Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant by Hy Conrad (Monk #19)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Monk and the gang in one last adventure
Cons: Plot a little weak, it looks like the end from the franchise.
The Bottom Line:
And here’s what happened
One last mystery to solve
As Monk franchise ends

Mr. Monk Takes a Final Bow

By my count, Monk is going crazy right now with Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant.  Why?  This is the third ending for the characters (TV series, Lee Goldberg’s final book, and now the real final book).  Plus, this is the nineteenth tie in novel to the TV show.  Heck, since I didn’t start watching the show until season 2, this makes 11 and a half years that I’ve been a fan.  For someone who loves evenness and order, all of these odd numbers are completely unacceptable.

And if you are scratching your head right now, then you’ve never meant Adrian Monk.  He was the main character of the TV show Monk, which aired on the USA Network from 2002 until 2009.  He is a brilliant detective who suffered from OCD and phobias too numerous to name (but he has a laminated list).  The resulting episodes contained a wonderfully addicting mix of comedy and mystery with great character development.  Along the way, a series of tie-in novels starring the characters were started, and this is the final book in that series.

Things are slow for Monk and Teeger, Consulting Detectives, and they have been for a few months.  Worse yet, Captain Stottlemeyer’s new lieutenant is doing his best to under pay them when they are needed to consult on a case.  However, when Monk and Natalie Teeger go to the funeral of a prominent judge, Monk immediately discovers he was murdered.  Worse yet, Captain Stottlemeyer comes down with the exact same symptoms.

Meanwhile, Natalie goes behind Monk’s back and takes on a divorce case for a woman she finds staring at their sign in the parking lot.  It appears to be a simple enough case; Natalie can knock it out on her own without Monk’s help.  Until Natalie gets a shock and suddenly needs Monk’s help.  Can they juggle this case while keeping Stottlemeyer alive?

I will say I felt the plot was a little weak in this one.  I had a pretty good handle on what was happening before the end.  However, that didn’t mean I enjoyed the book any less.  With Monk, the joy was always in the journey, not the final destination.  I read the book in one day because when I set the book down at one point, it started calling to me again and I just had to finish.  The pages always fly by, and this book was no exception.

Part of what makes this book so great are the characters that fans have come to know and love.  They are present here again, and it is easy to picture the actors delivering the lines as the events unfold.  Since Hy Conrad (one of the writers on the show) took over the novels, he’s been working on some character arcs.  Things ended where I thought they would, and I think fans who were disappointed with the final episode of the series will appreciate this ending so much more.

And, of course, there is the comedy.  Even though we know all of Monk’s quirks, I still found some things to laugh at as I was reading (usually as my roommate walked into the room, it seemed).  It might not be as fresh as it once was, but there were still some moments that caught me off guard that I really enjoyed.

But seriously, couldn’t they have put out one more book to give us 20 novels and reach 12 years for me as a fan?  Why didn’t they consult with me?  Of course, someone new might step forward and write more books, but for now it does appear this is the end of the franchise.

I really don’t recommend you jump in here if you are new to Monk.  Whether you start with the show or the earlier novels is up to you, but you will enjoy your time spent with him.  Longtime fans will find Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant bittersweet as we enjoy one more adventure with the characters we love while also saying goodbye.

Thank you, Mr. Monk.  It’s been a wonderful ride.

Need to back up?  Once you get started, you'll obsessive compulsively read the Monk novels in order.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ornament Review: Snip 'n' Clip Fun - Making Memories #7 - 2014 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament of a simple Christmas craft idea
Cons: I’ve lost what little skill I had in that department
The Bottom Line:
A snip here, clip there
Create a great ornament
Crafty memories

Snipping and Clipping the Way to More Happy Memories

Happy memories comes in all shapes and sizes.  There are the big ones, like fun vacations.  And there are the small ones like craft projects.  Hallmark’s Making Memories ornament series has been proving that with the fun memories that can be made with Christmas activities, and Snip 'n' Clip Fun is no exception.

No, this isn’t about clipping coupons.  Instead, our parent and child snowperson duo are creating paper decorations.  The child has just finished a paper snow flake and the adult has created a folded snowman chain.  They are sitting back to back (so we can see what they are creating) but look like they are about to turn around the share.  In a fun touch, the snow child is wearing a Santa hat instead of the more normal knit hat like the snow parent is wearing this year.  And in another first for the series, neither the dog nor the cat this family owns makes an appearance this year.  There is a stack of paper for more projects sitting between then, and there are scissors between the snow parent’s feet.

Now, I have a confession to make.  I did similar stuff when I was a kid, but it never looked that good.  I’m just not the crafty type.  And the little bit of skill I had as a kid fled after years of non-use.  Seriously, if I tried to make something like this now, it would be a complete and total disaster.

But that doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the ornament in the slightest.  The idea of a parent and child sitting down and creating stuff like that is heartwarming.    Heck, it almost makes me want to see if I can reacquire a little of the skill for myself again because it looks like they are having so much fun.  It perfectly fits with the theme of the series which is warm memories passed on from parent to child.

As always, the snowpeople are sitting on a flat snowflake base.  This means you can set it out or hang it on your tree, your choice.  It also gives us a great spot for the series marker, in this case a 7 in a Christmas tree.

When you slip a hook through the loop on the side of the adult’s hat, you’ll find that it tips forward ever so slightly.  It still looks great, even with this tip, and I’m sure you can position it on a tree to use that tip to full show it off.

So, while I couldn’t sit down and create the art depicted in Snip 'n' Clip Fun, it still makes me smile.  Parents and kids will love thinking about the fun they’ve had with simple scissors and paper as they hang this ornament on their tree.

Original Price: $14.95

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Short Story Review: Early Retirement by Sue Ann Jaffarian

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun short story with great plot and characters
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Delightful short piece
With satisfying story
That’s plenty of fun

Short Story with None of the Fun Retired

I don’t usually go out seeking short stories.  It’s not that I don’t like them, but my TBR pile is large enough as it is.  Still, every so often it’s fun to pick up something you can easily finish in one sitting.  So when Sue Ann Jaffarian offered me a copy of her short story “Early Retirement,” I couldn’t resist.

It’s just another Monday for Edna Brewer, the office manager in her brother’s criminal law practice.  As usual, she’s the first one there, but soon her life with change since she plans to retire in the next couple of months.  She’s really looking forward to the freedom that will bring her. 

Then the police show up asking questions about a dead body found at LAX.  What does it mean?  And what might it do to her retirement plans?

This is a fun story that moves along nicely.  Since it is a short story, it only has a handful of real scenes, but all of them are essential to understanding what is happening, just as it should be.  There is no padding at all, and I was extremely satisfied with the ending when I was done.

Likewise, there are just a handful of characters.  Edna is the only one we truly get to know, but all of them are memorable and distinct in the short time we see them on the page.

I read the story in roughly half an hour (I wasn’t really timing myself).  The time was well spent since I enjoyed every page of it.

Short stories are a great way to try new authors, so if you have yet to pick up one of Sue Ann’s wonderful books, give “Early Retirement” a chance.  You’ll soon be seeking out her novels to devour as well.

NOTE: I was sent a copy of this story.  My opinion is my own.

Monday, January 26, 2015

What's On My Nightstand - January 2015

Welcome to the final Tuesday of January and the first What's On Your Nightstand for 2015.

Thanks to a day spent pretty much reading on Saturday, I'm trying desperately to catch up on book reviews this week.  But let's look ahead to what I am currently reading instead of what I have just finished reading.

I'm about a quarter of the way through an ARC of License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes, the second in her Pickled and Preserved mysteries series.  This one involves a visiting soccer team with a murdered manager.  So far, it's been fun.

After that will be another ARC, this one a middle grade fantasy novel entitled A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans.  I snagged this one via Amazon's Vine program.  It looks fun, and I'm definitely looking forward to it.

After that will be two of the books I got for Christmas - A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die by Edith Maxwell and Hearse and Buggy by Laura Bradford.

And then?  Probably some of the books that came out in January I just ordered.  Or books that come out in February I want to read.  We'll just have to see what is calling loudest at that point.

Book Review: Geared for the Grave by Duffy Brown (Cycle Path Mysteries #1)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Characters (once developed), plot (overall), humor
Cons: Characters (when introduced), plot (too fast at times)
The Bottom Line:
Story paced too fast
Whole thing needed to settle
To make book better

Needed Some Lower Speeds

Over the last year, I started hearing lots of praise for author Duffy Brown, but her consignment shop series just didn’t appeal to me.  When I learned she was starting a Cycle Path Mystery series, I knew I’d found a series to try.  Unfortunately, Geared for the Grave wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be.

Evie Bloomfield is desperate for a promotion, so desperate she will do anything to win favor with her boss.  That’s why she heads to Mackinac Island to help Rudy Randolph, her boss’s father, who has broken his leg.  Rudy runs one of the bike shops on the island, and there are several since cars aren’t allowed.

However, when Evie arrives, she walks in on an argument between Rudy and Bunny Harrington, a wealthy citizen of the island who wants to shut Rudy’s shop down.  Then an hour later, she finds Bunny dead from an apparent bike accident.  When it is ruled murder, Rudy becomes the chief suspect.  Suddenly, Evie needs to clear him of murder to keep her job.  But can she do it?

Now I know I often talk about the pacing of a plot being slow.  I’m going to say the opposite here – the story was way too fast.  The first chapter ends with Evie finding Bunny’s body.  That’s on page 10.  And we’ve already met five characters and witnessed the fight with Rudy.  I’ve read books that started with a murder that quickly, but this one was just too rushed.  Honestly, it felt like a later book in a series where we were supposed to already know who some of the regulars were, but that wasn’t the case, and I was left running, trying to catch up to the bicycle that was the author’s story.  Once I did get into the rhythm, I enjoyed it.  The pace never really slowed.  I wouldn’t say that anything was rushed, but some of the conclusions to the sub-plots (and there are several) seemed abrupt.  One in particular that was introduced late seemed like it should have lasted at least an entire book, and preferably the second or third in the series.

I’m all for eccentric characters.  I love them.  But this book had some pretty wild ones – at least at first.  They seemed more real as the book went along, but when we first met them, they were wild caricatures instead of real people.

Normally, I’m not annoyed by characters who do stupid things, but Evie seemed more stupid than normal.  And everyone wanted to help her do stupid things to solve the case.  Meanwhile, a few of the plot points I saw coming a mile away.  I didn’t guess the killer until the end, however, so that much was great.

Now, this book wasn’t entirely bad.  As I said, once I found the rhythm and got to know the characters better, I did enjoy much of the story.  There was some nice humor along the way that made me smile if not outright laugh.  One of my favorites was a recurring bit where the town’s people, in an effort to keep the murder quiet from the tourists, constantly referred to it as the Bunny Festival.  That never got old.

While there were some flaws, there was also stuff to enjoy with Geared for the Grave.  I’m not sorry I stuck with it, but I probably won’t be back to visit Evie in the sequel.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Amazing singing, good second half
Cons: Very awkward and nerdy in the beginning; projectile vomiting
The Bottom Line:
A Cappella groups
In singing competitions
Better near the end

A Little Too Pitchy to be Perfect

Somehow, I missed what Pitch Perfect was even about until a friend learned I loved a Capella music and told me about it.  Ever since then, it’s been on my to be watched list, which means I had to set my DVR when I saw it on TV.  I think I paid about the right price.  It grew on me, but it wasn’t as great as I had hoped.

Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a freshman at Barden University, but against her will.  She wants to go to LA to start a career in music, but her father is insisting she have at least one year in school first.  And she has to join some kind of group or club and attempt to make friends.

That choice is helped along when she is overheard singing in the shower and is asked to join the Bellas, the school’s all-women a Capella group.  Last year, they made it to the national finals, something women’s groups have a hard time doing.  They are hoping to actually win this year, which means beating the all-male group at Barden, the Treblemakers.  However, Beca is quickly clashing with the Bellas’s leader, Aubrey (Anna Camp) over just about everything.  Will it work out?  Can the Bellas rise above the past and win?

The plot is perfectly fine.  It’s a fairly predictable story, but that never bothers me as long as I’m having fun along the way.  And I did have some fun – once things settle down in the second half.

I actually had several issues with the film.  The first?  Projectile vomiting.  Twice.  Enough said there, right?  Moving on, the characters are just plain weird.  I don’t know that there was a normal one in the bunch.  Now, I don’t mind oddball characters as a rule, but this movie seemed to be almost mocking them, especially in the beginning.  Considering I hate what I have termed awkward humor, situations where we are supposed to laugh at someone making a fool of themselves, I really had a problem with that in the beginning.  I realized as I was watching the film that this is part of my problem with Rebel Wilson, who appears here as Fat Amy, another of the new Bellas.  We are supposed to laugh at her being stupid, and I just don’t find it amusing.

However, as the film went on, all that began to change.  Some of the characters showed some depth.  They all stopped being completely clueless idiots.  And as they became friends, I got behind the movie and started rooting for them to get the well-deserved happy ending.  Well, most of them.  There were still a couple of jerks in the cast, but we weren’t supposed to warm up to them.

One thing that never changed for me was my opinion of the commentators.  Played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, they provided some color commentary for the viewers at home (I guess the contests were televised?  I never got that).  However, these comments were filled with pointless sexual innuendo and sexism.  They added nothing to the film and actually took away from my enjoyment.

However, I did enjoy the music.  Wow was it fabulous.  I’m seriously thinking about getting the sound track.  Any time the groups are singing, and there is plenty of singing, the movie is wonderful.

And the acting is great as well.  Everyone brought their characters to life perfectly.  Yes, as much as I don’t like the characters she plays, Rebel Wilson did a good job with Fat Amy.  I also really enjoy Skylar Astin as Beca’s potential love interest Jesse.

So I’m left feeling ambivalent about the film.  Pitch Perfect definitely had some moments I enjoyed, but there was also plenty that made me cringe along the way.  Even though I loved the music, I probably won’t rush out to watch it again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January 24th's Weekly TV Thoughts

You will notice one show not on my list below.  That's right, I finally took Gotham off my DVR.  And there is much rejoicing since I've done little besides complain about it, right?

Here's what I did watch this week.

The Librarians – I was very impressed with that final episode.  I think they referenced every episode of the season, and it all played a part in the outcome.  That’s impressive writing, especially for a show I thought was more about fun than mythology.  I under estimated it.

Galavant – On the other hand, these episodes seemed a little slow.  Either the joke is already wearing thin or they had to move people around for plot purposes and there wasn’t as much room for humor.  There were some fun moments, but not as many.

Castle – They acknowledged that a PI’s life isn’t super exciting before giving Castle his first real client and a very exciting case.  But who would watch a show about a real PI?  Plenty of fun as we worked toward a great solution.  Here’s my full recap if you want to read more.

The Flash – I was never a fan of Prison Break, so the two stars of that show’s reunion as the villains here was a side point to me.  That’s okay because there was so much great stuff here, like the interactions between Barry and Iris’s’ boyfriend.  And, of course, that last scene with him moving back in was great.  Yep, even loved the colors on his old backpack.

Arrow – Even though I knew what the final scene would have to be (remember the name of the show), this episode really packed a punch.  Yes, I was tearing up.  This show deals with the aftermath of death so well, much better than other shows seem to do.  I have a feeling when everyone sees Oliver again it will be just as emotional for me.

Melissa & Joey – I’m still on team Zander.  His scenes were just so funny tonight.  Plus I just like him better with Lennox.  The real question is where is Ryder.  He hasn’t gotten much to do in like half a season.

Baby Daddy – You know, I think I might be falling on Danny’s side in this love triangle.  He seems like a better match for Riley.  Anyway, the scene with him hiding out was so hysterical tonight as more and more people started to hide.  Another very funny episode.  So glad I started watching this one.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Tackles a hard story with the right tone; wonderful lead character; much to think about
Cons: Some of the directorial choices; for some the tone
The Bottom Line:
Fighting for her life
Katniss gives us stuff to think
About when finished

I Finally Take the Plunge into the World of The Hunger Games

It’s been hard for the last few years to not hear about The Hunger Games.  Even before the movies started coming out, everyone who read talked about the books.  While I have been holding out on reading them or watching the movies, I knew at some point I’d see what all the buzz is about.  The first movie being on ABC Family last weekend was just the push I needed to plunge into this world.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a typical teenager – at least in her world.  She is part of district 12, one of the outlying regions in Panem.  While the wealth is located in the capital, the rest of the country struggles to survive.  And every year, two teens, a boy and a girl, are randomly chosen from each district to compete in a brutal contest to the death until only one of them remains.

As the movie opens, it is once again time for the lottery.  When her sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  Taken to the capital along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy she’s known all her life, she must suddenly figure how to compete for her very life.  That includes being nice and getting sponsors who might help her during the games, something she is not very good at.  But even with help, will Katniss be able to overcome the odds and survive the Hunger Games themselves?

Since I haven’t read the books, I am coming to the movie with no preconceived ideas of how the story should be told, so you won’t find any complaints about changes from the book here.  However, I did find the story a little hard to get into.  Part of it, I’m sure, is the fact that character development is one thing always cut when a book is made into a movie.  (Okay, fine, a book to movie comparison.)  Plus, I knew how the story would have to end, at least partially, so I didn’t allow myself to get too emotionally invested in the majority of the characters.  Still, I did find the killing in the movie hard to watch, which I’m sure was the point.  Unlike slasher movies (which I do enjoy upon occasion), this movie rightly makes the killing something horrible to be reviled even though each death means Katniss is closer to winning.  The violence wasn’t graphic (at least on TV), but it was still rightfully hard to watch.

Honestly, this dichotomy has been one reason I’ve been hesitant to read the books.  I knew I’d struggle with all the death, again weird since I do read murder mysteries most of the time.  The story definitely treats the entire thing as something truly evil, as it should be, with those who celebrate the games being monsters, again as it should be.  The result is something deeper to think about when you are done with the movie.

I am thrilled to see what a great character Katniss is.  She is a selfless young woman who sacrifices for her sister.  When the games begin, she actually goes out of her way to avoid killing, only killing in self-defense and even doing her best to protect one of the youngest competitors for a time.  Mind you, she has the skills to take out the others if she has to, but she doesn’t do it unless absolutely forced to do so.  It is easy to get behind her as a result, and I was glad to see such a wonderful role model in the story.

The cast does a great job with their various roles.  Again, I came to this with no preconceived ideas of how anyone should look or act, but I thought the actors were great at bringing their characters to life.  I especially enjoyed Woody Harrelson as the only winner from District 12 who then mentors Katniss and Peeta before the games begin.  Jennifer Lawrence carries much of the movie, and she is wonderful as Katniss.

The director chose to go with the shaky camera work for the film, a technique I hate.  Fortunately, on the small screen, it didn’t bother me too much, although all the quick cuts at times made it hard to tell exactly what was happening.  That’s my biggest complaint about the film.  I also thought a few of the cut aways to other locations slowed down the story.

I think my reaction to the film fits how I thought I would feel about the franchise.  Still, I am curious how the series progresses, so I will be on the lookout for the sequel to The Hunger Games so I can watch it soon.

Book Beginning and Friday 56 for January 23rd

I was going to have this post up early and go to bed early.  No really.  You can all stop laughing now.

But here's my Book Beginning and Friday 56 for the week, which features Geared for the Grave by Duffy Brown.

And it begins with:

While cowering in the back of a ferryboat, head over railing and losing my lunch in Lake Huron, it occurred to me that no matter how old I am, I want to impress my parents.

And from page 56:

I yanked out Sheldon, who really did know it all - that's why I named my iPhone Sheldon - and Googled Speed Maslow jerk.  Okay, I left off the jerk part, but I was thinking it.

I'm hoping to finish up this book today so I can have the review up next week.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: Ghost in the Guacamole by Sue Ann Jaffarian (Ghost of Granny Apples #5)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Amazing story and plot that pull you in
Cons: Not a ghost of a con
The Bottom Line:
Sibling rivalry
With family legacy stakes
Page turning novel

Will the Family Legacy Become a Ghost?

It’s no secret that Sue Ann Jaffarian has become one of my favorite authors over the last few years.  Her characters are fun and her stories are page turners.  I’ve even made an exception to my no paranormal rule for her Ghost of Granny Apples series.  I’m glad I did because in Ghost in the Guacamole, she has topped herself.

If you are new to the series, it revolves around Emma Whitecastle, a middle aged divorcee who discovers she has the gift of communicating with ghosts when she meets Granny, her great-great-great grandmother.  That leads her to a series of mysterious and dangerous cases where secrets and ghosts from the past effect the present.  While some character development will be spoiled, you can still pick up this book and enjoy without needing to know more background than this.

Emma doesn’t quite know what to expect when she shows up at Restaurante Roble on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.  An acquaintance from her yoga class has asked her to meet there, and Emma assumes it is about ghosts since that’s what Emma is known for.  So she and Granny go to find out how they can help.

When Emma meets with Rikki Ricardo, she learns the young woman is trying to hang on to the family’s restaurant and Mexican food business.  Her older sister Lucy is determined to sell, and Rikki wants help contacting the ghost of her father, Felix, to get advice on how to convince Lucy to change her mind.  Only when Felix’s ghost makes an appearance, he insists that Rikki needs to consent to the sale or wind up like him.  Is Rikki’s life in danger?  Was Felix murdered?  With many of the employees acting strangely, who can be trusted?

The plot of this book is strong.  You can feel the tension between the two sisters as if you were in the room with them.  There are so many strange things happening that it’s impossible to guess where things are going before Emma figures them out, yet the outcome is completely logical.  Along the way, there are enough twists to keep you turning pages as quickly as possible.

A plot this strong requires great characters, and the book doesn’t disappoint here, either.  There are really only five returning characters in this book, but they all show some growth.  I especially enjoyed getting to know Emma’s parents a bit more.  The rest of the cast is made up of characters related to this case, but they are fully formed, completely believable, and complex enough to make us care about the outcome of the story.

In addition to being a great investigative aid, Granny also provides wonderful comic relief.  She’s a hundred year old ghost with an interest in current TV shows and movies, especially detective shows.  This provides many chuckles and laughs along the way.

All this added up to a book I could not put down, almost literally.  I read the second half in a day.  While I was good putting it down at the end of my lunch hour, I gave up on self-control and finished it instead of getting to an ultimate Frisbee game on time.  (And I love ultimate Frisbee, so that’s saying something.)  The humor and more serious scenes meshed well to give us a complex book with more meat to it than some of the books I read, and I loved it as a result.

As a huge I Love Lucy fan, I did get a kick out of the sister’s names.  I also enjoyed a brief cameo by Ellie Rush, the main character in Naomi Hirahara’s wonderful Murder on Bamboo Lane.

It’s consistently great storytelling that has hooked me on Sue Ann Jaffarian, and her talents are on full display here.  If you want to be pulled into a wonderful book, pick up Ghost in the Guacamole.

NOTE: I was given a copy of this book.  My opinion is still my own.

Once you get hooked with this book, you'll want to go back and enjoy the earlier adventures of the Ghost of Granny Apples in order.