Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: Murder on Bamboo Lane by Naomi Hirahara (Ellie Rush #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Deep characters and an interesting mystery
Cons: None worth dwelling on
The Bottom Line:
A new character
In engrossing new series
Already a friend

Rookie Cop and a Personal Murder

Sometimes, you learn things about your part of the country from fiction books.  For example, until I started hearing about Murder on Bamboo Lane, I wasn't aware there was a bicycle patrol division in the LAPD.  Naomi Hirahara has turned that fact into the basis for a new series, and the debut is a true winner.

Ellie Rush is a rookie in the LAPD's bicycle patrol based in the downtown area.  She's only been on the job for a few months, but she hopes to climb through the ranks quickly and become a full fledged detective.

Her chance to prove herself comes sooner than she expected when she is asked to provide the preliminary identification for a former college classmate.  Jenny Nguyen and Ellie shared a class, but Ellie still feels a connection to her.  With the encouragement of her aunt Cheryl, the LAPD's assistant chief and the highest ranking Asian American woman, Ellie starts to turn up some clues.  But are they helpful or is she hurting her own career?

Knowing that Naomi has written another series, I was expecting the characters to be strong right out of the gate, but I wasn't expecting them to be this strong.  By the third chapter, I felt like I had known them for much longer and really cared about them.  Ellie especially, at just twenty-three, is struggling to figure out how to navigate life as an adult while still having her parent's expectations in her life.  She's got friends still in college, so that's part of the struggle as well.

The book introduces some sub-plots early on that take a back seat as the murder investigation heads toward it's climax.  This may make the pacing seem a little off at times early on, but those sub-plots really help with the characters.  The pay off is well worth it.

And the mystery itself is strong.  There are some nice red herrings and twists along the way.  Ellie, being new, is still feeling her way at times, but these blunders help make the story even better.

One thing I found interesting, the book is written first person present tense.  Since it is a rare writing choice, I found the result gives the book a different feel.

By the time the book reached the climax, I was so pulled into the story I felt much of what Ellie was going through personally.  This has a depth to it that the cozies I normally read don't have.  I really appreciated that factor.

Obviously, I'm a fan of this book.  I'm not sure where Naomi Hirahara will be taking Ellie over the course of the next few cases, but I'll be along to find out.  Murder on Bamboo Lane is a wonderful series debut.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters give heart to the action and effects
Cons: None for me
The Bottom Line:
Captain, meet action
Blockbuster is filled with heart
Enjoyable ride

"On Your Left."

I know, I know.  I did it in the wrong order.  There was all kind of talk about how important it was to watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier opening weekend before continuing on with the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  And yet, I blindly kept watching the TV show and only watched the movie last night.  While that meant I was spoiled for some events of the film, I still enjoyed it immensely.

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), is settling into life in the modern era.  He's still trying to catch up on culture he has missed, but the missions he goes on for S.H.I.E.L.D. are helping keep him busy, which he appreciates.

However, after one mission almost goes wrong because Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has a separate mission, Steve begins to question his place in the organization.  At the same time, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to suspect there is something very rotten in his organization.  Couple that with a Russian assassin called The Winter Soldier who has a surprising connection to Steve's past, and you have a situation getting more complicated by the minute.  Who will survive?

Being a superhero movie, you'd expect lots of action, and you won't be disappointed.  The stunts and effects are outstanding, and I loved every minute of them.  This is a big budget event film living up to its expectations in every way, and I loved that.

However, sometimes that means the movie skimps on character as a result.  I didn't find that to be the case here at all.  In fact, the characters felt better defined for me than they did the first time around.  I really connected with Captain America and his struggle to find the right side to be fighting for.  When things turn personal late in the film, I really felt for him.  Yes, even as the explosions were going on around us, I was worried about his personal story.  I also loved his new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).

All this means the actors had more to do than in a normal action movie, but they did a wonderful job.  There are some great small moments that mean so much.  Heck, I think one reason I connected with Sam so quickly was that Anthony Mackie makes him so likable from the very beginning.  Chris Evans has the right mix to make us care for Steve, which is hard in a character as almost perfect as he is playing here.  Scarlett Johansson is having a blast as Black Widow, and that comes across for us as well.  Samuel L. Jackson is given the most to do in any of these movies so far, and he makes the most of it, too.

There is a nice smattering of humor in the movie, too.  It's just enough to lighten the mood without destroying the tension they are building.

And I mentioned the action and effects, right?  Because that climax was a sight to behold, and I loved it.

I'm definitely ready for the next stop in this franchise, both Marvel over all and Captain America specifically.  I hope they keep building on the success that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

TV Recap: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1-19 - The Only Light in the Darkness

Much better.  Last's night's episode was so much better.  It felt like the story actually progressed somewhere, while last week felt like it pretty much marched in place.  I know they were moving the chess pieces around, but still.

We start out in the hatch.  With the revelation that the villains SHIELD had previous locked away were out, Coulson is anxious to start rounding them up - one in particular.  But before any of that happens, Eric, the guy in the hatch, wants to vet all of Coulson's team with a series of questions while hooked up to the ultimate lie detector, some of the logical, some of them random.  Everyone passes with flying colors except Ward (big surprise there), but even Ward manages to get passed eventually.

That formality out of the way, Coulson takes off with Simmons, Fitz, and Trip to go track down the first of the escaped prisoners.  May begs to go along, but Coulson still won't have anything to do with her after learning she was reporting on him all along.

Their target is Marcus Daniels, aka Blackout, a villain who takes power from light and energy of any kind and uses it to hurt of kill those who stand in his way.  When they captured him before, he was stalking a cellist - Audrey - the woman who became Coulson's girlfriend.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham (Veronica Mars #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great mystery and characters
Cons: I missed Veronica's voiceover narration
The Bottom Line:
Missing college girl
Veronica keeps tracking
Great for series fans

Spring Break Kidnapping in Neptune

2014 has been very good for Veronica Mars fans.  The franchise, which hadn't seen any action for almost 10 years, is back not only with the big screen movie last month but The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, the first in the proposed series of novels featuring Veronica and her friends.  Naturally, I had to grab it, and I enjoyed the results.

This book is set a few months after the recent film.  The events from the movie are brought up a few times, so by all means, make sure you have seen the movie before you read this book.  You won't want to be spoiled do you?

Spring break turns Neptune into a party town every years as college students are bussed in for a week of fun and relaxation (read drinking and passing out).  This year, however, things are different because one of the college girls vanished after a party.  Since Sheriff Dan Lamb isn't doing enough about it, the Chamber of Commerce hires Veronica and Mars Investigation to find the missing girl.  Can she do it?

A tie in like this lives or dies based on how the characters come across.  In this respect, the novel is perfect.  I could easily picture the main actors in the roles they played for so long saying the lines their characters had.  The new characters were equally well developed and interesting, which is a good thing since we spend quite a bit of time with them, too.

About half way through, I thought the plot was looking a little too simple.  I really should have known because that always happened in the show, too, right before a twist came out of left field that changed everything.  I'm happy to say that by the time the book was over, I was very impressed with the plotting and felt it deserved it's place in the Veronica Mars universe.

That's not to say that I don't have a couple of nitpicks.  The first involves Dan Lamb.  I struggled the entire way through the book to remember he wasn't the Lamb brother we are used to dealing with in Neptune.  I get why Rob Thomas created the character for the movie, and I realize that means the book was saddled with him, but still, can't we have someone with a completely different name to fight against?

The larger issue for me was the narration.  The book is third person, and I found I missed Veronica's narrative voice from the show and movie.  Those voice overs were always fun.  Yes, we get Veronica's sarcasm, but not as much of it, and I would have loved to seen it.  Maybe it's because I normally read cozies, most of which are first person, but I really did find the narration kept me a little more outside the story than I'm used to in a novel.  Of course, when the more intense scenes came, I was still glued to the book turning pages as fast as I could to find out what happened next.

Overall, I enjoyed The Thousand Dollar Tan Line.  The mystery is great, and it's wonderful to spend time with the characters again.  You can bet I will be back for the next book.

TV Recap: Castle 6-20 - That 70's Show

I'm of two minds about the episode last night.  I really didn't care for the mystery, but I loved the 70's stuff.  So let's get the mystery out of the way, shall we?

It starts with a body found in the cement foundation of a building that is being demolished.  Castle is actually the first to figure out the victim is a mobster that vanished in 1978.  They start the investigation in the usual places, the man who took over for the victim and that man's wife.  A rival mobster.  But that leads them to a man who was the victim's right hand man and who was also his closest confidante.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What's On My Nightstand - April 2014

With there being over a week left in the month, the fourth Tuesday almost snuck up on me.  Fortunately, I remembered since that means it is time for What's On Your Nightstand as hosted by 5 Minutes for Books.

The last book I finished and reviewed is Poached by Stuart Gibbs.  It's the second in a middle grade mystery series set at a zoo/amusement park.  In this book, the main character is accused of kidnapping the newest attraction, a koala.  Since no one is looking for any other suspects, Teddy sets out to prove his innocence.  It was a great mystery with several funny and several suspenseful scenes.  You can click on the link to read my full review.  I think the target age will love it as much as I did.

Then last week, I finished Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line.  This is the first tie in novel to the Veronica Mars TV show as is set after the recent movie.  I've long been a fan, so I enjoyed it.  The review is coming Tuesday or Wednesday, I promise!

Right now, I'm about 80 pages from finishing Blue Sea Burning by Geoff Rodkey.  It's the 3rd in his Chronicles of Egg middle grade series, and I'm really enjoying it.  In fact, I may try to finish that up as soon as I get this posted.  Either way, look for the review to show up on Sunday in time for next week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

What's on deck?  Next up is Murder on Bamboo Lane by Naomi Hirahara, the first in a new series about a female Japanese American bike cop who gets involved in a murder in Little Toyko here in Los Angeles.  From there, I'll be moving on to ARCs of The Pickled Piper by Mary Ellen Hughes and Death Run Adrift by Karen MacInerney.  Both are coming out the first week in May, and I've promised reviews of both the first week of May?

Beyond that?  I haven't quite decided yet, but with the depth of my TBR pile, I'm sure I'll find something no problem.

Ornament Review: Christmas Window #3 - Pet Shop - 2005 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament with a boy wishing hard for a puppy
Cons: Nothing for cat people
The Bottom Line:
Wishes for puppy
Through wintry Christmas window
Will this dream come true?

How Much is that Puppy in the Christmas Window?

2005 brought Tammy Haddix's first chance to contribute to the Christmas Windows series from Hallmark.  After this ornament, she would continue to contribute in the odd numbered years to this series.  And the Pet Shop she contributed to start with would help set the tone for the rest of her contributions.

Like the others in the series, this ornament features scenes on two sides of a wall.  In this case, it's a brick wall with a green roof.  On the outside is a little boy looking through the window at a cute little puppy.  He's also holding on to the rope from his sled.  The sign above the window says "Pet Shop."  And in the window is a temporary sign that says, "Take Me Home for Christmas."

Inside the pet shop is the puppy in one of those window displays.  He's got a ball and a chew bone to play with as well as a ribbon tied around his neck.  Underneath this display are more chew toys as well as containers of dog food and dog treats.  On one side, they've ever got a puppy stocking hung.

Now let's flip back to the outside because there's one more detail.  We can see a piece of paper sticking out of the back pocket of the boy peering through the window.  And what does that paper say?  "Wishlist: Puppy."

And right about there is where my heart melts.  While my allergies have kept me from becoming a dog person, I do love a good story of the bonds between pets and owners.  As a result, I do find this ornament incredibly cute.  Cat people might note that this ornament is all about that puppy, no references to cats anywhere.

This ornament has a perfectly flat base, so you can display it on a shelf or mantel or, like I do, under your Christmas tree.  And yes, the 3 in a Christmas tree is also on the bottom of the display.

If you do decide to hang this ornament, you'll find it tips ever so slightly to the front.  Trust me, for most people it is such a small amount it won't even be noticed.

But did he get the puppy?  Well, in 2006, part of the regular line ornaments was an ornament featuring a boy and a puppy playing in the snow.  They looked remarkably like these two.  And Tammy's other ornaments in this series almost all feature a boy and a puppy.  I'd say it is safe to say yes.

That's another reason why this ornament is so cute - knowing the rest of the story.  It's why I'm glad I've added this Pet Shop to my Christmas Window collection and recommend it for others looking for a fun, heart warming ornament.

Original Price: $19.95

Sunday, April 20, 2014

TV Recap: Once Upon a Time 3-18 - Bleeding Through

For the last couple of days, I've been watching the commentaries from my season 2 Blu-Ray set.  One of those is on "The Miller's Daughter," aka the episode where Mary Margaret killed Cora.  That led me to remember that this was the one story line from the show that seems to have been forgotten by the writers (and me often, obviously).  While they didn't deal with Mary Margaret's heart turning black and Regina's promise that she would turn dark and destroy everyone she loves, they at least did deal more with some fall out from that.

But we'll get to that in a moment.  First, I want to point out from the "Previous on" recap that we know whose brain Zelena is after - Gold's.  She'd already made a reference to his brain, and she made several more tonight.  She now has most of the elements she needs - she just needs Mary Margaret's baby, and it just for an ingredient in the spell, not for any of the classic Oz things.

But before we get there, let's go to the flashback which once again centered on Rose McGowan's young Cora.  When we first see her, she is moonlighting as a tavern to make some extra money.  She's still the miller's daughter. (And how this exactly fits in with the previous flashback to her, I'm not certain.  All of it before?)

She meets a man who is quite taken with her.  Then he turns out to be Prince Jonathan.  He proposes and she accepts, promising to be back in two weeks to turn her straw ring into gold.  She suggests they go up to his room until he has to leave….

Book Review: Poached by Stuart Gibbs (FunJungle #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great mystery, characters, and humor
Cons: One or two minor things, but I'm not a quibbler
The Bottom Line:
Missing koala
How did Teddy get the blame?
It's page turning fun

Kazoo, the Kidnapped Koala

I have been a fan of Stuart's books since I read his very first book several years ago.  While I have loved all of them, I've been hoping we'd return to the world of FunJungle again.  We finally have in Poached, and the return trip was well worth waiting for.

This series is set at a zoo/amusement park deep in the heart of nowhere Texas.  Teddy Fitzroy, the main character, is the only kid who gets to live on the premises, and that's because his parents are both employees.  Just as the park was opening, he stumbled on evidence that the park's hippo mascot had been murdered.  Now he's about to find himself the center of another animal related crime.

When Kazoo, the koala that is on loan to FunJungle, is stolen, Large Marge, the head of park's security, only has one suspect - Teddy Fitzroy.  After all, the only person they have on the security cameras going into the koala habitat the night Kazoo went missing is Teddy.  Couple that with her vendetta again Teddy, and she doesn't want to search much further.

However, Teddy knows he didn't do it.  While he has done his share of pranks in the park, they were never this mean or vindictive.  Now he has to stay free long enough to prove his innocence.  Suddenly, facing Vance, the bully at his new school, sounds easy.

Everything I loved about that first book is back.  First, there is the setting.  While FunJungle did come across as a bit more of a zoo than a hybrid with an amusement park this time, that's a minor complaint.  The idea of being the only kid who lives at a zoo that is a major tourist attraction still appeals to the kid in me.  How much more would it appeal to kids?

Plus I love the characters.  The cast expands quite a bit since it is no longer summer and Teddy is in school.  They new characters are great.  However, I loved Teddy and his parents in the first book, and they are just as great here as they were then.  My only real complaint with this book comes in that department - Summer, the owner's daughter, wasn't in the book as much as I would have liked.  Really, it's a minor issue, however.

Then there's the plot.  It's fast moving and fun with some nice clues and red herrings before the reveal.  I felt like I should have figured it out before Teddy did because the clues where there, but I didn't.  Along the way, we get some very suspenseful scenes.

But there is comedy to balance it out.  I couldn't help but laugh at a few of the predicaments that Teddy managed to get himself into (and out of) over the course of the book.  And while his parents might have been a little lenient on him at times, that was my only complaint about their characters.  The middle grade audience will never even notice anything with his parents and laugh even harder than I did at these scenes.

I couldn't turn the pages of Poached fast enough, and I'm sorry to see it over.  Fortunately, the author is hard at work on the next animal mystery, so a return trip to FunJungle won't take quite as long as this one did.  Middle grade readers (and reluctant readers) will find themselves caught up in this fun story, and adults who love a good mystery will enjoy it as well.

This is my entry for this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Be sure to check out the other entries.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

April 19th's Weekly TV Thoughts

The Amazing Race - I felt sorry for the team that got eliminated.  Not that I expected them to stick around much longer, but again with the cab costing them the race.  Plus they thought there was still a team behind them.  Surprised to see the Afganimals helping the last two teams, however.  With a Double U Turn coming on Sunday, I wonder who will be turned beside the Cowboys (you just know they will be one of the teams).

Dancing with the Stars - I LOVED this Disney song episode.  They need to start doing it every season.  The judges seemed to like it, too, since they gave out some higher scores than normal.  The energy and fun were just infectious, I guess.

Survivor - The wrong person got blindsided.  Not only did LJ do nothing wrong, but Tony deserves to go.  Can't stand the guy.

Arrow - I'm a little surprised that Laurel kept the info to herself.  Yes, she almost told her father what she knows about the Arrow, but was surprised she didn't tell anyone about it.  I think Thea is reacting a bit too harshly, but what do I know?  I've never been in her shoes (fortunately).  And the stage is set for an even bigger battle.  I have no clue how they will get out of this.

Melissa & Joey - Loved the sub-plot with Ryder and his need to make money, and I loved how they tied the two together.  Mel's dad is still a jerk, however.

The Crazy Ones - Two good episodes to tie things together.  Loved the Frankenstein references in the first one.  And I'm surprised with how they ended things with Syd and Andrew.  Well sort of.  He does have a girlfriend right now.  If this were a series finale, I'm sure it would be different, but they are expecting to come back next year.  We'll see if I do or not.