Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: Encyclopedia Brown Carries On by Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown #14)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 10 fun, short mysteries to solve
Cons: Characters are thin
The Bottom Line:
Ten more short cases
Match wits with boy detective
Proves to still be fun

Ten More Cases with the World’s Smartest Ten-Year-Old

I have often confessed that, even with all the mysteries I read, I usually can’t figure things out much before the detective does if at all.  That’s nothing new.  As a kid, I had a hard time matching wits with Encyclopedia Brown, and as an adult, it’s just more embarrassing that he’s smarter than I am.

If you’ve missed this middle grade series, Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown is a boy who remembers everything he’s ever read and is super observant.  So when he is presented with a puzzle, he is able to point out what is out of place.  Quite often that trips up the criminal or would be criminal.  Each book consists of ten short stories with the solutions at the end of the book.  The idea is that the reader can solve the case along with Encyclopedia and then see if they figured things out correctly.

The books always open with a case that Encyclopedia’s father, the police chief in their town of Idaville, needs help with.  In Encyclopedia Brown Carries On, he’s trying to figure out how to move a giant mousetrap that a would be criminal left outside town hall when no one would buy it from him.  The rest of the stories find Encyclopedia and his partner Sally helping his friends and neighbors.  They encounter Bugs Meany a few times when Bugs tries to rig a drawing and again when he tries to set Sally and Encyclopedia up with the police.  They also help a friend keep his business giving for golf balls to himself and save the Left-Handers Club from sabotage.

As a kid, I was usually happy if I solved two cases per book without needing the solution at the end.  I’m glad I say I was somewhere around six or seven (I didn’t actually count) in this book.  And no, that’s not because I remembered the stories before I picked up the book; it’s been so long since I last read this collection they were all essentially new stories to me.

Each story is only about five pages, not including the solution in the back.  Throw in an illustration, and it is obvious they really do fit the short story classification.  There isn’t time for major twists or surprises, but that’s okay because this is a different kind of mystery focused on trying to have the reader think through the solution themselves.  Plus, they’re fun.

Because the stories are so short, it also means that there isn’t much in the way of character development.  Many of the kids in the stories are only around for that one story, so we hardly see them.  Even the series regulars like Encyclopedia and Sally aren’t super well developed.  But I didn’t care as a kid, and it didn’t really bother me now.

The books are a little dated, complete with the nickname Encyclopedia.  Do today’s kids even know what that is?  Overall, the stories and solutions hold up pretty well.  They certainly entertained me all over again.

I had almost forgotten just how much fun Encyclopedia Brown could be until I picked up Encyclopedia Brown Carries On.  While some elements might be dated, I think today’s kids would still enjoy time with him.

This review is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

July 14th's Weekly TV Thoughts

One new show added this week.  And Suits returns next week!

American Ninja Warrior – Wow!  So many inspiring stories tonight.  Truly inspiring, not like some of the ones we often get.  I was most moved by the woman who used to be in the wheelchair just two years ago.  Wow!  (Although did I miss it?  Did her husband not run?)  And donating a kidney and running just a couple of months later.  Having gone through surgery myself this year, that blows me away.  Of course, he was in better shape than I was before my surgery.

TKO – I was intrigued by this show, so I decided to give it a shot.  I might find myself getting tired of it fairly quickly, but for now, I think it is fun.  I’m actually surprised anyone can make it through any of those stages.  I think I’d fall off without any “help” from the other contestants, so my hat is definitely off to those two who did pretty well.

Take Two – One thing I am loving about this show is how the episodes start with one thing and quickly jump to something else.  From a sex tape to drug smuggling is the perfect example.  We are slowly seeing more of the characters, although they seem the least important part of the show.  Still, I’m loving what we are seeing.  Quirky and fun yet again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Book Review: The Death of an Ambitious Woman by Barbara Ross (Chief Ruth Murphy Mysteries #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong mystery, interesting main characters
Cons: Supporting characters a little on the weak side
The Bottom Line:
This car crash was no
Accident.  Complicated
Case well worth reading

It Definitely Wasn’t an Accident

When I started reading Barbara Ross, I started with her Maine Clambake Mysteries, always intending to go back and some point and read The Death of an Ambitious Woman, her first mystery.  It’s taken longer than I intended, but I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

Unlike her series, this book is set in a small town in Massachusetts and focuses on interim Police Chief Ruth Murphy.  As the book opens, she’s been acting as the police chief for several months, and it is looking likely that she is about to officially get the promotion.

However, things in town are about to heat up with a car crash.  Tracey Kendall is discovered after she crashes into a wall along a road on the outskirts of town.  She was driving very fast, and the lack of skid marks make it obvious she didn’t try to stop at all.  Things get more interesting when the mechanic who serviced her car disappears.  The more Ruth and her detectives investigate, the more pressure she faces to drop the case.  Will pursuing the truth cost her the promotion?  What really happened?

I went into this book expecting an excellent mystery, and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.  There were plenty of complications both in the form of red herrings and in the form of local politics.  Yes, Ruth has made some enemies over the years, and those bad relationships also come into play as she searches for the truth.  Not that Ruth lets that stop her.  The climax is ultimately satisfying and wraps things up perfectly.

We get to know Ruth and a few members of her staff very well.  The key players in the mystery are also strong characters.  There are a number of smaller players that I must admit I had a hard time keeping straight, but when they show up again, we were given enough context to remember who they are and how they relate to the mystery.

The book does have a few four-letter words scattered throughout, and we get a few descriptions of violence that are slightly more detailed than you would find in a typical cozy.  Even though this is flirting with the edges of the cozy/traditional/soft boiled subgenres, I’m sure that most fans of Barbara’s work will still really enjoy it.

For now, this book is a standalone.  However, I think there are more stories to tell with Ruth, and if Barbara Ross ever did go back to the character, I’d definitely want to read more.

I’m glad to have finally reading The Death of an Ambitious Woman.  Any fan of well written mysteries will be glad to have picked up this excellent debut mystery.

This review is part of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Review: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Heart pounding action
Cons: Slow start; lectures
The Bottom Line:
Dinos on attack
Slowed down by set up, lectures
Still enjoyable

Knowing What Is Coming Hurts, but Book Holds Up Remarkably Well

Way back when I first started listening to audio books, I grab whatever my library had available, which is how I wound up listening to a truly horribly abridgment of Jurassic Park.  But that was over 20 years ago, and I decided it was time to listen to the unabridged version.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, this techno thriller from 1990 tells the story of a new amusement park that was being built on an island off the cost of Costa Rica.  It is a special park because the owner has cloned dinosaurs and the main attraction.  And the owner of the park has thought of every possible way to make sure the animals are kept away from the guests to the guests are kept safe.

Or have they?  When the owner, John Hammond, invites Drs. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm, to visit the park and determine whether it is safe or not, they begin to find that everything is not as it appears.  And that’s before the unthinkable happens.  Will anyone be safe?

With five successful movies now coming out over the last 25 years, it’s hard to pretend we don’t know what is coming.  Yet that is exactly what you need to do when you read the book.  But even so, the book starts very slowly.  Yes, I would agree that time is needed to explain the science behind the science fiction here and to start to show how unsafe everything is.  Yet the first half of the book just drags while we sit and get these lectures.  Some scenes on the mainland early on do help build the intrigue.

And then the mayhem starts, and it becomes a heart pounding race through the park.  I was fortunate to listen to much of this in one day as I was driving to visit family because it is incredibly hard to stop once the danger starts.  Fans of the movies will recognize some scenes from this book that were included in the second and third movie since there just wasn’t time for all the death and mayhem presented here in one film.

Which is why fans of the movies will still enjoy the book.  Yes, names are the same, but personalities and relationships are different, including the ages of the kids.  You’ll recognize some scenes from the movie, but there are plenty of scenes and plot points that got cut for time.  This was a 15 hour audio book after all.  That also includes a climax that is much better than the movie’s climax, and characters who have different fates in the two versions of the story.

The characters are just barely deep enough to make us care about them and the outcome, but they could be deeper.  The dinos are the real star of the book, just as they are the movies.  It doesn’t help that the background of the characters is established via clunky flashbacks in the first half, when we are waiting for things to get going.  Still, I did like most of the characters, although the seven-year-old girl got on my last nerve by the end.  Probably realistic for the age, but she was so obnoxious.

The book went further than I would have liked in the gruesome department.  And yes, I know exactly what this book is, so this is a personal complaint.  Just keep it in mind before you pick the book up yourself.

There are some interesting themes and ideas presented with the book.  Even though I completely disagree with the evolutionary basis behind them, I still found stuff to chew on.  Unfortunately, these are presented more as lectures, although the lectures are backed up by what we are seeing as the story unfolds.

As I already mentioned, I got an unabridged audio version this time, narrated by Scott Brick.  I believe this is a relatively new production.  Whether it is or not, Scott did a great job of bringing the story to life.

Overall, I enjoyed revisiting the book that started a franchise.  Despite the flaws, Jurassic Park is just as entertaining now as it was when it was first released almost 30 years ago.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Action, laughs, effects
Cons: All cons shrunk to microscopic size
The Bottom Line:
Size shifting heroes
Movie filled with laughs, action
A delight for all

Ant-Man is Back for another Epic Size-Shifting Adventure

Fans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe were quick to note the one hero that was missing from Avengers:Infinity War – Ant-Man.  I wasn’t that surprised since he had his own stand along moving coming out just two months later.  Ant-Man and the Wasp is set about the same time as the latest Avengers movie, and is a fun, wild ride.

It’s been two years since we last saw Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).  After getting captured following his adventure with Cap (as Captain America’s friends call him), Scott has spent the last two years under house arrest.  He’s three days away from getting his ankle bracelet removed, and he’s doing everything by the book to avoid violating the terms of his deal, which would get him sent to prison for 20 years.

One of those terms was avoiding any contact with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).  He’s been very good about that as well until a very vivid dream makes him think he might have had contact with Hope’s mother, who disappeared into the sub-atomic world decades ago.  Next thing he knows, he’s working with Hope and Hank to rescue Janet.  Unfortunately, they’ve attracted the attention of a mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who can phase in and out of existence as well as some thugs lead by Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins).  Will they be able to rescue Janet without the FBI catching Scott breaking his deal?  Or will these added complications make it impossible?

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that you are in for a very fun ride.  I was laughing the entire way through the movie, as was the audience I saw the movie with.  There are fantastic lines and funny situations from start to finish.  I think I was smiling the entire time even when I wasn’t laughing.

And, of course, there is plenty of action.  As the title suggestion, Hope is in on the action as The Wasp, and that means double the size changing action as she and Scott work together to save the day.  Those looking for action won’t be disappointed either.

The special effects team must have had to work overtime on the film.  With all the size changes, there are so many effects shots it is mind boggling.  Yet each of them came out perfectly believable.

With all the action and laughs, there isn’t a lot of time for serious character development.  Yet when the story does slow down a little, the actors shine at those quieter moments.  They never miss a beat throughout the entire film.

As we’ve come to expect, there are two additional scenes, one near the beginning of the credits and one at the very end.  You MUST stay for the first scene, and that’s all I will say about it.  The second scene is fun, but not a must see.

I’m sure the events of this film will dovetail with the upcoming Avengers sequel in some way, although I’ve no idea how that will happen.  It just made me more anxious for next May to roll around so we can get the cliffhanger resolved.

Marvel has proved again that they know how to make an audience pleasing movie.  Ant-Man and the Wasp will leave audiences smiling as they await the next adventure with these characters.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book Review: A Souffle of Suspicion by Daryl Wood Gerber (French Bistro Mysteries #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good mystery and cast
Cons: Mimi’s relationship with Tyson
The Bottom Line:
Crush Week, festival
Complicated by murder
Delicious puzzle

Crush Week, Sweets Fest, and Murder

Fans of Daryl Wood Gerber’s books (and the books she wrote as Avery Aames) know that she loves creating event for her mysteries.  So I wasn’t surprised to find that A Souffle of Suspicion, the second in her French Bistro mysteries, features a festival.

In this case, the festival is centered around sweets, a sure fire crowd pleaser.  However, Mimi Rousseau’s Bistro and Maison Rousseau are only providing the grounds.  This Sweet Treats festival is also timed for Crush Week, the time in the fall when the Napa Valley swells with tourists coming to watch the grape harvest.  Between the two, the hotel has no vacancies and the bistro is booked solid for both lunch and dinner.

Mimi is not responsible for the festival, that falls to Renee, the sister of Mimi’s head chef Camille.  However, Renee has ruffled a few feathers in her efforts to turn the festival company she just bought into a successful business.  Still, Mimi isn’t prepared to get a call from Camille that she’s just found Renee dead in Camille’s kitchen.  While it was clearly murder, the police are looking at Camille.  Can Mimi clear her?

Who doesn’t love sweets?  That alone helped pull me into the story.  Not that I needed much since we meet Renee and a few of the suspects early on and it isn’t too long before Renee dies.  I did feel the pace could have been better a time or two, but overall that was a minor complaint.  The climax was surprising and pointed out some clues I had completely missed when I was reading the book.

My bigger complaint comes from one particular relationship between the characters.  One of Mimi’s good friends is Tyson, the detective in charge of the case.  Now, I get the police not liking her help is solving things.  I am perfectly fine with warnings about staying out of police work.  However, I have a hard time buying that they are friends.  Most of their interactions feel more antagonistic than that.

That’s the only character or relationship I have an issue with, however.  The rest of the returning characters are charming, and I loved getting to spend time around them again.  The suspects were strong, and I really couldn’t figure out who was going to wind up the killer until Mimi figured it out.

Of course, we get plenty of recipes to go with the culinary theme.  They do focus on the French bistro theme of the series, although we do get a couple of treats as well.

A Souffle of Suspicion features a well done puzzle with characters we love and plenty of mouth water food.  What more could culinary cozy fans want?

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Ornament Review: Tea Time! #2 - Penguins - 2017 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, creative tea set
Cons: Short, stout penguins bother me still
The Bottom Line:
Penguins serving tea
Festive set has grown on me
Certainly is fun

Tea for Penguin Lovers

I’m not sure I would have thought of penguins at Christmas time.  Yes, they live in the snow and cold (although Antarctica and not the North Pole), but they aren’t something you see regularly at Christmas.  Except with Hallmark.  They are doing well marketing penguins in their Christmas decorations, so I wasn’t too surprised to see them pop up for the second in the Tea Time! series.

This set of two ornaments features two penguins, an adult and a child.  The adult forms the tea pot itself, with one wing acting as the handle and one as the spout.  While it is mostly black and white with orange for feet, it sports a little blue and purple in the hat and scarf it is wearing.

The child is the cup.  It’s crouched down, and the top of its head is off so we can have the opening of the cup.  At least that’s what it looks like to me.  Again, the cup is mostly black, white, and orange, but this penguin is wearing a purple scarf that also is forming the handle of the cup.  The person drinking this tea likes it sweet since there are sugar cubes floating in the top.  Oh, given the chocolate brown of the liquid we can see inside, maybe this is hot chocolate.

I don’t typically think of penguins as short and fat, but that is exactly what we see here.  I know, I know, they are supposed to be a tea pot and tea cup; I get why they look the way they do.  But it still looks slightly wrong to me.  It doesn’t help that their cheeks are puffed up like they are holding their breath.

On the other hand, I really do like them; they are a fun addition to the Tea Time! series.  I could totally see someone wanting them as a fun seasonal tea set.  In fact, if this set were real, it would work great for the entire winter, not just Christmas.

Being a teapot and teacup, both stand up straight if you set them out to be displayed.  You’ll find the series marker on the bottom of both ornaments.

Unlike most Hallmark ornaments, these ornaments include the white ribbon you’d need to hang them on your tree.  When you do, you’ll find that they both hang straight.

Both pieces of the set are made from porcelain, so they are more fragile than many Hallmark ornaments, which are made from plastic.  You’ll want to keep this in mind when you display them so they don’t accidentally get broken.

This set has grown on me the more I looked at it.  While I’m still completely on board with the short, stout penguins, it makes a fun second Tea Time! set.

Original Price: $19.95

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Loving look at a loving man
Cons: Seems the video could have been better at times; could have been better focused
The Bottom Line:
Mr. Rogers tribute
Wonderful document’ry
Nostalgia induced

Remembering the Best Neighbor

Like many, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  In fact, I watched it much longer than most probably did.  I usually blame my brother, who is seven years younger than I am, but let’s be honest – I still haven’t grown up, so I was very much enjoying watching the episodes.  With those fond memories in mind, I knew I had to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as soon as I heard about it.

This movie is a documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, best known to most of us as Mr. Rogers, the creator of that seminal children’s TV show.  Through archival video and interviews with family, friends, cast, and crew, we get a look at the man who created such a huge part of American culture.

This is not a hit piece – not even remotely.  If you are looking for any dirt there might be on the man, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  But I’m perfectly okay with that.  We don’t need to know any and all secrets about a person, not that I think there are any with Mr. Rogers.  Everyone interviewed for the movie says he was exactly how he came across on the show, a kind, caring man.

The movie fills us in a bit on the history surrounding the show starting and even some moments where the show or Mr. Rogers himself made history.  However, it isn’t exactly a biography.  It is almost more of a character study instead.  The film does follow a lose timeline of the show, but it also seems to jump from one subject to another.  Honestly, I wish it had been a bit more focused.

Watching the documentary as an adult made me appreciate the show in an entire new way.  The show is so anti-everything on TV, even back then.  The actors are able to take moments that would be cheesy and make them work in powerful ways.  The show teaches with little if any lecturing.  And the songs!  The songs came back to me in just a few notes, and I felt like I had seriously been missing them.

The picture quality is uneven.  Naturally, that is to be expected with the age of some of the video they have for us, but I felt like some of it was done that way on purpose.  I wish they would have cleaned up what they could and left the archival footage grainy as it has become over the years.

I was a bit surprised to see a documentary on Mr. Rogers earning a PG-13 rating.  They come from a couple of stories one crew member told.  Again, don’t worry, they don’t reflect poorly on Mr. Rogers.  In fact, they show a fun sense of humor.  I’m torn because I did like them, but it seems like, given the subject, they could have been left out.  Then again, this probably isn’t a movie kids would enjoy anyway, so I’m most likely overthinking this.

Be prepared for a heavy dose of nostalgia as you watch.  I spent the afternoon after watching the movie thinking about some of my favorite moments from the show, like the film on making crayons or meeting the killer whale trainers or the “Bubbleland Opera.”  (Seriously, I loved that as a kid!)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a loving tribute to a man many of us still consider a neighbor.  And it leaves you with stuff to think about – how are you impacting those around you.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

July 7th's Weekly TV Thoughts

I'm a little surprised that there was no American Ninja Warrior on Monday.  But that means I just had one show to watch this week.

Take Two – Once again, the show was lots of fun, but I’m not sure I buy that ending.  The owner would really talk to the guy responsible instead of doing something to hurt him?  I’m really not sure I’m buying it.  Love the new office, and that commercial was pretty funny at the end, too.  I love how they are giving Sam something to help solve the case each week.  This really is reminding me of early Castle, which is a very good thing.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Ornament Review: A Tasty Treat Repaint - Petite Penguins #1 Repaint - 2017 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute penguin
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Treat revisited
With some fun color changes
Must for collectors

This Tasty Treat Repaint is Just Grape

Hallmark loves making slightly different versions of their popular ornaments, especially if the ornament is part of a series, not that the collectors like me complain too loudly.  It’s how we got the 2017 repaint of A Tasty Treat, the first Petite Penguins ornament.

Like the original, this miniature ornament features a penguin holding a popsicle that is bigger than he is.  However, the popsicle has changed from red to purple.  Clearly, this penguin wanted a grape treat.  The scarf on his neck is a different color as well, a yellow-green and light blue strip this time around.  Of course, the penguin himself is still black and white, and the end of the popsicle is still covered in glitter to represent the ice frozen on the top.

I thought the original was cute, and I love this version just as much.  Maybe even a little bit more.  While purple isn’t a traditional Christmas color, somehow it makes this ornament stand out.  I just love that color choice.  But maybe that’s because I would have chosen purple as a kid over red because red was usually cherry, and I would prefer the purple grape flavor.

Either way, since this ornament is the exact same mold as the original just painted differently, it still stands on its own.  I know, it doesn’t look like it will since the popsicle is so big, and it’s not the most stable, but it will stand up as long as it isn’t somewhere you will bump it.  Likewise, the ornament tips slightly thanks to the oversized popsicle, but it actually looks straight at that angle.

What is most interesting is the series marker.  This is the only part of the ornament mold they changed.  Not only did they leave the series marker out, but they changed the copyright to reflect the original release year and the year of this repaint.

I want to mention again that this is a miniature ornament.  The entire thing is an inch tall.  As long as you expect that when you purchase him, you’ll be fine.

I have more ornaments than I know what to do with, but I couldn’t resist getting A Tasty Treat to add to my collection.  He’s just so cute.  If you are a fan of Hallmark’s penguin ornaments, you’ll love him, too.

You'll enjoy this ornament with the official entries in the Petite Penguins series.

Original Price: $7.95

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Italian Iced Winner

I know, I know.  I'm a couple of days late pulling the winner for Italian Iced.  But I finally did it tonight, and the winner is...


I just sent you an e-mail, so please get back to me as soon as possible so I can make sure you get your prize.

Book Review: One Fete in the Grave by Vickie Fee (Liv and Di in Dixie #3)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Enjoyable mystery, great cast of characters
Cons: Pacing a little uneven
The Bottom Line:
Fireworks on fourth
Perfect disguise for murder
Fun summer cozy

This Fourth of July Ends with the Bang of Murder

Typically, my quest to read books around the holiday when they are set is limited to Christmas.  However, when I realized that One Fete in the Grave started on the 4th of July, I had to make it an early summer read.

A killer used the annual fireworks display in Dixie, Tennessee, to cover murder.  As soon as the fireworks display has ended, the body of Bubba Rowland is discovered.  He’s a member of the town council who has plenty of people who dislike him thanks to his corruption.

Party planner Liv McKay was in charge of the festivities this year, but she isn’t planning to get involved in the investigation.  That is until Earl, her mother’s fiance, is accused of the murder.  True, Earl and Bubba had their disagreements, but he couldn’t have done it.  Unfortunately, the evidence does look pretty convincing.  Liv has her work cut out for her.

If you like books that start with a bang, you’ll like this one.  Okay, so maybe that bang is the fireworks, but Bubba’s body is found at the bottom of page two.  While we don’t meet the victim alive in the book, we still get to know what kind of person he was as Liv’s investigation unfolds.  Yes, at times she gets distracted by her business, something that slows down the plot, but there are still plenty of suspects, and the climax surprised me even though it was perfectly logical.

We’ve got a great cast of characters in this series, and they are all present.  Liv’s mother is a hoot, and I enjoyed a sub-plot she was involved in.  I still love Liv’s relationship with her husband, and Liv’s best friend Di has a large part in this book.  We don’t spend as much time getting to know the suspects, but they still come across as completely real.

If you are planning a party, there are some tips in the back to help you.  We even get a couple of completely appropriate recipes, although neither is for the chocolate cake I was drooling over in this book.

Whenever you party with this book, you’ll find it enjoyable.  One Fete in the Grave combines the lazy days of summer with a murder in an enjoyable way.

Party even more with the rest of the Liv and Di in Dixie Mysteries.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Movie Review: Incredibles 2

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Laughs and action with a family we love
Cons: Cons would make this movie less Incredible
The Bottom Line:
More action and laughs
As Incredibles return
Sequel well worth wait

Incredibly Fun Sequel

It’s been 14 years since we first met the family of superheroes known as The Incredibles.  Since that time, the superhero genre has exploded with the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaching new heights with each movie and plenty of superhero shows on TV.  Like others, I’m surprised it has taken so long for us to get this sequel, but I found Incredibles 2 well worth the wait.

This movie picks up moments after the last one ends.  And I do mean moments.  We actually get to watch as this family of superheroes takes on The Underminer, which means we don’t have to search for John Ratzenberger’s cameo.

Unfortunately, the fight doesn’t go well, and it means that the Incredibles aren’t changing any minds about bringing superheroes out of the shadows.  In fact, the family finds themselves staying in a hotel without any job prospects.

That is until Lucius Best, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), passes on an offer he’s received.  It seems that a mystery man wants to help bring superheroes back into the light, and he thinks that Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), is the best person to do that.  This means leaving Bob, aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), with kids Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).  Will Elastigirl succeed in her mission?  Can Bob handle the kids?

And we are off on another fun ride.  I must admit I was worried from the previews that this movie would make Bob out to be an idiot when it comes to dealing with the kids, but I felt the movie walked the fine line when it came to that plot.  What do I mean?  There were plenty of laughs with the issues the kids were having, but they weren’t all at Bob’s expense.  And he definitely tried hard, which helped a lot in my mind.

I will admit that the previews spoiled many but not all of the best laughs in the film.  But that didn’t seem to matter.  When we hit those scenes in the movie, the audience I was with laughed just as hard, and I was right there with them.  I must admit that Jack-Jack stole much of the show.  Overall, this is a great comedy.

What the previews didn’t spoil was the superhero storyline that Elastigirl is involved in.  Granted, the twists weren’t all that surprising, but it was still very well done.  And the villain, while pure evil, does provide us some things to think about.  Just maybe not quite to the extremes presented here.  We also get to meet a host of new superheroes with a range of powers, and I enjoyed them very much.

The voice cast is wonderful again.  They bring their characters to life perfectly and allow us to get lost in the story.  The animation is stylized like it was in the first movie, but perfectly captures the feel of this film.

Speaking of which, I once again loved the retro 50’s look of the film.  With modern references worked in, it allows the film to feel timeless.

There were warnings outside the theater and before the film started about flashes of light that might bother those with photosensitive epilepsy, so keep that in mind.  I was a bit surprised to find a couple characters used God’s name in vain as well, something we don’t usually see in animated movies.  Despite this being a superhero movie, I didn’t find the fight scenes that violent, especially compared to other superhero movies, so the crew did remember their audience when it came to those.

This is a sequel just as they should be – a chance to see what happens next to our favorite characters that is as much fun as the first one.  If you haven’t seen Incredibles 2 yet, fix that today.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Book Review: The Floating Light Bulb by John Gaspard (Eli Marks #5)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Plenty of page turning fun
Cons: Other things overwhelm mystery at times
The Bottom Line:
Myst’ry at the mall
Makes Eli learn a new act
Lots of magic fun

Eli Finds Himself Creating Magic and Stalking a Killer at the Mall of America

When it comes to magic in mysteries, you can’t go wrong with Eli Marks.  Of course, he has a distinct advantage since he is a magician by trade.  He finds himself in another situation where he needs to conjure up some clues in The Floating Light Bulb, the fifth book in the series.

As the book opens, Eli and his uncle Harry are attending a magic show inside the amusement park inside the Mall of America.  The magician, Billy Blume, is one of Harry’s former students, and he has asked the older magician for some pointers.  The show is rather lack luster, but it’s nothing compared to the big climax, when Billy fails to appear on cue.

The next day, Eli and Harry find out why Billy never appeared – he’d been shot.  Then, to Eli’s surprise, his ex-wife, Deidre, and her new husband, Homicide Inspector Fred Hutton, ask him to take the job as Billy’s replacement.  They just want him to observe what is going on and report anything to them.  He is not – repeat not – supposed to do any questioning or investigating on his own.  But will Eli find anything, or will learning the show keep him to distracted?

While magic has always played a part in these books, as it should, I felt the magic overwhelmed the mystery a bit.  Eli learning the act and rehearsing with his new co-workers does seem to take the focus from the mystery quite a bit of the time.  Yes, events related to the mystery are sprinkled throughout these scenes, so they aren’t all wasted, and we do get a great climax that resolves things.

And please don’t misunderstand, I had a blast reading this book.  The scenes involving magic were fantastic, and I found the story of Eli trying to learn all of this to be a lot of fun.  Equally fun was a sub-plot involving the Minneapolis Mystics, an unofficial group of older magicians that Harry belongs to.  They weren’t in the previous book, so I enjoyed getting to see them again this time.

It certainly helps that Eli is surrounded by a great cast of the characters.  Both returning and new are fantastic and really helped pull me into the story.

I really enjoyed my time with this book, and the pages flew by all to quickly.  The Floating Light Bulb gives Eli’s fans another magical adventure they will enjoy.

Need to catch up on this series?  Here are the Eli Marks Mysteries in order.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Monday, July 2, 2018

June 2018's Monthly Reading Summary

And it's time for another monthly reading summary.  I did get the index updated yesterday.

All ratings are on a scale of 1 (bad) to 5 (great).

The Watchman by Robert Crais (Cole & Pike #11) – 4
When a favor is called in, Joe Pike finds himself as the bodyguard for Larkin Conner Barkley, a spoiled rich young woman who has become a witness in a Federal investigation thanks to a traffic accident.  But when people come for them twice within just a few hours, Pike must go to extreme measures to protect them both.  The bigger question becomes, what is really going on?

From a mystery standpoint, this book is outstanding, which several wonderful twists and surprises.  I had a hard time putting the book down.  Since this book focuses on Pike, it is interesting to get some more perspective on this character, although I did feel some flashbacks slowed the book down.  Don’t worry, we do get Elvis Cole as well.  My biggest beef with the book was two characters who I found super annoying.  We were supposed to find them comedic, but I wanted to slap both of them.  Additionally, some characters can’t seem to remember when events they just lived through took place.

The Mystery at Lilac Inn by Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew #4) – 3
Nancy Drew and her friend Helen are traveling to Lilac Inn, which their friend Emily just bought.  Before they can even arrive, the canoe they were traveling in capsized.  Things get even more mysterious at the inn, where unexplained things have started happening.  And back in River Heights, someone is impersonating Nancy.  What is going on?

The mystery only gets more complex from there, and that’s my biggest complaint with the book.  So many different elements are introduced that it becomes overly convoluted and takes the villain explaining everything for the better part of a chapter in the end.  Still, all the action does keep the reader glued to the page.  The characters are sympathetic enough to make us care about the outcome but are their usual thin selves.  Most of the dated elements will be okay, although kids might be thrown by Nancy’s charge plate.  I know I was.

Fiction Can be Murder by Becky Clark (Mystery Writers Mystery #1) – 4
Melinda has a reputation for taking pleasure in being mean to people.  Even though Charlee Russo is an author this agent represents, she’s seen Melinda’s mean streak before.  So it isn’t necessarily a surprise when Melinda winds up murdered.  What is a surprise is the method – straight out of Charlee’s just submitted book.  Clearly, someone in her life is trying to frame her for murder.  But which of her friends could it be?

Early on, I was worried that I was about to be flooded with suspects.  While there are a lot, they were presented in a way that it was easy to remember them as the book went along.  It also helped that potential series regulars are also suspects and that the characters are distinct.  I did feel like the plot focused on one aspect of the mystery over some of the others, but there was still a good twist or two and the ending had me turning pages as quickly as possible.

In Cave Danger by Kate Dyer-Seeley (Pacific Northwest Mysteries #5) – 4
Meg Reed is off to Bend, Oregon, to write a feature on the lava caves in the area.  The future of the caves in in doubt thanks to a bill that would open the Federal land up to private use.  The fight over the bill is creating a lot of tension, but when the group Meg is exploring the cave with makes their way to the bottom, they find a dead body.  What is going on?

Those new to the series will be a little frustrated by this book.  We’re almost a quarter of the way into the book before Meg makes it to Bend, for example.  That time is spent updating us on several storylines introduced in the previous books, so fans will be satisfied.  As the book progresses, we get some good suspects and twists to this mystery as well as a great wrap up to several series storylines, which is nice since this is the last book in the series (at least for now).  Wrapping things up does overwhelm this book, so really, don’t start the series here.

Magnolia has noticed that sign at her local library proclaiming that “You can do anything at the library.”  She takes that as an invitation to put on a circus for the kids in the library.  Of course, they all need to be quiet – this is a library after all.  But really, what could possibly go wrong?

This is another delightfully silly picture book as Magnolia shows us just why the library and the circus shouldn’t mix.  Adults and kids alike will enjoy the story, and the pictures by Elisa Parsley add to the fun.  The climax is definitely the best part of the book.  Even though Magnolia is the one causing the problems, the book is narrated in second person, which actually works to add to the fun here.

Claws for Alarm by Karen MacInerney (Gray Whale Inn Mysteries #8) – 4
Natalie’s current guests at her bed and breakfast are on a yoga retreat, but any thoughts she’d had of peace and quiet have vanished.  They are demanding different food and squabbling amongst themselves.  However, the real drama is happening elsewhere on this island off the coast of Maine where newcomer Francine is making everyone’s life miserable in her efforts to remake the island into what she thinks is should be.  After a particularly memorable fight with Claudette, Francine winds up dead.  Natalie knows her friend couldn’t have done it.  But who did?

I do need to get one issue out of the way first.  There is a timing issue in the plot that keeps me from giving the version I read five stars.  Once it is edited (and the author is working on the revisions), that won’t be an issue at all.  And that’s great because this book is wonderful.  I love the setting of the series, and always feel like I’ve gotten to relax when I am reading about it.  Natalie and the usual cast are old friends, and I was glad to get updates on them.  The new characters are just as strong and memorable.  I thought I had the killer pegged early, but it turned out I was wrong, yet all the twists made sense at the end.

NOTE: I received a copy of the book.

Murder on Mulberry Bend by Victoria Thompson (Gaslight Mysteries #5) – 4
Midwife Sarah Brandt has gotten involved with the work of the Prodigal Son Mission which helps teenage women learn skills to keep them off the streets.  That’s how she is able to identify the body that Detective Sergeant Frank has found in a park – it’s one of the girls from the mission.  With no one to push the police to find justice for this girl, Sarah insists that Frank figure out what happened, with a little help from her.  Will they find the killer?

I was compelled to read this book soon after I read the previous one with the promise of an update on an ongoing storyline.  We do get quite a twist there before this book is over.  The main mystery was a little weak, however.  I didn’t feel like it had the twists we normally get, although maybe that’s because I had an idea what was going early in the book.  The pages still flew by since the characters are strong and the time period comes to vivid life.  Any time spent in this series is time well spent.

The Missing Map of Pirate’s Haven by Sigmund Brouwer (Accidental Detectives #12)
Ricky, his brother Joel, and their friends are off to San Diego to help Lisa’s uncle paint his new house.  When they arrive, they learn a local legend about a pirate who has buried his treasure in the area.  It sounds crazy until Joel finds a couple of silver coins.  Meanwhile, Lisa’s uncle is acting strangely.  Can Ricky figure out everything that is going on?

I’ve read this book a couple of times now, although it’s been over a decade since the last time I read it, so pieces of the plot came back to me as I was reading.  Even so, I was still blown away by how well plotted the book is, with all the clues needed in very plain sight.  The characters are strong as well, and they provide some wonderful laughs along the way.  The Christian elements is woven in seamlessly and never overwhelms this plot driven middle grade book.

With a Little Bit of Blood by D. E. Ireland (Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins #4) – 5
Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins have been invited to the first house party thrown by the new Lord and Lady Ashford (she the former Clara Eynsford-Hill).  The timing is perfect since a couple of strange things have forced the duo to look for a place to stay.  However, the first morning a fellow guest is killed during the rabbit hunt.  Henry is sure it was a hunting accident, but Eliza isn’t so sure.  Who is right?

This is another fun mystery with the characters made famous by Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.  The plot did seem to start slowly, however by the end I realized how things played into the overall story.  A few of the regulars are reduced to cameos, but it was still nice to catch up with them.  We have a rather large cast of characters, but it was always easy to keep them straight as the story unfolded.  We get some fun with new (for 1913) things like airplanes and cars as well as mentions of the more serious things unfolding in the world at the time.

Back in the Habit by Alice Loweecey (Falcone & Driscall Investigation #2) – 4
The last thing former nun Giulia ever wanted to do was go back to her former life, but that’s just what she’s had to do.  Her PI company has been hired to find out why a Novice committed suicide, and the best way to do that is for Giulia to become Sister Mary Regina Coelis again.  Not only is she confronting her past 18 months on the outside, but she’s having to look for secrets.  Was it a simple suicide?  Or will Giulia uncover more?

I waited too long to get back to Giulia, but I’m pleased I got to visit her again.  This book really allows her quite a bit of character growth since it is forcing her to face her past.  We do not see as much of the other series regulars as a result, but when we did, we got some of the laughs I expect with the characters.  The mystery does take us to some darker places, but it is good.  I do feel that the character growth overshadowed the mystery at times, but overall I enjoyed this book.

“K” is for Killer by Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone #11) – 5
PI Kinsey Millhone’s latest case is a cold one.  Lorna Kepler has been dead for 10 months, and when she died she had been dead for two weeks before she was found, so the police couldn’t even determine the cause of death.  As Kinsey begins to investigate, she realizes that Lorna had a completely secret life, and the investigation causes Kinsey to become a night owl like Lorna was.  Will following her footsteps lead to her killer?

This is another great mystery.  The cold case quality leads to some interesting complications to the investigation.  Lorna’s life included some things that don’t normally pop up in my cozies, but we didn’t get gratuitous detail, which I appreciated.   The ending was a bit rushed, but that’s a minor complaint.  We don’t see much of the other series characters, but Kinsey is fantastic as always, and the book is populated with real people that draw us into the story.

Italian Iced by Kylie Logan (Ethnic Eats #3) – 5
The Terminal at the Tracks diner is featuring Italian food this month, and Laurel is thrilled with how popular the choice has been on the first night.  However, she returns home to find that it has been trashed.  Nothing appears to be taken, but someone was searching for something.  Before she can figure out what they were looking for, she makes an even worse discovery, the body of mega movie star Meghan in the freezer down at the diner.  Laurel has had no contact with Meghan for the past year since Meghan fired her.  What was she doing in town?  And how did she come to die in the freezer?

The mystery is great with a steady stream of clues, surprises, and red herrings to keep us guessing until the end.  Laurel also gets a chance to reflect on her life then versus now, and the growth we see in her is wonderful.  There are only a few series regulars, but it is fun to spend time with them again.  The suspects are strong and do a great job of keeping us guessing until the end.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Marked Masters by Ritter Ames (Bodies of Art Mysteries #2) – 5
This book opens with Laurel Beacham in Florida with Jack Hawkes.  Despite what they have just gone through in the first book in this series, Laurel still doesn’t trust Jack and is only reluctantly working with him.  He is keeping too many secrets from her while demanding she share everything she know.  They are continuing to work together, however, in order to stop a major art heist, and Florida is their most promising lead.  A kidnapping and a dead body prove that they are on the right track.  Will they learn more about the plans in order to stop the heist?  Or will they be stopped permanently?

There is a strong on-going story line in this series involving an upcoming art heist, so I definitely recommend you read these books in order.  In fact, I wish I had read this one closer to the first.  The author does do a good job of filling in the blanks on what has happened before, which helped me remember the events of the first book.  The story starts strong and keeps going from twist to turn as the pages fly by, resolving enough to make this book feel like it has resolved while still leaving plenty for Laurel and Jack to face in the next book.  The duo make for intriguing leads, and the characters we meet along the way hold our interest as well.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Movie Review: Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: A couple of scenes are fun
Cons: The rest of the movie is a mess.
The Bottom Line:
This dino movie
Just sets up a franchise change
Really worth skipping

“A Rescue Op, Save the Dinosaurs from an Island that’s about to Explode.  What Could Go Wrong?”

I was one of those who walked out of Jurassic World three years ago with a huge grin on my face looking forward to any potential sequels.  Yet when I started seeing the previews for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I began to be concerned.  Still, I went into the movie hoping to really enjoy it.  I was sadly disappointed.

This movie finds Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) attempting to win Congressional funding to save the dinosaurs.  That’s because the volcano that formed the basis of Isla Nublar, the island where the Jurassic World park was located, has become active again and is getting ready to explode, which would kill all the dinosaurs still living on the island.  While Congress doesn’t come through, she does get a very intriguing offer from Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s old business partner.  He wants to relocate at least 11 of the dinosaur species, including the raptor Blue.  But to do that, they need Owen’s help.  Will Owen (Chris Pratt) help?  Are things as they seem?

Let’s start out with strike one.  You’ll notice how many disaster movies I’ve reviewed over the years.  It’s a genre I find rather boring, actually, but I was willing to give this movie a chance since it was a Jurassic Park movie, and it could add a fun extra element to the story.

Then there’s strike two, the worst part of any of the previous Jurassic Park movies was bringing the T-Rex to San Diego in The Lost World.  The previews made it obvious we were going to see dinosaurs in populated areas again.  I was hoping they would provide a good story here.

My faith that these elements would be overcome was wasted.  Instead, we get a paint by numbers entry in the franchise, including a fearsome new monster that stalks the characters.  Meanwhile, the Raptors, in the form of Blue, complete their transformation from ultimate villain in the early chapters in the franchise to hero.  I’m still waiting for them to get dialogue in English.  Maybe that’s next.

And don’t be fooled, there will be a sequel.  In fact, that might be my biggest frustration with the movie period.  It was obvious they wanted to move the franchise into a new direction, and to do that, they had to spend this movie setting up the changes, which makes for a boring movie.  Here’s the bigger problem, I don’t like the direction they are going.

Furthermore, to move the franchise in this direction, they had to have the characters do extremely stupid things.  We’re talking about characters who are way too stupid to live.  Sadly, some of them do.

It might have helped if the characters were better developed.  Even Claire and Owen, the only two returning characters from the previous movie, are flat here.  All the characters are just props to move the story around.  And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not blaming the actors; the fault here is fully with the writers.  Any time the actors do get a little personality to play with, they hit it out of the park.  But the script they were given is so focused on plot that they are short changed.  It was fun to see Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as Dr. Ian Malcom, and that’s really all he got – a cameo.

In fact, the emphasis is so much on plot that we don’t even get much in the way of dinosaur attacks.  Oh, there are some chases in the second half of the movie, but they aren’t really that well done.  I wasn’t on the edge of my seat like I normally am in these films.  Outside of one long chase, the scenes we do have are pretty short lived.  There isn’t time since we have to get on with the story – I mean set up for the next movie.  And the best scenes or moments were spoiled in the previews anyway.  I mean, seriously, what were they thinking when they produced them?

The special effects, as always, continue to impress, although so much of the movie takes place at night and during rain storms that they aren’t as impressive as they could be.

There were a few scenes I enjoyed, and one in particular made me smile.  But seriously, for a two-hour movie, I expected a whole lot more.

If you are interested, be sure to stick around through the credits since there is a very, very small scene at the end.  Like less than 30 seconds.

I’m a fan of the franchise, so I knew I had to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom no matter what the previews made me think.  But this is a movie to wait until it hits home video or TV.  There is no reason to rush to the theater to see it.