Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: Murder for Choir by Joelle Charbonneau (Glee Club Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and a fast moving plot
Cons: Paige could stand to be a little smarter at times
The Bottom Line:
Competitive choirs
Taken to whole new level
When coach is murdered




Glee Club Competition Can Be Murder

I keep saying that if your particular interest isn’t the subject of a cozy series yet, stick around because it will be soon.  Witness the debut of the Glee Club Mysteries.  Murder for Choir was a fun first volume, and I will now sing its praises.

Paige Marshall is still waiting for her big break as an opera singing.  Until that happens, she’s had to take a job working at a high school coaching the show choir.  While school hasn’t officially opened, all the kids from the area are meeting for a camp that is supposed to foster friendships between the rivals schools.

Just one problem – on the second morning Paige finds Greg Lucas dead.  Greg was the director of the choir that always won, but how he managed that wasn’t always ethical.  In fact, Greg’s list of enemies was quite long.  When the star tenor in Paige’s choir is taken to police headquarters for questioning, Paige begins to poke around.  But everywhere she turns, she finds more suspects.  Can Paige find the killer before she becomes the next victim?

The book starts off quickly, and the pace never really lets up.  Paige is always learning some tidbit or overhearing some conversation that sheds light on a different suspect.  In fact, I believed just about everyone had to have done it at one point or another.  I guess that means I got it right, right?

The characters were also charming and fun.  I liked Paige and I found the rest of the cast endearing as well.  I didn’t want them to be the murderer.  Okay, one or two would have been fine, but they were the exception.

The first person narration was good and the book flowed well.  There were some funny bits along the way that certainly kept me engaged as well.

However, there was something just off about the book.  I think it was the fact that Paige always seemed to jump first and think later.  I’m not quite sure why it bothered me as much here since I expect that in the books I read.  It’s the only way to move the plot forward.  But it got a little tiring as the book went along.

Really, it was a minor sour note, however.  Overall, I enjoyed Murder for Choir and hope the fat lady doesn’t sing on it for a while.  I’ll certainly be back for the encore.

Music Review: 24 by Point of Grace

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 24 huge radio hits
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Radio hit songs
Definitely popular
With very good reason




24 #1 Radio Hits in a Row.  Must be Point of Grace

In 2003, Christian artists Point of Grace hit a milestone unequalled anywhere else in the music world - they had 24 songs in a row hit #1.  Okay, so we're talking the Christian music charts here, not the overall charts.  But that is still quite an accomplishment.  To celebrate, their record label released this special two disc best of collection called, appropriately enough, 24.

The set actually contains 25 tracks.  That's right, it starts off with the obligatory new track.  "Day by Day" is a perfect example of what made the ladies of Point of Grace so popular.  It's upbeat pop with excellent harmonies from these four women when they aren't trading off the solos.  And the song talks about how God is slowly transforming us into His image.  I wasn't that surprised when this song became their 25th consecutive #1 hit.

From there we flash back 10 years to 1993 and their self-titled debut disc.  The sound may be a bit dated with a little too much programming, but it's not quite as bad as something from the 80's.  "I'll Be Believing" is an upbeat commitment to faith with a quite prominent horn.  "One More Broken Heart" is a commitment to reach out to those who are hurting no matter the cost.  This one is mid tempo and a bit slower; I love the tight harmonies on it.  But my favorite from that first release was "Jesus Will Still be There."  This slow piano ballad is a great reminder that Jesus will never leave us.  It's the kind of song that works well when I'm hurting to remind of His presence in a kind, friendly way.  All told, there are six songs from this release on the collection.

The remaining five tracks on disc one come from their sophomore release, The Whole Truth.  The hits start with what is still one of my favorite songs from Point of Grace, "The Great Divide."  Oh, we can argue back and forth all day about how the imagery of the consequences of sin and what Jesus did to bridge that are clichĂ©.  And you'd be right to say that.  But sometimes I need the simple reminders to make me remember that.  Every time I hear this simple, slowish song, I am left praising God for all He did for me.  I also like "Gather at the River," an upbeat song about the importance of forgiveness between Christians.  But it's the orchestra and minor sounds on the verses of "God Is With Us" that makes that song stand out from some of the others.

Disc two of the set contains 13 tracks and starts with the four hits from Life, Love, and Other Mysteries.  Since that's one of my favorite Point of Grace releases, I will admit I wish it was better represented.  But all four tracks are great.  "Keep the Candle Burning" is one of their frequent songs of encouragement that picks up some in tempo when they reach the chorus.  While still relying on keyboard, they aren't sounding as dated here.  Guitar is the main feature of "You Are the Answer," a song that proclaims the power of God to solve any problem.  Finally, "Circle of Friends" is a quiet but upbeat song about the power of good friends and the promise to spend eternity with them.  Rounding out the tracks, we get "That's the Way It's Meant to Be."

Of the five releases represented here, Steady On is my least favorite.  So it's a bit frustrating to have six songs from it here.  That's especially true since "The Song Is Alive" was one of the cuts.  I'm not sure what it is about the song, but I've never liked it.  The harmonies are great, but the lyrics are just too repetitive for me, I guess.  Fortunately, there are some good tracks here.  "Steady On," about allowing God to slowly work on us is a fun number.  "The Wonder of It All" is a slower number reminds us of God's amazing power.  But my favorite here is the upbeat tribute to God's faithfulness, simply titled "My God."

The final three cuts come from Free to Fly, and they are all awesome.  "Blue Skies" is a mid tempo song that talks about having faith in God during the storms of life.  The ladies' voices absolutely soar over the orchestra during the chorus.  "He Sends His Love" is another of their songs of encouragement.  It's not exceptionally deep, but is a good reminder that God is still in charge no matter what is happening.  Finally, "Praise Forevermore" is something rare for Point of Grace, a pure praise song.  But this isn't a simple praise chorus.  It's still got a nice pop beat and tight harmonies.

And I can't talk about this release without mentioning the booklet.  While they don't include the words to these songs, they do tell a story about each song.  Most of the time, one of the ladies shares a story about recording the song or something that happened after it hit radio.  We also get comments from people are the record label who helped get these songs on the radio.

As with most collections, one new song probably won't be enough to entice hard core fans who already own all these discs.  And I'm sure, like me, they can name favorites that never got released to radio and therefore didn't make the cut for the collection.  But casual fans will be delighted to find all their radio favorites in one place.  There's almost two hours of music here, so you can't complain about the amount of music you get for your money.

Point of Grace has heard a place in music history, and if you like upbeat, fun pop music with great harmonies, you'll absolutely understand why.  24 celebrates a milestone for the group and gives us some wonderful songs all in one place.

Tracks:
Disc one:
1. Day by Day
2. I'll be Believing
3. One More Broken Heart
4. Jesus Will Still be There
5. Faith, Hope and Love
6. I Have No Doubt
7. No More Pain
8. The Great Divide
9. Dying to Reach You
10. Gather at the River
11. God is with Us
12. Love Like No Other

Disc two:
1. Keep the Candle Burning
2. You are the Answer
3. Circle of Friends
4. That's the Way It's Meant to Be
5. Steady On
6. Saving Grace
7. When the Wind Blows
8. Wonder of It All
9. My God
10. The Song is Alive
11. Blue Skies
12. He Sends His Love
13. Praise Forevermore

Ornament Review: Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! - 2010 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful lights, sound, and look capture ending of TV special
Cons: Tree too nice, unbalanced, price
The Bottom Line:
Peanuts fans will say
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!
With this ornament




No Peanuts Fan Will be Able to Resist "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"

I tried.  I really, really tried.  I told myself it was too expensive.  I told myself I didn't need it.  And I still wound up buying Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!  This Hallmark ornament isn't perfect, but it's so neat I just had to get it.

The ornament sets out to remind us of the ending of the classic Christmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas.  The main ornament depicts Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, and Charlie Brown standing in front of a Christmas tree.  Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy have their eyes closed and are obvious singing (or howling in Snoopy's case).  Charlie Brown is standing front and center with a big smile on his face.

The four characters are standing around a Christmas tree, and it's the first flaw with the ornament.  Instead of being small and scraggly like the one in the special, this one is taller than any of the characters and fully filled in.

The characters and tree are standing on an oval base.  That base depicts outdoor scenes from the special, but without any characters in them.  We've got the Christmas tree lot, the snowman Pig Pen was building, Snoopy's dog house, Lucy's psychiatric booth, and a couple of houses.  All of this is covered in snow, and it looks quite nice.

Now, what sold me on this ornament is the fact that it is a Hallmark Magic ornament.  It takes 3 AAA batteries (which aren't included), which fit quite nicely in the base.  There is a button between Snoopy and Lucy.  When you press it, you get three sound clips that rotate in order.  If they aren't the real sound bite from the special, they are very darn close.  Without digging out my DVD to compare, I can't tell the difference.  The first one features Linus' line about how he never thought the tree was such a bad little tree.  Secondly, there is a few seconds of humming follwed by everyone say, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"  Finally, the kids sing the first line of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."  Each clip is about 10 seconds long.

There's also a light component.  When you press the button, the star at the top of the tree lights up, and some of the blubs on the tree flash on and off.  The lights flash for about 10 seconds, the length of the clip, but the star on the tree stays lit for an extra 15 seconds.  The lights are dim, so they show up best in a dark room or on a Christmas tree without only the Christmas tree lights on in the room.  But I can see them as long as the ornament isn't in direct light.

I was playing around with this ornament in the store, and as soon as I pushed the button, I fell in love.  I love A Charlie Brown Christmas.  And to have the clips from that show just makes me smile.  The lights blinking on the tree are also a nice touch.  It just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

While the base of this ornament is flat, if you want to hand the ornament, you'll find it doesn't hang straight.  The hook for hanging it is in the back of the tree, and with basically the entire ornament in front of hook, it's not surprising to me that it tips forward.  If you hang it high enough, you'll still be able to enjoy the detail on the characters.

I mentioned earlier the price.  This ornament is $28.95, which even for Hallmark seems a bit steep.  I waited until I had a coupon to get it, but once I had played with it, I knew I would have to get it.

I have a feeling I'm not going to be alone.  This ornament captures the final moments of a beloved Christmas special so well, I have a feeling that Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! will be popular with Peanuts fans despite the high price.

Original Price: $28.95

Book Review: Tide Water Talisman by Glynn Marsh Alam (Luanne Fogarty #8)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful writing and characters
Cons: Plot could be tighter
The Bottom Line
Plot wanders a bit
But characters and writing
Are still engrossing




Murder Among Katrina Refugees

I first picked up the Luanne Fogarty Mystery series because of my love of all things water since Luanne works part time as a diver for the local sheriff, exploring the fresh water swamps of northern Florida for evidence in crimes.  I quickly became a fan because of the writing and characters.  Tide Water Talisman is the eighth book in the series, and I enjoyed catching up with these old friends.

This book takes us into a camp of refugees from Hurricane Katrina.  Even now, these people are still trying to get on with their lives after that horrible event.  This camp includes its one little shopping center with a junk shop, a convenience store, and a spiritualist shop.  Luanne is drawn into this world when a new sea food restaurant is set to open near the shops, and her friend Momma is helping them get ready for business.

But it isn't long before Luanne's part time job sheriff comes into play.  The body of one of the residents is found floating nearby.  Then a shop owner turns up dead.  While diving for the murder weapon, Luanne finds a skeleton.  What is really going on at this camp?

The real star of this book is the writing.  Author Glynn Marsh Alam has a way of making the swamp and the critters that live there come alive.  It's a world that moves at a slower pace, and that is reflected in the writing.  While I often race through some books, I can't do that here.  I read at a leisurely pace, savoring the writing and a world I have yet to visit in real life.

The plots in these books usually move forward at a slow and steady pace.  This time around, I felt like the mystery got a little lost in the happenings at the refugee camp.  Frankly, I found the happenings interesting, although I couldn't see why any of it mattered.  By the time the book ended, everything was wrapped up, but it still wasn't one of the tighter plots in the series.

I mentioned earlier how much I love the characters, and it was wonderful to visit with them again.  Luanne is smart, something that often irritates her boss in the police department since she isn't technically a detective.  My favorite character has to be her old neighbor Pasquin, who plays a large part again.  Some of the other regulars have smaller than normal parts, but I enjoyed catching up with them again.

The new characters brought in for this book more than make up for it.   They are unique and memorable.  I never had a hard time remembering who the various players were in the dramas happening all over the camp.

Frankly, these visits with Luanne don't happen often enough, and I'm sorry to say goodbye to her already.  Tide Water Talisman will please fans of the series, and if you've missed these books, pick one up today and take a trip to Florida.

FCC Note: The author sent me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

And if you are looking for more great books, check out the rest of the Luanne Fogarty Mysteries in order.

Movie Review: You Again

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Enjoyable comedy with a great cast
Cons: Predictable; a few extended scenes of awkward humor
The Bottom Line:
Nothing surprising
But an enjoyable film
Filled with a great cast




"High School Was a Horror Movie.  And This Weekend is the Sequel."

I have often bemoaned some of the movies I have seen because I was a fan of a certain actor or actress.  When I started hearing the cast of You Again, I knew I was doomed.  With the likes of Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Victor Garber, Betty White, and Kristin Chenoweth in it, there was no way I could miss it.  And I'm glad those names propelled me to the theater because I enjoyed it.

Back in 2002, Marni Olivia Olsen (Kristen Bell) was a miserable high school senior.  She wore glasses and braces and had bad acne.  And her initials didn't help things at all.  The worst tormentor was the most popular girl in school, JJ.

Flash forward to the present, and Marni is a very successful PR woman coming home for her brother Will's (Jimmy Wolk) wedding.  On the flight back, she learns that Will's fiancee is Joanna (Odette Yustman), aka JJ from high school.  And Marni is further upset to see that her entire family loves Joanna, who seems to have forgotten her from high school.

But the surprises are just getting started when Joanna's Aunt Mona (Sigourney Weaver) shows up.  Mona and Marni's mom Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis) were friends in high school who had a falling out and haven't spoken in years.  As these two sets of rivals try to act like their past means nothing to them, things are bubbling just below the surface.  Will they work everything out, or will the past ruin the wedding?

So I knew the answer to that question before I even started.  And there weren't too many surprises along the way.  Heck, any surprises there might have been were ruined by the previews.

The trip was a pleasant one, however.  While I don't condone any of the actions taken by the women in this movie, it was fun watching them work through their respective pasts.  While the climax could have been stronger, I bought it completely.

And that's the strength of the actors.  In lesser hands, this movie would have fallen apart.  But everyone here played off each other so well, that you couldn't help but buy that these characters were doing what they thought was right in each situation even when we know it is the wrong course of action.  Kristin Chenoweth is a hoot as the wedding planner.  And Victor Garber is perfect as the longsuffering husband/father.  And Betty White steals all her scenes as the grandmother, but that's hardly a surprise.

There are some very fun cameos in this movie as well.  One on a plane was perfect, but the best one was once again spoiled by the previews.  I still enjoyed it since I love The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it would have been better as a complete surprise.

I was a little concerned going into the movie since I often find movies full of awkward humor (i.e. people making fools out of themselves) painful instead of funny.  There were a couple of scenes that were like that.  One in particular had me looking away from the screen while the rest of the audience I saw it with was howling.  But most of the movie wasn't that bad for me, and I laughed quite a few times.

Considering the premise and the actors, I'm sure I'm not going to surprise anyone when I saw this movie is clearly aimed at women.  Not that men can't enjoy it, but they most likely won't appreciate it quite as much.

There's nothing profound or deep about You Again.  It's just fun entertainment.  And if the sound of that appeals to you, you'll enjoy watching this movie.

Book Review: Dead to Writes by Cathy Wiley (Cassandra Ellis #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Real characters
Cons: Pacing issues in plot
The Bottom Line:
Cassie came alive
Plot pacing could be better
Overall, I liked




Book Launch Turned Deadly

Hobby mysteries have become so common that it's actually very rare to run across a series that stars an author these days.  But that's the case with Dead to Writes, the first in a new series featuring debut mystery author Cassie Ellis.

All her life, Cassie Ellis has dreamed of being a published author.  And now that dream is days away from becoming reality.  But what should be a great celebration turns tragic when someone shots Seth Montgomery.  Seth is a convicted arsonist that Cassie has used in research for one of her books.  And since the police find Cassie's day planner next to the body, they haul her in for questioning.

Cassie can't quite get a read on Detective James Whittaker.  Is she a suspect or not?  Plus there's the attraction they are both trying to hide, at least until this case is resolved.  Then another of Cassie's contacts is killed with the same gun.  Who will the killer target next?  Is Cassie a target?  Or do the police still consider her a suspect?

Often, I find it takes me two books to really get a feel for the characters in a series.  That wasn't the case here at all.  Cassie, James, and their friends already feel like real people, and I loved spending time with them.  Cassie spends much of the book feeling responsible for the murders, and I found her guilt realistic.  Fortunately, it also motivates her to figure out who the killer is or it might have turned things too depressing.

The book starts very strongly, with the first murder taking place within a few pages.  I was quickly pulled into the story.  Unfortunately, the pacing turns uneven in the middle with a few stretches where the characters don't seem to learn anything new.  But things pick up again for the climax which had me turning pages as quickly as I could to find out how they'd stop the killer.

But the characters always kept me happy to be reading this book.  I could actually feel the tension between Cassie and James any time they were on the page together.  Their flirting made for some fun laughs.  Some of the other characters added a nice touch of humor at times as well.

From the writing, you'd never guess it was a debut mystery.  It never once pulled me out of the story.  I especially appreciated the author's attention to point of view.  While most of the book is written third person from Cassie's point of view, we do switch to James occasionally.  When we do, it is always obvious and we stay there for the rest of the scene.  Since sloppy point of view is one of my biggest pet peeves, I liked this.

Dead to Writes is a fun debut that leaves me looking forward to more.  I can't wait to see how Cassie and James' relationship progresses and what trouble they get into next.

FCC Note: Cathy Wiley is a friend who sent me the book in exchange for an honest review.

Ornament Review: Lando Calrissian - 2010 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Excellent details
Cons: Black on the cape
The Bottom Line:
Scoundrel Lando
A good but rare ornament
Star Wars geeks will love




Scoundrel Lando Available for a Limited Time Only.  Get Him Before the Empire Does.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Hallmark has released several ornaments inspired by the movie.  One of them is this limited edition ornament of Lando Calrissian.  This is the first time Lando has shown up in the Hallmark ornament line, so fans of the franchise will definitely want to get him.

Lando first showed up in Empire as a friend of Han Solo who is running the Cloud City on the edge of the galaxy.  There is betrayal once he gets involved.  And in a case of how much first impressions can impact characters, I have never truly warmed up to him.  I know which side he ultimately joins, but his first betrayal cuts deep.  Still, when I started getting the Star Wars ornaments from Hallmark, I decided I needed him to add to my collection.

The ornament itself shows Lando in action.  He's dressed in mainly light blue.  He's got a gun in one hand, and his legs are bent an apart.  It looks like he could turn and fire at any moment.  To further portray him as being in action, the cape he is wearing is fanning out around him.

And it's the cape that provides the only flaw for me with the ornament.  The inside of the cape is gold with lots of black smudges and spots.  Judging from the picture on the front of the box, the spots are supposed to be there to show some texture.  However, to me it just looks dirty, like someone did a poor job painting the ornament.  I looked at several in the store before I bought one, and all of them were like this, so I know it's not that I have a bad ornament.  It's a flaw in the design pure and simple.

But that's the only flaw in the design.  Lando's clothes are wrinkled in multiple spots, again helping the illusion that he is moving.  The face looks very much like Billy Dee Williams did in the movie.  Really, the details are quite nice on this ornament.  The copyright information is painted on the bottom of his feet, but odds are you'd only notice if you turned him upside down.

Height wise, he's just about four inches tall.  This makes him fit into the on going Star Wars ornament series perfectly.  In fact, I measured him against the Luke Skywalker ornament from this year, and he looks to be the same size.

Lando will balance on his feet, but you have to position him just right.  His right foot sits flat, but his left one only touches the ground on the toes.  As a result, he's not likely to stay that way very long if you set him on something that gets bumped regularly.

Of course, there are plenty of Lando action figures already.  The reason to get this ornament is to hang from your tree.  When you slip an ornament hanger through the brass ring at the top of his head, you'll find that he hangs straight.  He tips a bit back from the position he's in if you stand him up, but that actually provides a much better view of the details of the ornament.

Despite my mixed feelings about Lando the character, I'm glad I got Lando Calrissian the ornament.  He may not be perfect, but he's a great addition to my Star Wars ornament collection.

Original Price: $14.95

Ornament Review: "Snow" Happy to to Serve - Noel Nutcrackers #3 - 2010 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute penguin design
Cons: Last in series
The Bottom Line:
Delightful penguin
Serving snow cones and cracked nuts
Best in the series




"Snow" Sorry to See this Series End.  At Least It Ends on a Happy Note.

Hallmark's Noel Nutcrackers series hasn't turned out to be as popular as they expected, and it isn't that surprising since the first in the series was only okay.  This year's entry, "Snow" Happy To Serve is the final one.  It's a shame this little guy didn't come first because he is so cute.

This year's ornament features a penguin.  The white part is plastic, but the black is fuzzy felt.  In one hand, he's holding a snow cone with stripes of red, white, and green on it.  The snow cone has little bits of glitter on it, making it sparkle.  The base he stands on also has glitter on it.  Neither glitter is overwhelming.  There's just enough to catch the light without actually coming off on your hands.  The penguin is wearing a red scarf and a red and green cap; both of them are fuzzy as well.

Like the others in the series, the penguin is a working nutcracker, although I doubt he could crack any real nuts.  His tail in the back is the lever that works the nutcracker, and the bottom half of the beak moves when you move the lever.

Unfortunately, this also brings up the only flaw in the ornament.  The scarf I mentioned earlier sits right below the beak.  You can't get it to move very far because the scarf is in the way.  And just from the little bit I've played with the lever, the scarf is beginning to bunch there.  Both issues are minor complaints, however.

On the base of the stand are the copyright information and the little symbol Hallmark uses to denote a series ornament.  Both are raised in the red base, but don't stand out if you aren't looking for them.  That means they won't distract when hanging from the tree.

The little brass ring to hang from the tree is hiding behind the pom pom at the top of the hat.  He leans forward slightly when you hang him, but it's not enough to be a problem at all.  If you must have him perfectly level, he sits level on his base.  But I think he will look best on a Christmas tree.

I liked this ornament when I saw a picture of it in the Dreambook earlier this year, but I fell in love with it the first time I saw it.  It turned out so much better than any picture or words can do justice.  You really need to see it for yourself.

If "Snow" Happy To Serve had come earlier in the Noel Nutcrackers, it might have made the entire series much more popular.  As it is, I will enjoy this one and wonder just what might have been if things had continued.

Check out the rest of the Noel Nutcrackers series.

Original Price: $14.95

Play Review: Tecumseh!

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Amazing production uses outdoor stage well
Cons: Cheesy writing makes some scenes weak
The Bottom Line:
Spectacular play
Uses outdoor stage so well
It's well worth seeing

Tecumseh! Is a Drama Experience Like No Other

On my recent trip to Ohio, a local friend acted as tour guide.  Basically, if she planned it, we did it.  One of the things she planned was a trip to the outdoor drama Tecumseh!  I knew nothing about it before we went, and I've got to say I was impressed.

Tecumseh! follows the life the Native American war leader of the same name.  This Shawnee lived during the late 1700's and early 1800's in Ohio and Indiana and was a big force in leading the Native Americas in opposing the settlers on the frontier.  His brother was directly involved in the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Much of Tecumseh's life seems to be shrouded in speculation.  It is known he befriended a family of settlers who farmed his boyhood home.  However, a romance with their daughter is questionable in its accuracy.  That is included here as a sub-plot, and actually makes for some of the best scenes in the first half.  They also play up a conflict with his brother that lead to the Battle of Tippecanoe, but I have to wonder how much of that was accurate and how much was for dramatic effect.  I wouldn't take this play as historical fact, but I would definitely go enjoy it for drama.

The production boasts a script by award winning author Allan W. Eckert, and they claim it has been praised as the best of its kind in the outdoor drama industry.  Honestly, the script was my biggest problem with the play.  Some of the dialogue, especially the women's dialogue, was rather cheesy.  I'm willing to admit it might have been the actresses' delivery, but it really did seem to be the lines they had to give.  I couldn't imagine anyone making it work better than they did.

The drama is put on from mid-June to Labor Day every summer.  The cast and crew are made up of drama students from around the country, so changes some every year.  The cast I saw did a great job.  They really did their best to overcome the cheese of the script and really drive home the emotion of the scenes.

The play itself is spectacular.  The main stage is made of sand, but there is a water tank behind it.  Yes, at times the actors use it.  There are also stages on the sides build around platforms on rocks.  They use all these stage areas perfectly to tell the story.

When I saw it in early August, the sun hadn't set at the 8PM curtain time.  In fact, the sun provided most of the light during the first half, and we could see most of the stage.  At some point during intermission, the sun had set, and the lighting amazed me.  The part of the stage in use was always well lit, but the rest was in complete darkness.  There were a few times they changed scenes quickly without us even noticing the actors had stepped to their marks on the stage.

They use horses at times as well as guns and cannons from the time period.  In fact, the Battle of Tippecanoe scene gets very loud as they fire these cannons toward the stage multiple times.  It's quite impressive, but did I mention loud?  I covered my ears during this time.  The rest of the gun shots weren't loud enough to bother me, however.

The show is in the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre outside of Chillicothe, Ohio.  And it is outdoors.  It starts at 8PM and ends about 10:45PM.  You'll need to take the weather forecast into account.  While they will cancel in the event of heavy rain, you'll need to dress for cold, heat, or both.  And you are out in the open, so if it starts raining during the performance, you will get wet.

If you just get to see the play, you'll enjoy it.  But if you can arrive early, they have a behind the scenes tour.  It lasts about an hour, and shows you the wings and where the actors wait to get on and off stage.  They also fire some of the antique weapons and show us some stunts.  It's fun and well worth it for the price.

They also offer a terrace buffet before the show.  It's all you can eat fried chicken, ham, mashed potatoes, etc.  I enjoyed it, although it seemed popular so was crowded.  Maybe that was just my group of 30+ friends, however.

Finally, they've got a snack shop that is open late afternoon through intermission and a gift shop.

The spectacle of Tecumseh! makes it worth going to see all by itself.  I would research before taking much here as historical fact, but it provides an evening well worth the time and money to see.

Ornament Review: A Visit From Santa #2 - Fawn - 2010 Hallmark Ornament


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament
Cons: Obvious seam again
The Bottom Line:
Sold me on series
Fawn makes a cute ornament
It's well worth buying




The Fawn Sold Me on the Visit from Santa Series

Hallmark has too many series ornaments out.  That's my conclusion as I look at all the series I buy.  Originally, I had resisted the A Visit From Santa series.  But when I saw how cute the fawn was in the 2010 entry, I had to start it.

Santa is spreading Christmas cheer to animals in this series.  The ornaments are fairly simple.  We've got Santa and the young deer.  That's pretty much it.  But that doesn't mean it's a bad ornament.  Santa is wearing mostly read with a green sash and a green border with silver stars on his coat.  He's got the traditional red and white hat, although he's got another star at the end.  In his right hand, he's holding a lantern.  His left hand is resting in the middle of the fawn's back.

The fawn has one hoof off the ground, but the other three are firmly planted.  He's looking at Santa.  While he's mostly brown, he's covered in white spots.

I'll admit, I've always loved deer, but even so there is something about this ornament that appeals to me.  While Santa's face is pretty expressionless, the deer seems to be looking at him very adoringly.

Like the first ornament in the series, there is an obvious seam in the animal.  This time, half way through the deer's back is a jig jag line.  It looks like it was planned this time instead of looking like a flaw.  And it's not quite as noticeable.  I'm not thrilled, but I don't mind it as much here.

The ornament is lightweight and sounds hollow.  It feels sturdy enough to survive a few drops and mistreatments, but I wouldn't plan to abuse it much.  I have a feeling this one could break a little more easily than most Hallmark offerings.

While Santa appears to have feet under him, when you flip the ornament over, you'll see he's actually standing on a wide base.  Between that and the deer's three hooves on the ground, the ornament is pretty steady if you set it out.  When you put a hanger through the brass ring on the top of the ornament, you'll find that it tips ever so slightly forward, but it's not enough to be noticeable.

Since the ornament is the second in a series, you can find a 2 in a Christmas tree symbol on the base.  You'll also find the year of release down there.

Santa and the fawn are so cute together.  While I don't need another series of ornaments to collect, A Visit From Santa is just too cute to resist.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Visits from Santa.

Original Price: $12.95

TV on DVD Review: Castle - Season 2

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun mysteries fill with good characters and great quips
Cons: A few sub-par episodes late in the second half
The Bottom Line:
Mysteries, humor
With some great main characters
Make for a great show




"I Hate This Case."  "I Know.  Isn't It Great?"

Most of the fun mystery shows are on the USA Network.  One of the rare ones on a traditional network is Castle, and season two was just as fun as the short first season.

The show revolves around bestselling mystery author Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion).  His latest blockbuster series is based on NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic).  Castle has pulled strings with the mayor's office and gotten permission to shadow her on the job.  Not only does he not get in the way, but he even offers some help with the bizarre cases she handles.

Just how bizarre are talking about?  Well, there's the man found tangled in a tree.  An Arctic explorer is killed while talking to students from his latest Arctic trip...in a New York apartment.  A man with vampire teeth is found in a graveyard with a stake through his heart.  A bike messenger and convict are both killed the same day.  A dead man is identified by both his wife and his fiancĂ©e.  And a TV host is killed after whispering to Castle "They want me dead."

While the cases are fun, we've also got romantic tension between Castle and Beckett.  While Castle has obvious had a crush on her for a while, Beckett is doing her best to resist him at every turn.  Throw in Esposito (Jon Huertas) and Ryan (Seamus Dever), the two detectives under Beckett and Castle's mother, actress Martha Rodgers (Susan Sullivan), and daughter Alexis (Molly C. Quinn), and you've got the elements that make this so much more than the police procedurals that most networks air.

And that's one reason I love this show so much.  Yes, you've got the police element to the show.  We regularly see the coroner.  But the emphasis isn't on the evidence and it finding the killer. Instead it's one interviewing the suspects and breaking alibies.  The cases are filled with twists and turns.  Okay, so half the time I see the twists coming from a ways away, but I still enjoy going along for the ride even if I have things figured out early.

It's the characters who really make this show.  Castle's arrogant playboy attitude is softened by his interaction with his mother and daughter.  Beckett lets her tough demeanor slip quite often, so we get a glimpse of a very vulnerable person beneath her exterior.  I've actually come to believe the romantic tension between the two this season as a result of how they've developed the characters, too.  While Martha can be over the top in a famous actress way at times, I still like her.  But its Alexis I really love.  She and Castle have a wonderful father/daughter relationship, and scenes with the two of them always warm my heart.  As much as I like them, I will confess to always getting Esposito and Ryan mixed up.  I can never remember from week to week who got what element of character development.  I'm sure it's just me as this isn't the first time I've had that kind of trouble with secondary characters.  Even so, I do enjoy their characters when they are on screen.

So I'm sure it will come as no surprise to say I like the acting as well.  Everyone from the leads to the guest stars bring their characters to life perfectly each week.

Plus there's the humor.  The characters are always teasing each other, and Beckett and Castle exchange some great one liners.  I laugh several times over the course of each episode.  And it's the humor that makes this show so much fun to watch in reruns even if you already know how the mystery ends.

As another measure of fun, the first Nikki Heat novel came out in real life the same time that it was released on the TV show.  They make constant references to the novel in the first half of the season, and those references are all true.  If you like the show, be sure to check the book out as well.

For the most part, they do a good job with continuity on the show.  The episodes pretty much stand on their own, with only the littlest of carry over.  They do start this season with Castle and Beckett dealing with the aftermath of Castle's interfering in Beckett's past.  And later in the season, they do half solve the case of Beckett's mother's murder.  However, there were a couple of dropped balls later in the season, right about the time that they did two or three episodes in a row that lost the fun spark.  Fortunately, things picked up on all fronts for the last few episodes of the season.

Season two consisted of 24 episodes, and they are all here on 5 discs in wide screen and full surround.  Extras include a few behind the scenes featurettes, one about how they stage the murders, plus deleted scenes and bloopers.

As much as I enjoy mysteries, I like my murder on the light side.  Castle certainly fits that bill perfectly.  It's got fun cases filled with quips.  If that sounds appealing to you, you'll find season two entertains from start to finish.

Season Two Episodes:
1. Deep in Death
2. The Double Down
3. Inventing the Girl
4. Fool Me Once...
5. When the Bough Breaks
6. Vampire Weekend
7. Famous Last Words
8. Kill the Messenger
9. Love Me Dead
10. One Man's Treasure
11. The Fifth Bullet
12. A Rose for Everafter
13. Sucker Punch
14. The Third Man
15. Suicide Squeeze
16. The Mistress Always Spanks Twice
17. Tick, Tick, Tick...
18. Boom!
19. Wrapped up in Death
20. The Late Shaft
21. Den of Thieves
22. Food to Die for
23. Overkill
24. A Deadly Game

Video Game Review: Namco Museum Remix for Wii

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: The nine classic games are as fun as I remember them being
Cons: The "Remix" games are too simple and boring
The Bottom Line:
Lesser known classics
Are only reason to buy
Boring remixes




The Classics Are Great.  The Remixes are Only Okay.

I love the classic arcade games I grew up with, so one of the first purchases I made for my Wii was the Namco Museum Remix.  This game for the Wii has 5 updates of classic games (called remixes) and 9 games from the 80's video arcade.  While the new games aren't all that great, the classics are fun to play again.

Remix Titles

The remixes are all attempts to update some classics, take advantage of the Wii's unique controllers, and give us more of their best known star, Pac-Man.  He appears in all 5 of the games.

Galaga Remix is the weirdest of the bunch only because I don't see how it applies to the original.  Pac-Man is rolling down a track in space, and we have to keep invading aliens from hurting him.  We've got a target on the screen that we move by moving the Wii controller, and we hit the aliens when we fire when they are in the cross hairs.  We have no real control over Pac-Man, and there are times we're shooting at aliens without any sight of our hero.  The video is pretty impressive as it zooms through the various levels.

Pac'N Roll Remix finds Pac-Man eating his way through various 3D levels as he tries to pick up enough energy pellets to leave the level while avoiding the ghosts.  The levels are actually pretty simple, it's not that hard to finish them.

Remember those machines where you have a mallet and are trying to hit gators as they come out from a hole?  That's the premise of Gator Panic Remix.  You are Pac-Man and are trying to hit the gators before they bite your friend the turtle.  It's amusing for a game or two, however, the gators will still bite the turtle even if you've hit them, so by the end when all four are out at once, it gets hard to keep him from being bitten.

Pac-Motos finds us as Pac-Man trying to knock other objects off the playing field without falling off ourselves.  Most of the levels are pretty basic until you get to the boss level.  Even with the power ups, they're almost impossible to defeat.

The final Remix is my favorite.  Then again, I always loved the original Rally-X.  This time around, Pac-Man is driving and we steer him as he tries to collect all the flags on a course without crashing into the cars chasing him or the rocks on the maze.  Some levels require us to collect them in a certain order, while others are the traditional collect in any order you can.  The controls on this one are a little hard, but I remember that on the original as well.

Remix Thoughts

A large part of me wonders if this part of the game is aimed at kids instead of adults.  Most of the games seems remarkably easy.  You start each level with three lives and just start that level over if you lose them all.  Usually, I can move on with only dying once.  Twice means I really wasn't trying that hard.

The graphics are another thing that makes me thing these are aimed at kids.  They are very cartoony in nature.  Now I know the classics they are based on weren't the best in the way of graphics, especially by today's standards.  But they seem pretty childish.

The sounds are pretty basic as well.  There are sound effects and music, but nothing super impressive.  Since the games are simple, that actually works for me.

Most of these games require the use of the Wii remote and the Nunchuk.  The controls are easy to intuitive, however, they aren't always easy to master.  I mentioned how finicky they can be on the Rally-X Remix already.  On Pac'N Roll, it takes a lot of work to get Pac-Man to roll where you want him to in the 3D environment.

Several of these games do include multi-player versions, but I haven't subjected any of my friends to them.

If the game stopped here, I would probably recommending you miss this game.  But the classics.  Ah, my old friends.

Carnival Arcade (The Classics)

I should start out by pointing out what you will not find here.  They don't include the original Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man.  But I do enjoy the games included.

My favorite is a little known game called Mappy.  You are a mouse detective trying to recover stolen items from some cats.  You have to bounce from level to level collection the items without being touched.  For the simple premise, it is remarkably addicting.

Right up there is Dig Dug.  Here, you are a guy trying to either plow up monsters or squash them in their under ground lair.  Simple yet so addictive.  I would play this by the hour on my Atari 2600, and here it is no different.

While we don't get the original Pac-Man, we do get three different versions.  My favorite is Super Pac-Man.  Here, we're eating food on a maze with doors we have to unlock before we can get to the food.  That adds an extra level because sometimes you can get trapped by just one ghost.  In addition to the power pellets, we get two super pellets that let us crash through barriers and fly over the ghosts.

Easily as addicting is Pac-Mania, an early 3D version of the classic that lets us jump over ghosts.

Rounding out the Pac-Man games is Pac&Pal.  We're trying to eat fruit after matching it, and we have some different ways to harm the ghosts.  To be perfectly honest, I haven't quite figured this one out completely.  I usually play the other two instead.

We've got two Space Invader clones here.  The more well known is Galaxian.  It and Gaplus are fairly similar as the aliens not only shoot but dive bomb us.  They're fun, although we probably really only needed one of them.

Cutie-Q is a cross between pinball and Breakout.  You've got a pad you use to keep a ball on the play field as it rolls over stuff and clears the area at the top.

Rounding out this section is Xevious, an early mission game where we have to shoot planes and tanks as we fly through enemy territory.

Carnival Arcade Thoughts

These are the games I actually play.  They are pretty much imports from the arcade version, so if you are already familiar with the game, you can still beat it here.  My Mappy skills are just as good as ever, for example.  The games I wasn't familiar with before I started, I do poorly at.  But the harder I work, the better I get.

If you need your joystick to make this work, you can use the Nunchuk to control things.  Or you can turn the Wii Remote around the use the buttons and plus pad to control things.  I use both, depending on the game and what feels natural to me.  The controls in this part are surprisingly responsive.  As much as I'd like to blame things on them, usually my deaths are the result of my poor decisions and lack of skill.

The graphics are faithful to the original arcade versions.  That means they definitely look dated, especially the "3D" of Pac-Mania.  However, I love them because they remind me of the games I loved to play.  Likewise, the sound is the familiar arcade music and effects.  Honestly, you could turn the volume down and not miss much.

Final Thoughts

I bought this game for the classic games, and on that front I am not disappointed.  When I pull this game out, they are what I play almost exclusively.  I had hoped the new versions would be fun, and they left Rally-X alone enough that it is still fun.  The others are just too easy to be much fun.

So if you like the lesser known classics mentioned here or classics in general, it is worth it to get Namco Museum Remix.  Otherwise, don't let the lower price trick you into buying a game you won't spend much time playing.

Ornament Review: Jolly Snowman - Noel Nutcrackers #2 - 2009 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament with the added nutcracker movement
Cons: Glitter on your hands
The Bottom Line:
Cute Jolly Snowman
I love his hidden lever
A great ornament




This Snowman Will Make Your Entire Tree Jolly

I wasn't super impressed with the first ornament in the Noel Nutcracker series, but that change with Jolly Snowman.  The second entry in this Hallmark ornament series is a great addition to any tree.

Snowman is a fairly classic looking snowman.  He's made of two balls, a big one for his body and a small one for his head.  He does have legs and feet.  He's wearing ear muffs and a cap with matching scarf.  I'm a little surprised that these are plastic like the rest of the ornament instead of being fuzzy.  He's got three pieces of coal for buttons.  I can't quite tell what his eyes are, but they are black.  He's got a carrot nose and a huge smile has been drawn on his face.  Right there is enough to make you smile.  His right hand is by his side, but he's holding a broom in his left hand.

All the parts that are snow are covered in glitter.  From a distance, it makes him look nice and sparkly.  But if you have to actually touch him, you'll find glitter on your fingers.  Fortunately, he is standing on a base you can hopefully use to keep that glitter rub off to a minimum.

Snowman does have a working nutcracker motion, although I doubt he could really crack any nuts.  The opening that moves is right underneath his smile.  In a touch I love, the lever that moves his mouth is actually the part of his scarf hanging in the back.  It actually moves fairly flush to his body, so when it's down all the way, it looks like just another part of the ornament.  But if you want to move it, it moves very easily.  I always wind up with glitter on my fingers when I move the lever, but it's worth it.

I mentioned earlier that Snowman sits on a base.  This gives him a nice, stable base, so he will stand level if you want to display him with your other nutcrackers.  The bottom of this base is where you'll find the year and number in the series if you are looking for that information.

But Snowman just cries out to be hung, on a tree that is.  At the very top of his hat you'll find the brass hook.  Slip an ornament hanger through it and you'll find that he does lean ever so slightly forward, but it's only noticeable when you are looking for it.

Jolly Snowman is not only jolly, but also cute.  I get a smile on my face every time I look at him.  I'm glad I've added him to my Christmas ornament collection.

Check out the rest of the Noel Nutcrackers series.

Original Price: $15.00

TV on DVD Review: Rocky and Bullwinkle - Season 4

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Puns and silliness reign
Cons: Only if you don't love puns and silliness
The Bottom Line:
Nothing serious
Just lots of good clean laughs and
Puns puns puns puns puns




Return of the Pun as Season 4 Finally Hits DVD

It's been five years since we last got a season set of Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends, and I'd just about given up hope that we'd ever get season 4.  But I finally got my wish, and I've laughed my way through this set.

This half hour TV cartoon from the 1960's features puns, puns, and more puns.  Trust me, if you don't like puns, you need to pass right by this set.  There is nothing of interest to you here.  But if you love a good pun as much as I do, you'll love every silly minute of this show.

Each show had five segments.  The first and last are the continuing adventures of Rocky and Flying Squirrel and his best friend Bullwinkle J. Moose as they get caught in life and death situations fighting Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.  These stories are serialized, so you'll want to keep watching so you can find out what happens to them next.  All told, we get five complete stories in this set.  They include:

Painting Thief - Boris and Natasha rob a French museum of their paintings.  To elude capture, they mail the paintings to Bullwinkle, who then gets discovered as the next great artist.

Guns of Abalone - Boris is firing at random on the world until they deliver Moose and Squirrel.  But our heroes are already on the way, if they can survive gun fire and sinking ships.

The Treasure of Monte Zoom - Boris is on the trail of a treasure buried on the bottom of a lake near Frostbite Falls.  And the way to find it?  Drain the lake.

Goof Gas Attack - Boris has invented a substance that makes genius complete idiots.  But it doesn't affect the already stupid, so the government calls on Bullwinkle to foil the villain.

Banana Formula - Bullwinkle is stalked by Boris after eating a banana with the formula to the new explosive Hushaboom.

These stories are played for puns and groaners more than anything else, so at times the story takes some turns that are illogical even for a cartoon featuring talking animals in a world otherwise populated with humans.  But when I let that go and just enjoy the ride, I find myself laughing hysterically and the antics of the characters.  And I love the fact that they break the rules, talking to the audience and including the narrator in the action all the time.

Each half hour episode always starts and ends with a segment in whatever the current story is.  Up second is either Fractured Fairytales of Aesop and Son.  Either way, you get a fractured tale that bears little resemblance to anything you might be familiar with.  Again, the silly and puns reign.

The middle segment is Bullwinkle's Corner, devoted to poetry readings, or Mr. Know-It-All, in which Bullwinkle shows you how not to do something.  These segments were often a disappointment to me because I recognized quite a few of them from previous seasons.  It's too bad they couldn't come up with some new material.  Not that I wasn't laughing again.  These are funny no matter how many times you've seen them.

Finally, we end with Peabody's Improbable History or Dudley Do-Right.  Peabody is a dog who has invented a time machine to introduce his boy Sherman to history.  And it's a good thing since Peabody always has to save the day and set history on the right track.  Even one time when he's home sick in bed they need his suggestions.  Dudley Do-Right is a spoof of melodramas as Canadian Mountie Dudley tries to finally defeat his arch nemesis Snidely Whiplash.  I think Dudley is the least punny thing you'll find here, although they are so silly they are still very funny.

If you sit down looking for the animation we get today, you'll be highly disappointed.  It's low budget quality.  It's not bad, but it's not great, even for that time.

But the joy of the show is the jokes.  I can't stop laughing at the antics of the characters or the puns they come up with.  And their self-referencal humor just adds to the fun.

The show does contain some references to life in the 60's, especially with Boris and Natasha obviously being Eastern European villains with faint communist ideologies.  Today's kids won't get all the jokes, but they will still appreciate much of the action.

There were only 19 half hour episodes in season 4, so we get two discs here.  The price actually reflects that quite nicely, not being nearly as high as the earlier seasons were when I got them years ago.  And that's all we get.  There are no extras.  There is an episode guide on a piece of paper that floats free in the case.  I hope I don't lose mine.  Also of note, there is a mostly clear R&B logo at the start of each segment that stays for about 30 seconds.  Yes, I wish it weren't there, but it isn't a surprise since it's been on the other sets as well.

I know there are still more episodes of this great show out there, so I hope we see another release soon.  But until then, I'm glad I finally got to enjoy Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends season 4.

Ornament Review: Pac-Man - 2008 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cool light and sound on this faithful arcade recreation
Cons: Back and sides light up when they shouldn't
The Bottom Line:
Trip down memory lane
Right there on your Christmas tree
Geeky, yes.  But cool.




Pac-Man Will Gobble His Way into Your Heart with this Arcade Ornament

Yes, I am a child of the 80's, and I love all those old video games.  Pac-Man is a particular favorite, and I spent many an hour playing Pac-Man on my Atari 2600.  I didn't play real arcades very often, but he was always a favorite there, too.  So naturally, I wanted Hallmark's 2008 Pac-Man ornament.

This ornament is a recreation of the classic arcade machine.  It's even got the panel on the front where you'd insert your quarter to play the game.  It's bright yellow and has the original game artwork painted on the sides, which include some highly digitized fruit, a bit of the screen, and of course a fully drawn Pac-Man with hands and feet.  The front includes a raised joystick and the one player or two player buttons.  There's also a picture of the game on the screen.  Pac-Man hasn't eaten too much of the board yet, but the cherry has come out.

This is a Magic ornament that includes light and sound.  On the back, you'll find a panel that can be removed easily.  The ornament takes three watch type batteries, and your first round are included.  When you press either the one or two player button, the game lights up and the sound starts.  For about 15 seconds, you get sounds from the game including the classic opening music, Pac-Man eating some pellets, chasing ghosts, and then finally dying.  The game stays light for a total of 30 seconds.  The screen lights up and the name at the top lights up as well.  Unfortunately, when you get the ornament in a dim room (like, say, in a room only light by a Christmas tree), you'll see that the sides of the ornament are thin enough to let light through as well.  That ruins the effect a little, although it is still very cool.  There is no easy way into the ornament, so once the light bulb burns out, I can't figure out a way to replace it.

The ornament has a flat base, so you can display it easily somewhere if you want do.  However, Hallmark designed it to hang on your tree.  You'll find their standard brass hook on the top of the ornament.  Pac-Man hangs perfectly straight.  Despite having the batteries and other electronic workings in him, he's also fairly light.  I'm sure the fact that he's made out of plastic helps with that.  He'll weigh down the branch he's on a little, but it won't be that bad.

The geek in me loves this ornament.  The sound and light really make Pac-Man extremely cool.  Just make sure you have some way to play the classic game handy because I have a feeling this ornament will make you want to play.

Original Price: $18.50

Book Review: Diamonds for the Dead by Alan Orloff

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Interesting characters, perfect tone, compelling story...
Cons: ...Once the story gets going
The Bottom Line:
After a slow start
This story will captivate
Josh makes a great lead




"Are Diamonds Still Forever if They've Gone Missing?"

I probably never would have picked up Diamonds for the Dead if an author I like hadn't raved about it as she read it.  When she offered to send me her copy, I couldn't resist a free book.  And I'm glad I accepted it because I enjoyed it.

Josh Handleman's life is falling apart.  His wife just left him for his business partner.  And then his father died.  So Josh headed back from San Francisco to his childhood home in Virginia.

Josh and his father had a strained relationship at best, so Josh quickly begins to learn all kinds of surprising things about his father.  For example, it turns out that Abe was very rich, although he left his millions to the Hebrew Home, a local assisted living center.  And there's the strange man living in the apartment in the basement of the house.

Despite the fact that it looks like Abe fell down the stairs in his house, Abe's best friend Lev insists to Josh that Abe had been murdered.  And when Josh finds out that Abe has an empty safety deposit box, a box that used to have diamonds, Josh begins to think that might be the case.  But who would kill his father?  And where are those diamonds?

Despite the fact that most of the books I read deal with murder, they usually have a light, even humorous tone to them.  That wasn't the case here, but it is very appropriate for the story.  Josh is going through some very hard things, and how he deals with them, or doesn't, propels the story forward.  And since it is narrated first person from his point of view, the more somber tone is completely appropriate.

Now that's not to say I didn't like Josh.  In fact, I was able to sympathize with him almost immediately.  He's weak and human dealing with things far beyond him.  I wanted him to find a solution to his problems.

The other characters in the book were also well developed.  The suspects were hard to figure out early on, as they should be.  Some were still enigmas at the end, but I still felt like they were well developed.  Others were open from their first appearance.  They were a breath of fresh air in a story where too many people seemed to have secrets.  A few characters only appeared a few times, but they were still strong enough and given enough context that I could remember who they were without any effort at all.

The plot started out a little slowly, and I was having a hard time getting into it.  When things did pick up, I started getting into the story and had a hard time putting the book down.  I did guess the ending before Josh figured things out, but the motive was still a mystery to me.

Diamonds for the Dead is a standalone book, but author Alan Orloff has a new series starting in April.  I will be keeping my eyes open for it.