Saturday, December 20, 2014

December 20th's Weekly TV Thoughts

TV is winding down for the year for me.  In fact, looks like I won't be making this post for the next two weeks.  Nothing I watch is going to be new.  Considering I have some Christmas movies and specials to watch over the next few days and some other things also on the DVR, that's probably a good thing.  Plus one roommate and I are planning on an I Love Lucy marathon.  We'll see if that actually happens.

Anyway, here's what I did watch this week.

Once Upon a Time – I’m glad they showed us a happy ending for the Frozen gang, but I’m also glad that part of the season is behind us.  It just didn’t mess into the overall story of the show very well.  This episode was great, and I’m anxious to see how they pick up from here in the future.  As always, you can read my full recap here.

The Sing-Off – Why did we only get one show this season instead of the usual two or three week event?  I wanted more!  Having said that, I’m glad a college group finally won since I’m always rooting for them.  These guys certainly seemed super talented, too.

Survivor – I know I’ve been railing against Natalie all season just because the “twinnies” were so annoying on The Amazing Race.  But I’ve got to hand it to her, she deserved to win because she made several big moves.  Plus she wasn’t that annoying without her sister around.  I think that really helped her out in my eyes.

White Collar – I knew Neal wasn’t dead.  It was more elaborate than I expected, but they would never end the series that way.  I was always rooting for Neal to turn into a good guy and leave his conman life completely behind him, but I figured we’d never get that ending.  As a result, I’m okay with what we got.  And it was certainly better than some of my fears from the teases the stars have been giving for months.

Covert Affairs – They rush some things, drag others out too long.  I mean, Annie’s known this guy for how long?  They’ve actually been dating for even less time.  And yet they are talking about marriage?  Sorry, but I just don’t buy it, and that’s not because I’m a diehard Annie/Auggie shipper, either.  A little surprised the prostitute isn’t dead, but that storyline still went exactly where I thought it would go.  All in all, we’re back to the less than stellar seasons of the show.  If it ended now, I wouldn’t be too upset, although I would probably come back for more if it got renewed.

The Amazing Race – Well, I was disappointed that Adam and Bethany didn’t win.  Sounds like he might have been better on that final challenge.  Still, if they couldn’t win, I’m glad the scientists won.  And to think, they came in last on the last leg.  That’s got to be killing the wrestlers, especially the female.  It seemed no one had to go out again and they remembered all the numbers.  I was surprised it didn’t take people who didn’t remember the proper order longer than it looked like it took them to finish up that task.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fun characters; story good once it gets going
Cons: Very slow start; new songs are bad
The Bottom Line:
Christmas characters
In made for TV sequel
That could be better

Classic Characters in a Not So Classic Story

I’d heard for years about the made for TV movie Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, but I’d never gone out of my way to watch it.  Since I do like the original specials with these two characters, I decided it was time to change that.  It wasn’t bad, but I think once every forty years is quite adequate.

The story opens in June at the North Pole where Rudolph (voiced by Billie Mae Richards) and Frosty (Jackie Vernon) as well as Frosty’s family, wife Crystal (Shelley Winters) introduced in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and their two kids, are enjoying a balmy summer day (10 below).  However, what they don’t know is that the ancient master of the North Pole, Winterbolt (Paul Frees), has just awakened from a cursed sleep he’s been in and is determined to retake the land.

He sees his chance when Rudolph and Frosty’s friend Milton the ice cream man (Red Buttons) stops by to pick up more of his merchandise.  He tells the tale of his friend who works for a circus that is about to go bankrupt.  Maybe Rudolph and Frosty appearing will draw in the crowds needed to save it.  Will the plan work?  And how does that fall into Winterbolts’s plans to take over the North Pole?

This movie is stop motion animation, and it is actually quite interesting seeing the hand drawn Frosty become stop motion.  Even a couple of the scenes from his specials are recreated briefly in this new media.  I’m not the biggest stop motion animation fan, and this isn’t going to change any minds.  It’s okay, but nothing else.

The story starts pretty slowly, actually, giving us back story on characters we don’t much care about yet.  We need the background, but surely it could have been worked in better later into the story.

Likewise, the songs slow things down.  Yes, we get the classic songs with these characters, which are fun.  However, the rest of the songs do nothing for the story.  Fortunately, there aren’t too many of them.  Since this is a two hour (minus commercials) special, it’s something that could easily have been cut to lower the running time.

And yet, as the movie kept going, I found myself drawn into the story and wanting to know how exactly our heroes would prevail.  It helped that the pacing picked up as the store progressed even if the overall cheese remained.  It wasn’t enough to make this into an annual tradition, but it was enough to make me glad I watched it once.

The voice cast is back to voice the parts they’d done in past specials.  Whether well-known or not, they all do a great job as do new comers who take on new characters here.

Maybe I’d feel differently about this if I’d watched it as a kid.  I know nostalgia helps with some of the other specials I love to watch each year at Christmas.  But since this special doesn’t have that on its side, I won’t go out of my way to watch Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July again.  It’s not bad, but it’s just not that great either.

December 19th's Book Beginning and Friday 56

Less than a week until Christmas.  Are you ready?  I'm working on wrapping presents myself.  But I'm taking a break for this week's Book Beginning and Friday 56.

This week, I'm working on Everblaze, the third in the Keeper of the Lost Cities middle grade fantasy series by Shannon Messenger.

I know, breaking out of the cozies I've been reading almost two months.  It's nice to be reading something different for a change.  I love my cozies, but I need a break over so often, and this series is always fun that way.

It gets off to a great start, too, with a great first line:

"What are you waiting for?" Keefe shouted over the howling wind and the roaring sea.  "Don't tell me the great Sophie Foster is afraid."

Page 56 finds the same two characters and this line from Keefe:

Keefe groaned as he sat up, rubbing his left shoulder.  "I think we need to work on your landings, Foster."

Keefe is always good for a quote, obviously.

Since I won't see you before, have a Merry Christmas.  And in case I don't get away from time with family to play next week (which is a very real possibility), Happy New Year as well.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: The Nightingale Before Christmas by Donna Andrews (Meg Langslow #18)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Josh and Jamie, other fun characters and fun mystery
Cons: One thread from previous book only brought up in passing
The Bottom Line:
Decorating home
With an unexpected corpse
Complicates Christmas

All Through the Show House, a Murderer was Stirring

This year, I set out to read four Christmas themed mysteries in December.  The Nightingale Before Christmas wound up being the last on the list, and it was a great one to end with.  As always with this series, there was lots of fun to be had on our way to solving a murder.

If you’ve missed the Meg Langslow series, you are really missing out.  Meg and her extended family star in this humorous series that finds her involved in all kinds of wacky groups.  Often, her organizational skills have put her in charge of these groups.  And she just can’t help snooping for clues when a dead body or two show up along the way.

Once again, Meg has found herself roped into a project at Christmas time.  This year, she’s coordinating a decorator show house that will help raise money via ticket sales for local charities once it opens on Christmas Eve.  Also, it will hopefully help the decorators get new clients.  Each decorator is responsible for a room or two, so the styles are as different as their various personalities.

As you might expect, that many strong personalities in one house is cause for conflict.  However, the worst offender is Clay Spottiswood, a man who seems to go out of his way to set others back in their efforts to finish their rooms by the deadline.  Going back late to lock up one night, Meg finds the man shot to death in the master bedroom he was decorating.  Is one of the decorators a murderer?  Or has something from Clay’s past caused him to be murdered?

Now I will admit that the show house is not the strongest Christmas element I’ve seen.  Honestly, this set up could have been done in any other season.  The decorators are adding Christmas touches to their rooms, but that’s about all as far as the main plot goes.  However, there are several scenes set around traditions we know about from the previous Christmas books in the series as well as Meg and her plans for the holiday.  Trust me, you’ll definitely get in the Christmas spirit while reading this book.

In fact, one of my favorite sub-plots, involved Meg’s twins, Josh and Jamie, trying to figure out what to get their mother for Christmas.  Their suggestions are pretty funny.  Frankly, they stole every scene they were in and made me laugh out loud on a few occasions.  It might help that my own niece is the same age, so I could recognize the behavior.  Still, they are an absolute delight.

Not that the other characters weren’t up to their usual standards.  I always enjoy getting to spend time with the regulars, and they were delightful as always here.  My only disappointment in the character department involved a thread from the previous book in the series I hoped to see followed up on here.  It was mentioned in passing, so hopefully we’ll get my wish with the next book.  The cast of decorators (aka the suspects) were fairly good.  I had a hard time keeping a few of them straight, but we quickly got a reminder of who was whom when they walked on stage, so it never hampered my enjoyment of the story at all. 

Speaking of the story, I was sure I had the entire thing figured out with 100 pages to go.  I was wrong.  I’m not going to say any more on that subject so I don’t give anything else away.  The pacing was perfect with clues and events happening on a steady basis.  I’m not in to decorating at all.  (What can I say, I’m a guy.)  However, we never got so lost in that world that I was bored.

Even if you read this book during the rest of the year, you’ll find yourself enjoying The Nightingale Before Christmas.  This is a delightful mystery anyone looking for a fun book will enjoy.

And if you want to catch Meg's earlier adventures, here are the Meg Langslow Mysteries in order.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ornament Review: Fire Station - Noelville #9 - 2014 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots of parts that light up, some fun touches
Cons: Could use more decorations overall
The Bottom Line:
This fire station
Is pretty when lit but could
Use some more color

Putting Out that Roasting Gingerbread

When coming up with ideas for the ornaments in a town, I don’t know that a Fire Station would have been one that would leap out to me as a logical one to do.  I’m not sure why, but it just wouldn’t be.  And yet that’s exactly where we go for this year’s Noelville ornament, and it’s a good choice.

The Fire Station is a two story square building.  The walls are brown, naturally, since Noelville is a gingerbread house town.  There’s an arch up above the second story with Noelville Fire Station written on it and a peppermint where you might expect a round window to be.  There’s a wreath in the middle of the second story with windows on the sides.  And on ground level, the door is open to see the fire truck with a gingerbread fireman and a small Dalmatian out front waving at us.  There are a couple of candy pine trees over to the other side, and plenty of hard candy creating the roof.

When I first saw the picture of this one, I was happy.  It looked nice with some good detail and the potential for lots of light shining through it.  However, reality hasn’t been quite as kind to this ornament.  When you really stop to look at it, you realize how plain brown it is.  Yes, there are windows on three of the sides and the front looks good, but overall, it looks brown.  It’s still not as detailed as the first few ornaments in the series were.  Don’t get me wrong, I like what is here.  It’s just not quite as great as it could have been.

As I hinted above, this ornament has a hole in the back, and you can stick a Christmas tree light in the back to make the windows of the ornament glow.  Actually, more than the windows glow – the roof, the trees, and the fire engine glow as well.  Sadly, the arch hides most of the roof’s glow.  That’s a minor complaint, however, since I love this series for the glowing the pieces do, and this one lights up pretty well.

Being a building, there’s a nice base under it, so you can set this out and create a town if you have the entire series.  Some year, I’m going to do this instead of putting my churches out.  Some year.  You’ll also find the 9 in a Christmas tree on the base indicating its place in the series.

For the time being, I’m hanging this ornament on my tree like I do with the rest of the series I display.  The hook is at the top of the ornament’s roof pretty much in the middle, so it’s no surprise that the ornament hangs straight side to side.  With the stuff out front, the ornament actually tips a little bit to the front, by with mind on the tree and attached to a light, I hadn’t hadn’t noticed at all.

The series is beginning to recapture the glory days of the first few ornaments, but it could still use a bit more detail and color to the pieces.  Even so, fans will be happy to add the Fire Station to their Noelville village.

Original Price: $19.95

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

TV on DVD Review: Enlisted - The Complete Series

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Silly laughs and tender moments in one great show
Cons: Episodes aired out of order, low audience so already canceled
The Bottom Line:
Army comedy
Filled with laughs, tender moments
Deserved audience

"Be a Man.  Wave Like a Princess."

Every so often, I stumble across a little watched gem, and I just fall in love.  That was the case this last spring for me with Enlisted.  I started watching because of a couple of members in the cast, but I kept watching because I loved it.  Fox aired it on Friday nights, and the resulting ratings were poor, as expected.  But the laughs were rich.

The show focuses on the Rear D (that’s Rear Detachment) at Fort McGee, Florida.  These are the army soldiers who might not make it in the field (at least that’s the case in this show), but they are given jobs to help keep the base running smoothly.  Unfortunately, they are extremely undisciplined.

The show starts when Sergeant Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) is put in charge of one of these regiments.  He’s just returned from a stint in Afghanistan after almost being killed.  Honestly, he doesn’t think he deserves this post.  He’s just too good.  Adding to his problems is that he is now over both of his brothers.  Middle brother Derrick (Chris Lowell) is just lazy and doesn’t take anything seriously.  Meanwhile, youngest brother Randy (Parker Young) tries hard, but he’s just not that good at stuff.  And these are the best people in Pete’s new regiment.  Even worse, their rival regiment, led by the beautiful Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral) always beats them at any competition.  Overseeing both groups is Donald Coby (Keith David), a family friend who has taken all of the Hill brothers under his wings.

So what happens over the course of these thirteen episodes?  Pete has to break up with the girlfriend he had before he left for Afghanistan.  A break war between Pete and Jill’s platoons gets out of hand.  Meanwhile, Pete tries to whip his soldiers into shape when an Inspection is coming.  Derrick finds himself falling for the bartender at the gang’s favorite watering hole, which leads to several episode sub-plots.

I haven’t gotten into the single comedy craze.  Most of the times, I feel the shows try too hard for laughs.  However, I found myself laughing at this one just after the pilot had started, and I kept right on laughing as the series unfolded.  Yes, one or two episodes weren’t as good, but the writing and characters were so sharp you couldn’t help but laugh.

But the show wasn’t just laughs.  They still managed to provide tender moments along the way that added depth to the characters.  Honestly, that just made the jokes stronger.  At times, the comedy could be pretty broad and silly, but these tender moments kept the laughs grounded.  And no, the more serious moments were never forced.  The writers managed to balance those tones perfectly.

While this is a single camera comedy, this isn’t one that has the characters talking to the camera.  The fourth wall is never once broken.  Frankly, I’m glad because this is something else that bugs me in most shows that try it since it rarely works well.

The acting is uniformly great.  The plots call for some pretty crazy things at times, but everyone pulls it off and makes the absurd seem plausible and believable.  Even more importantly, the acting makes the tender moments work.  The best writing in the world can fall apart with bad acting, but that’s not the case here at all.

One thing I heard leveled at the show from the pilot is how many mistakes they made with military life.  Personally, I don’t know anything about military life, so I never found them.  Still, I know some people were turned off by this.

What did bug me is something I think has more to do with Fox than anything else.  In the multiple episode sub-plot I mentioned earlier with Derrick and his girlfriend, the story seemed to jump around in their relationship.  I have a feeling the episodes were aired out of order.  It’s a shame because that is pretty much the only thing that required an order to the episodes at all.  If it weren’t for that sub-plot, I never would have known.  Even so, it really did bug me.

Fox has released this as a MOD (Manufacture on Demand) set.  As a result, we get all 13 episodes of the comedy, but no extras at all.  Honestly, for a show that was canceled after so few episodes, I’ll take anything they want to give us.

Enlisted was wacky and fun.  It never took itself too seriously, which allowed us to sit back and laugh along with it.  Yet when it wanted to slow down and be tender, it worked just as well.  If you missed this gem of a comedy, watch it today.

1. Pilot
2. Randy Get Your Gun
3. Pete’s Airstream
4. Homecoming
5. Rear D Day
6. Brothers and Sister
7. Parade Duty
8. Vets
9. Paint Cart 5000 vs. the Mondo Spider
10. Prank War
11. The General Inspection
12. Army Men
13. Alive Day

Monday, December 15, 2014

TV Recap: Once Upon a Time 4-11 - Heroes and Villains

Just in case you were worried that Once Upon a Time had lost its magic, along comes last night’s episode.  That was the best episode of the season to date, and I loved it.  You’ll also notice how little it had to do with the Frozen crew.  This arc has had its moments, but I’m glad it’s coming to a conclusion.

The flashback was used to introduce us to our new villains, the Queens of Darkness.  It also focused on Rumpelstiltskin and Belle.  Rumpel has been out hunting for another magical element.  This time, it’s a glove taken from Camelot that will point to what someone loves the most.  Rumpel intends to use it to manipulate his enemies.  However, when Belle is out hanging the laundry, she spies a cute Dalmatian puppy and starts to follow it only to be kidnapped.  Rumpel gets the ransom demand in a shell dropped by a crow.  Can you see where this is going?

Book Review: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly (Mickey Haller #4)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Entertaining and fast moving murder case with strong characters
Cons: A few of the courtroom scenes are slow and repetitive
The Bottom Line:
Bankruptcy, murder
Lead Mickey to tangled web
Great ride for reader

Banking on the Fifth Witness

I took a couple of month detour in my audio book listening, but over Thanksgiving, I decided it was time to return to Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller series.  The Fifth Witness was the next on the list, and I once again found myself caught up in a courtroom battle.

With the down turn in the economy, Mickey Haller has had to change the focus of his practice.  There just aren’t enough murder cases to pay the bills.  But with the increase in foreclosures, Mickey has found a steady income fighting to keep people from losing their homes, or at least slowing down the process.

His first foreclosure client was Lisa Trammel, a woman who has become so obsessed with the way her bank treated her she has started an organization to lead protests.  She’s become such a nuisance that the bank took out a restraining order against her.  So when the head of the loan department at that bank is murdered outside his car before work one morning, Lisa logically becomes the prime suspect, and Mickey switches back into criminal defense mode.  With a prosecutor who is not willing to share anything, Mickey must work hard to find a way to defend his client.  Can he get her off?  Could she really be innocent?

I must admit, I’m still conflicted about the mortgage crisis of a few years back.  I feel like there was lots of blame to go around, yet the banks and their “predatory” lending got the majority of the blame.  I was afraid that this would be a book that preached at us about the issue the entire time, but I was very wrong.  While obviously it was discussed over the course of the book, the murder case took front and center.

The murder happens very early in the book, so the twists and turns of the case started right away as well.  And there were plenty of twists and turns.  I was surprised by most of them and was left wondering if Mickey would prevail until the very end.  While I have come to enjoy the courtroom maneuvering, at times it can slow things down.  This was especially true at one point where it was just a rehash of stuff we already knew.  Still, the book never slowed down for very long at a time.

Mickey is surrounded by the normal compliment of employees and complicated family relationships.  I liked checking in with them again and see just what has been happening with all of them.  They continue to be strong characters.  The new batch introduced for this story were quite an interesting lot who I loved and loved to hate, sometimes at the same time.  And of course there’s Mickey himself.  He continues to fascinate me with his complex personality and the tugs of his profession and his ties to his ex-wife and daughter.

Speaking of Mickey, this book came out roughly the same time the first book about the character was turned into a movie.  That leads to my favorite line in the book, a joke that made me laugh out loud.

Overall, The Fifth Witness proves to be another entertaining legal mystery from the pen of Michael Connelly.  There is a reason his books are so popular, and if you haven’t read him, fix that today.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Decoration Review: Deck the House! - 2014 Hallmark Table Top Display

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun lights, lots of detail, good MP3 player
Cons: Price is a little high, but a decent value for what you get
The Bottom Line:
Festive light display
Timed with playing Christmas songs
Creative and fun

Deck Your House with This Fun Table Top Display

Two years ago, Hallmark released a Magic Cord ornament that is still my favorite in that line.  So when they announced plans for a table top display version of Deck The House!, I knew I had to resist.  And I did – until I pressed the button on it once.  Fortunately, I was able to win a version because I might have bought it.  It really is that much fun.

If you’ve seen the ornament of the same name, you’ll find this piece is actually the same thing.  And if you’ve missed it, the piece was inspired by the viral video a couple years back of a super decked out how where the lights lit up to the tune of Manheim Steamroller’s version of “Carol of the Bells.”  This piece features a blue house with a huge “Merry Christmas” sign on the roof.  There are strings of lights going down the roof and three of the sides of the ornament.  The windows have scenes painted in them.  There is a Santa and two snowmen out front on either side of the walk.  And the house must not be finished yet since someone was still putting lights up.  The ladder has fallen on the ground, and the person is dangling from the roof by some lights.

And let me tell you, this thing lights up.  All of the lights (obviously) light up.  There are lights in the windows, which can light up by themselves.  And Santa and the snowmen light up independently as well.  Oh, and the lights?  They blink red, green, white, and blue (a step up from the ornament, which just featured white lights).

Then there’s the sound.  Like the ornament, this piece features a fun rock version of “Carol of the Bells,” and the lights flash on and off, putting on a synchronized show.  But that’s not all.  This table top piece actually has four songs pre-programmed in.  The other three are “Deck the Halls,” “Joy to the World,” and “The Nutcracker.”  Each piece lasts about 30 seconds, and the lights are perfectly synced.  It’s a wonder to watch and pretty mesmerizing.

But that’s not all.  This will also play the music from any MP3 player.  There’s a short earphone cord out the back, and when you plug it in and start playing music, the lights will pulse on and off to the music.  It’s not nearly as synched as the pre-programmed songs are, but it is a lot of fun still.  And rather addicting to watch.  Trust me on this, okay?

Obviously, the piece needs power to operate.  It comes with a wall cord, or you can use 4 AA batteries (not included) to power it.  I haven’t used the batteries, but the power cord works great.

Let’s talk controls.  On the right hand side of the piece, there is a button and a knob.  You turn the knob to turn on the player and adjust the volume.  This thing actually has fairly decent sound volume.  I’ve been impressed by it, anyway.  The button is used to start the four pre-programmed songs, which rotate through in order.

Now, here’s where it gets a little quirky.  When the piece is plugged in to electricity, you can half a continuous light display, where the piece just flashes the various lights.  (This feature does not work on battery power.)  However, to do that, you need to have the knob for the sound turned off.  If you leave the MP3 player turned on, only the snowmen will light up, and they will stay lit.  Also, when you are using this as a music player, it has a hard time registering slow, quiet songs for the light display.  I think it goes off the base for the lights because any time I notice a slower song starting, that green snowman is just staring at me for the first 10 or so seconds.  It finally starts to fully light up as the song progresses.  However, any song that starts out quickly, the piece lights up right away.  Finally, both sides of the house have lights that don’t like up.  The reason?  Those are where the speakers in the piece are.

The piece sits on a base that is almost square.  It’s 5 inches by 6 inches.  It’s also almost 10 inches high.  It’s still small enough you can find several places to display it, but also large enough that you’ll be able to enjoy the detail and the lights.  The snow around the house on the base is also covered in glitter, which adds a nice touch.

I don’t tend to use a speaker system much, usually just using my computer to listen to music at home.  But that will definitely be changing around Christmas.  I love Deck The House! and I plan to find a place to enjoy it year after year.

Original Price: $79.95

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Completed Reading Challenge - Finishing the Series 2014

I did it.  One of my reading series for the year is finished.  (Okay, so I'm over my goals in all of them, but this one is one I can't add any more books to this year.)

So here's what I read for the 2014 Finishing the Series Challenge.

The Cheese Shop Mysteries by Avery Aames:
1. The Long Quiche Goodbye (read in 2010)
2. Lost and Fondue
3. Clobbered by Camembert
4. To Brie or Not to Brie
5. Days of Wine and Roquefort

The Key West Food Critic Mysteries by Lucy Burdette:
1. An Appetite for Murder
2. Death in Four Courses
3. Topped Chef
4. Murder with Ganache
5. Death with All the Trimmings

Miracolo Mysteries by Shelley Costa:
1. You Cannoli Die Once
2. Basil Instinct

Hat Shop Mysteries by Jenn McKinlay:
1. Cloche and Dagger
2. Death of a Mad Hatter

Chronicles of Egg by Geoff Rodkey:
1. Deadweather and Sunrise (read in 2013)
2. New Lands
3. Blue Sea Burning