, Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) disguises himself to wreak havoc on the other garden.  That same night, Juliet (Emily Blunt) disguises herself and slips into an abandoned garden to take an orchid.  The two meet by accident, and it is love at first sight – that is until they learn who the other really is.  But their attraction is too much to ignore.  What will they do about it?

The source material is one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, but given the fact that this is an animated movie about garden gnomes, I’m sure it is no surprise to say they’ve turned it into a comedy.  Believe it or not, it works.  I laughed multiple times at what was happening, although I think I laughed more at the Easter eggs hidden throughout the film.  There are nods to not only this play but several other Shakespeare plays scattered throughout the film.  Most are blink and you miss them, and a few might have gone over my head since there is much of Shakespeare I’m not familiar with.  The film does acknowledge the original ending, but it does it with a wink and a nod in a very funny scene.

Since the movie cuts the story down to an hour and a half, the pace is fast.  Kids won’t be bored since there is plenty of action to keep them entertained.  That includes a climax that is very different from the play in every conceivably way.

About the only real weakness are the characters.  Even the main characters are a bit flat, and most of them are just there to move the story forward.  This will bother adults more than the child target audience.  And this isn’t the fault of the voice actors, who are all great.  It’s the fault of a screenplay that focuses on action.

I wasn’t aware that this film was released by Touchstone, a division of Disney.  Or, if I knew at one time, I’d forgotten about it.  I only mention this because of a great gag that makes much more sense when you know this.  Of course, you can also figure it out by watching the previews for Disney movies on the disc before the movie actually starts.

Honestly, my complaint about the characters is a very minor complaint, and I’m glad I gave the film a chance.  Gnomeo and Juliet is a light, fun movie that sets out to entertain and does it well.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Latest Update

Just a quick update on my health.  I am slowly healing up.  I’m doing a little better every day, but healing up from major surgery like I had takes some time.  Fortunately, I am still off work for another week.  Not that I want to go back to work next Monday.  Having all this time off has been nice, especially with the Olympics on.  (You might have figured out I enjoy watching them.)

My oncologist agreed that I don’t need any chemo or radiation, which is huge.  I’m going to have an MRI in 3 months and another CT scan in six months to make sure they don’t see anything else.  And they are still doing some testing to see if they can figure out what caused it in the first place.  But I’m concentrating on healing up and putting this behind me.

After all, I’ve got two mud runs to do in June.