Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ornament Review: The Nativity #1 - The Holy Family - 1998 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Captures Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in a great statue pose
Cons: Some details lost due to size.
The Bottom Line:
Classic artist pose
Of Mary, Joseph, Jesus
Starts mini series

The Holy Family Kicks Off This Miniature Series

I’ve become something approaching obsessed with Hallmark’s miniature ornaments this year.  (I know, me obsessed over something is shocking.)  Naturally, being the series person that I am, I started off looking at the old mini series.  That’s how I found The Nativity, which kicked off in 1998 with the Holy Family.

As you’d expect, this ornament features Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.  Mary and Joseph are looking down at Jesus, who is in the manger.

These ornaments are made out of pewter.  This surprised me because it’s not something that Hallmark uses on a regular basis, especially in the last few years.  This gives the ornament a bit more of a sculpted look.  While the ornament is all one color, you can still see the folds of the garments, the straw in the manager, and the faces on Mary and Joseph.  Between the pose and the material, I could almost picture this as a statue is a museum somewhere.

Of course, this does play into my old prejudice against the miniature ornaments.  In a museum, a piece like this would be larger than life, so you could see the details on the people.  With it being a miniature ornament, some of those details get lost.  Still, I do like this one overall.

This figure has a flat base, so you can set it out to create a Nativity display somewhere if you want.  You’ll find the 1 in a Christmas tree craved into the bottom as well since this is the first in a series.

If you do want to hang it, you’ll find the loop in Joseph’s head.  Slip a hook through there, you’ll find that it tips slightly toward Mary, which isn’t too surprising since the loop is off to one side.  Since this ornament is pewter, you’ll definitely find that it is heavier than you’d expect, but being a miniature ornament, it’s still not too heavy to hang on your tree.

Overall, this is a good start to the Nativity miniature series.  More details would have been nice, but the effect is still enjoyable on its own.

Original Price: $9.95

September 24th's Weekly TV Thoughts

And the new TV season is officially off and running!

Remember how I wasn't going to start any new shows this fall?  Yeah, I fell for that line in the spring as well.  I tried three new shows this week, and I'm thinking two of them are going to stick.  One more is probably going to be cut, although I might give it one more week.  We'll see how I'm feeling next time it's on.

And here's what I watched.

Big Bang Theory – Normally, I’m not a fan of this show’s season premiers.  They just don’t feel as good to me as the rest of the season.  I loved this one, probably because at the end we got the wedding we should have had a year ago.  Penny’s family didn’t do much for me, but the continuation of the conflict from last season was pretty funny.

Dancing with the Stars – TV theme night came early.  And I’m once again reminded how few theme songs I really know.  I did have fun with the ones I recognized, of course, and now I really want someone to do “Darkwing Duck.”  I’m with the judges that the stars stayed pretty much the same week to week.  Most of them are good and have potential, but there are a couple of shining stars.  I really did expect Rick Perry to go home first.  Sorry to see Jake go, although he was near the bottom as well.  Probably would have happened soon if not this week.

Lethal Weapon – I really enjoyed this show.  No, it’s not the movie franchise, but I feel like we’ve got some character depth already, I liked the chemistry between the leads, and the comedy was fun, offsetting the darker aspects.  The mystery was just an excuse to introduce the characters, but I don’t have any real complaints.

Survivor – Who here called the Millennials not building a shelter even after Jeff’s warning?  Yep, that predictable.  I hope Dave calms down on Gen X, or I will be rooting for him to go since he’s getting on my nerves already.  Although I did like him at tribal.  I will definitely be interested to see how this season develops.

Designated Survivor – And I’m hooked on another new show.  This was a very compelling first episode that did a great job of introducing the characters and the story without tons of exposition.  The teenage son is the weak link, but hopefully they fix that soon.  I could see it spinning out of control, but I’m hoping they keep this up all season long.

MacGyver – That wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it would be.  The way they show exactly what he’s getting rather weakens things.  Plus the twists with the girl were rather poor.  I might give it another chance next week, but probably not.  It will depend on how I’m feeling next Friday.

Girl Meets World – Not one of their better episodes, but it had a few laughs like the last scene.  The message about not being able to control the world around you was good, although boy would I like to control the world around me like all the time.  Maybe I need this more than I realize.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: Murder at Redwood Cove by Janet Filsilver (Kelly Jackson Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great main characters; intriguing puzzle
Cons: Writing needs a tad more polish in places.
The Bottom Line:
Very good debut
In a setting that I loved
With fun characters

Kelly Fills in for a Dead Man

While I love living in Southern California, the one thing I miss from my growing up years in Northern California is redwood forests.  Naturally, that meant when I spotted a book called Murder at Redwood Cove, I knew I had to read it.  It was a wonderful trip to a hidden part of California.

Kelly Jackson is out on her first solo assignment for Resorts International, a company that owns a number of bed and breakfasts.  She’s flying into Mendocino County in northern California to take on the day to day running of Redwood Cove until a replacement manager can be found for Bob Phillips.  Bob’s been running the location for years until a tragic accident left him dead at the bottom of one of the nearby seaside cliffs.

However, not long after Kelly lands, she begins to question whether Bob’s death was an accident.  Then she meets the Silver Sentinels, a group of retired people who have formed a community watch of sorts for the local community.  Bob worked with them occasionally, and he was working on something they didn’t know about.  The more Kelly pokes around, the more certain she is that Bob was murdered.  But can she prove it before something else happens?

Since this is a murder mystery, we as readers know that Bob was killed right away.  However, the book doesn’t really spend much time debating that fact.  Kelly is certain that something strange is going on pretty much from the beginning, and the Silver Sentinels back her up in that belief.  Of course, there’s proving it to the authorities and figuring out exactly what is going on, both of which drive the plot.  The book is filled with events and Kelly’s efforts to use them to narrow down her suspect list.  The climax was a tad rushed, but everything was tied up at the end.

I absolutely loved the characters.  They were rich and sharp right from the start, and I came to truly care for several of them before the book was over.  I can’t wait to spend more time with them.  There’s quite a range of characters, too, from the kids of the employees at the bed and breakfast to the Silver Sentinels, but the author pulled them all off perfectly.  Ironically, I did feel the suspect characters were a tad thin, but that’s a minor issue.

My bigger issue was with the writing.  This is a debut novel, and it was a bit rough near the beginning.  I’m talking about things like a couple missing scene transitions and thing like that.  The entire book was still very readable, and the writing smoothed out as the book progressed, I’m certainly going to read the next one.

And I loved the setting.  While Redwood Cove is fictional, I had no trouble picturing it and the coastline where the small town and the bed and breakfast would be located.  In fact, it made me long for some time up in that area.

Because this is set at a bed and breakfast, we get lots of delicious sounding descriptions of food.  Trust me, there is something here to make everyone’s mouth water.  Unlike many culinary cozies, we don’t get any recipes at the end of the book, but this is worth noting only in passing.

I’m definitely planning a return visit to Redwood Cove.  There may be a few flaws in Murder at Redwood Cove, but any cozy fan will still enjoy this debut.

September 23rd's Book Beginning and Friday 56

It's Friday again!  And that means it is time for Book Beginning and Friday 56.

My book this week is Artifact by Gigi Pandian.

I finished this book up on Wednesday, and I loved it!  Look for my review on Thursday of next week.  But for today, how about a couple of teasers.

Here's how the book begins:

The door of the house swung open before I had a chance to knock.

And how's this for a quote from page 56:

"Can I help?" he asked a few moments later, his mouth only a few inches from my ear.

This book adds a treasure hunting aspect to the cozy mystery I normally love, and that added bit was a fantastic element that really made the book stand out.  But that's for my review.

For now, I will wish you a happy weekend.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ornament Review: Skylar A. Woolscarf Miniature - 2016 Hallmark Limited Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun ornament just as fun shrunk
Cons: What’s up with that umbrella?
The Bottom Line:
Snowtop Lodge start is
Redone as a mini piece
Differences are fun

Skylar Shrinks to New Effect

While Hallmark has placed a renewed emphasis on miniature ornaments for 2016, they have gone to many of their popular series for inspiration.  A perfect example of that is Skylar A. Woolscarf.  The original ornament was released in 2005 as a full sized ornament and the first in the Snowtop Lodge series.  But in 2016, they released a miniature size version of him as a limited edition ornament.

While this year’s Skylar is not a perfect representative of the original, he’s certainly close enough that you’ll recognize him.  As with the original, he’s made of porcelain, but this time, he’s completely porcelain, including his scarf and vest.  His pocket watch is there, but it’s attached to the ornament instead of swinging free like on the original.  His scarf is shorter, which allows us to see a star button.  And the cityscape painted on the original is much more a water color impressionism piece here – instead of showing actual buildings, you can see colors that vaguely resemble buildings and trees.

And yet, it works.  It really does help to have an idea of what the original looks like, but I love the watercolor effect on this ornament.  While the original is fun, this one works well, too.

About the only thing that doesn’t work is the umbrella.  It looks nothing like an umbrella.  In fact, it looks like a triangle attached to his side.  I know this is a small ornament, but with everything else working, I find the finished effort here odd.

While this may be a small ornament, Skylar is still a snowman, so you can easily set him out as part of a display on his flat base.  He’s look good in a village scene, for example.

But if you want to hang him, you’ll find the hook on the top of his top hat.  He hangs straight, which isn’t really a surprise given his size and the location of the hook.

I have no clue if this is now going to be an unofficial mini series from Hallmark, but even if Skylar A. Woolscarf is the only Snowtop Lodge mini they do, I’m still glad I got him.  He’s a cute and fun take on the original.

Original Price: $9.95

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review: To Helvetica and Back by Paige Shelton (Dangerous Type Mysteries #1)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful characters
Cons: Characters overshadow mystery
The Bottom Line:
A strangers with a
Typewriter obsession drives
Average debut

Who Killed the Stranger?

Among the authors I’ve been meaning to try is Paige Shelton.  And, as I like to do, I decided that a new series was the perfect place to try her books, which is why I picked up To Helvetica and Back.  Sadly, the book wasn’t the ringing endorsement of this author I was expecting.

After years following her grandfather, Chester, around his shop, The Rescued Word, Clare Henry fell into joining him.  Together, the duo repair old typewriters and old books as well as sell pens and stationary.  Because of the diversified nature of their business, they manage to do well as the times change, and they’ve carved out a place in the touristy town of Star City, Utah.

One of their most loyal customers is Mirabelle, who happens to be Chester’s friend.  She’s just brought in her old typewriter to be repaired, but she’s quickly followed by a stranger who demands to buy that typewriter.  Not a similar one, but Mirabelle’s exact typewriter.    He only leaves when Clare calls the police.  The next morning, Clare and Chester find the stranger dead behind their shop.  Why did he want the typewriter?  Did that lead to his murder?

The characters in this book are wonderful.  Clare has lived in Star City all her life, and she has some good friends in the area.  Those relationships make the book much richer.  Additionally, the book doesn’t fall into the character cliches of many of the series I read, which was refreshing.  These are already real people, and I loved spending time with them.  We get several sub-plots related to the characters, which really helps us get to know them.

Unfortunately, those sub-plots overwhelm the main mystery.  Don’t get me wrong, there is always something going on, and I was gleefully turning the pages to find out what would happen next.  However, as I neared the end, I realized that the main mystery had suffered under all the stuff with the characters.  This was confirmed as we reached the climax, which was very very rushed.

If this were a later book in the series, I probably wouldn’t mind the weak mystery since I would love spending time with the characters.  However, as an introduction to the author, I found To Helvetica and Back weak.  It was still an enjoyable read, but I wish the mystery had been stronger.

NOTE: I was sent a copy of this book in hopes I would review it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

TV on DVD Review: Scream Queens - Season 1

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Emma Roberts, Jamie Lee Curtis, fun mix of black comedy and slasher
Cons: Raunchy sex jokes went too far for me.
The Bottom Line:
Black comedy show
Red devil, sorority
Results a mixed bag

“We Can Make it Fun.  Like a Friends Episode, but Somebody’s Trying to Murder All the Friends.”

It seems there were two reactions to last season’s show Scream Queens – people either loved it or hated it.  Of course, there were exceptions to that rule, and I was one of them.  One minute, I’d be fully on board and enjoying the show, and the next I’d be turned off by what I was seeing in season one.

The show is black comedy/spoof of the slasher genre.  The season is set at the Kappa sorority at Wallace University.  20 years ago, a young girl died there after giving birth during a party.  The baby was spirited away, and no one knows what happened to it.

Of course, this makes the perfect motive for a masked killer.  This time, the killer dresses up as a red devil and goes after the member of the sorority and a related fraternity and anyone else who gets in the way.  In the present day, the sorority is ruled by Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) and her henchwomen, Chanel’s 1-5.  Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) hates the Greek system, but the Kappas in particular, so she dictates that they must accept all pledges this year, which is why they have to accept such people as Zayday (Keke Palmer), Hester (Lea Michele), and Grace (Skyler Samuels).  But as the carnage continues, will anyone survive?  Who is the killer?  And will all this murder upset Chanel too much?

Before the show even premiered, we were promised that, being a slasher series, there would be at least one death in each episode.  And they were very consistent with that over the course of the 13 episodes.  Naturally, some episodes included more than one death, but each episode had at least one.  However, there were times that the episode’s death was a guest star or even a walk on.  That lessened the impact and felt like a cheat in some ways.

As I said, the show was a black comedy.  At times, it was also social satire.  Some of Chanel’s lines and actions are hysterical.  Everybody gets their laughs, but I found her to be the funniest.  Dean Munch was a pretty close second.  Ironically, I didn’t find Niecy Nash, who played a security guard, as funny as the rest.

This show is the brain child of Ryan Murphy, the man behind Glee and American Horror Story.  I haven’t watched either of those shows, but I knew enough to know that there would be plenty of sex jokes.  Honestly, those were the moments that really made me uncomfortable.  I’m surprised they got the jokes by the standards boards.  They were crude and unfunny.

How did the show do as a slasher?  Being a TV show, they didn’t have time for the elaborate stalk scenes each week, but they got a few good ones in over the course of the season.  As I said, often the death of the episode was pretty inconsequential, but they had some clever kills before the season was over.

Which brings us to the mystery aspect.  I was completely shocked when we got to the end and found out who was behind everything.  The twists in this part were enough to keep me coming back week after week.

Based on the characters I loved, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I thought Emma Roberts and Jamie Lee Curtis were great in the show.  Honestly, I looked forward to their scenes each week because they sparkled.  Not that the rest of the cast was bad, but these two stood out.  Considering how the cast had to switch from horror to comedy and back, I thought they were all fine, in fact.

However, the content is enough to keep me from coming back to watch more of Scream Queens.  I enjoyed parts of season one of the show, but the parts that made me squirm are enough to keep me from finding out what happens to the survivors next.

Season 1 Episodes:
1. Pilot
2. Hell Week
3. Chainsaw
4. Haunted House
5. Pumpkin Patch
6. Seven Minutes in Hell
7. Beware of Young Girls
8. Mommie Dearest
9. Ghost Stories
10. Thanksgiving
11. Black Friday
12. Dorkus
13. The Final Girl(s)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Review: The Bullet Catch by John Gaspard (Eli Marks #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great characters, engaging story
Cons: Eli’s fear of heights inconsistent
The Bottom Line:
Eli must juggle
Two compelling cases that
Keep pages turning

Be Sure to Catch This Sequel

Earlier this year, I listened to the audio version of the first Eli Marks book, and I didn’t find it as gripping as I thought I would.  At least at the time.  I couldn’t get the characters out of my head, however, and I kept thinking about going back and reading the sequel, so when I won the audio version of The Bullet Catch in a contest, I was absolutely thrilled.

For those new to this series, Eli Marks is a magician.  In addition to performance gigs, he also helps his uncle with a magic store located in Minneapolis.  His ex-wife is an assistant district attorney, and her new husband is a homicide cop, which makes his forays into murder problematic at best, but he can’t seem to help himself.

Back in high school, Eli and Jake weren’t close friends, but they moved in the same circles since Eli performed magic and Jake was an actor.  Now, fifteen years later, Jake is back in town having made a name for himself in Hollywood starring in a controversial sitcom.  But Jake’s time in town is business rather than pleasure since he is filming a movie about a magician who died during the always dangerous bullet catch trick.  Only Jake thinks that someone is going to kill him when they film the pivotal scene to gain publicity for the movie, and he asks Eli to use his expertise as a magician to keep that from happening.

Jake also talks Eli into attending their high school reunion.  While there, Eli runs into his old high school crush.  Trish has married the bad boy of their class, the one that everyone thought would be in prison by graduation.  However, after they all leave the reunion, Trish’s husband is killed.  With Eli’s connections to the police, he finds himself drawn into what is happening.  Can he figure out who the killer is while keeping Jake safe?

My complaint about the first book was the pacing, but that isn’t an issue here at all.   With two plots keeping Eli busy, there is never a moment for things to slow down.  The murder is the main story, and it provides some great twists and surprises along the way, but the story with Jake is just as much fun and manages to build some great suspense.  Both stories reach fantastic and surprising climaxes as well.

I realized how much I had come to care for the characters when I started in on this book.  It was great to see them again and get to know them better here.  Of course, we meet some well developed new characters as well, and they all get their moments to shine.

And Eli’s knowledge of magic adds a great touch to the mystery.  I loved his unique take on things based on his expertise.  Quite often, the hook of a series is just that, a hook (and I don’t mind it when that is the case), but this time the hook really does add to the mystery.

Unfortunately, there is still one flaw here.  Eli has developed a huge fear of heights between, a detail I actually loved since I am afraid of heights myself.  However, he lives on the third floor, yet his crippling fear of heights never seems to bother him at home.

Jim Cunningham is the narrator once again, and he is wonderful at bringing the characters to life.  This is especially true of Eli and his various reactions to things.

It’s rare I revisit a series that didn’t hook me right away, but I’ve very glad I did with The Bullet Catch.  If you are looking for a fun mystery with a unique hook, be sure to pick it up today.  I’m definitely hoping to move on to the third in the series soon.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ornament Review: Miniature Keepsake Ornament Tree - 2016 Hallmark Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great looking, miniature artificial tree
Cons: All cons shrunk too small to see
The Bottom Line:
This mini tree is
Great for mini ornaments
And festive small space

A Small Tree for Your Mini Ornaments

One reason I have resisted Hallmark’s miniature ornaments before this year is that I was afraid they would get lost in my tree.  I must not be the only one who felt this way because Hallmark released a miniature tree this year specifically for their mini ornaments.  Being the easy target I am, I snapped one up right away.  But it truly is wonderful.

This is an artificial tree, which is no surprise.  It’s small, only about nineteen inches tall and sixteen inches around.  And, since we are looking for something to hold mini ornaments, that makes it the perfect size.  There are two logs on the base that hold it up.  The tree doesn’t come with lights or anything, it’s just the branches and the stand.

But it doesn’t need anything else.  Personally, I love starting with a blank tree like this and adding whatever I want to decorate it.  Heck, I’m the guy who hunts for non-pre-lit trees when he has to buy an artificial tree.  (And they are not easy to find, trust me.)  I do think a strand of lights will probably be longer than this tree needs, but that’s okay.  You can’t have too many lights, right?

And there are plenty of branches to add your mini ornaments.  If you’ve just started collecting, there may be more tree than you have miniature ornaments.  However, I have a feeling that I will fill this tree up pretty quickly.  I’ve been looking at mini ornaments pretty seriously these days and finding some I enjoy.

The proportion is perfect for these little guys, too.  They will still show up without being so overwhelmed by everything else.  And when all your ornaments are in the same scale, they won’t look quite so out of place.

Because the tree is a smaller size, you can easily put it up on a table or other place that needs a little Christmas spirit.  It’s self-sufficient, so it’s easy to set up and move around until you find the perfect spot.  Personally, I’m planning to set mine up in my cubicle at work this year.

It looks great, too.  Artificial trees look so great these days, and this one really is no exception.  The trunk even looks like it is wood instead of an aluminum pool.

I may be a sucker for things like this, but I don’t regret them for a minute.  This Hallmark Miniature Tree will be great this year and for many Christmases to come.

Original Price: $19.95

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ornament Review: Winter Fun with Snoopy #2 - Skiing - 1999 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Snoopy having fun skiing
Cons: Tilt to sell Snoopy skiing would have been fun
The Bottom Line:
Snoopy skis down hill
Looks like he is having fun
Miniature done right

Ski Season is Open

I tried skiing once.  My lack of athleticism and balance made it into an interesting experience.  (Fortunately, I didn’t break anything.)  It looks like Snoopy has better luck at the sport, or at least he does in the second Winter Fun withSnoopy ornament from 1999.

Yep, you guessed it.  This ornament finds Snoopy skiing.  He’s standing on the skis with his poles tucked under his arm.  His red and green cap is sticking out behind him, and Woodstock has hitched a ride on his hat so he can experience the thrill of speeding down a mountain.

This series is a miniature series, so it’s much smaller than a normal Hallmark ornament.  We might be missing some detail on the figure, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you for sure what we are missing.  It’s a simple ornament of a simple activity, but it captures that perfectly, and I really do like it as a result.

Snoopy’s skis actually provide a nice flat base, so you could set this out if you wanted to.  Again, it’s a miniature ornament, so it could easily get lost if you do.  You’ll find the 2 in a Christmas tree on the bottom of the skis if you squint.  It’s small, but it’s there.

The loop for hanging the ornament is on the top of Snoopy’s hat.  The ornament hangs straight, which is actually a missed opportunity.  If it tipped forward slightly, it would help sell the illusion that Snoopy was skiing down a hill.  That’s a minor complaint, however.

Am I embarrassed about being out skied by a dog?  In this case, no.  Snoopy as a skier is so much fun, and this ornament captures this idea perfectly.

Original Price: $6.95