Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book Review: A Killer Carol by Laura Bradford (Amish Mysteries #7)


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, compelling mystery
Cons: None worth mentioning
The Bottom Line:
Killing at Christmas
Draws Claire into the drama
Strong, refreshing book




A Killing at Christmas is Anything but Heavenly for Claire

Quite obviously, there are a number of series I enjoyed, but some series stand out above the rest.  Every time I pick up one of Laura Bradford’s Amish Mysteries, I know I can sit back and relax into the story.  That held true with A Killer Carol.

Christmas is approaching in Heavenly, Pennsylvania, and Claire Weatherly has her hands full.  Not only does she have the normal tourists coming into her shop, Heavenly Treasures, to buy gift items, some of them crafted by the Amish, but she is organizing the first annual One Heavenly Night event designed as a chance for residence and tourists to enjoy the town at Christmas.  She is focusing on it, wanting to make sure that every detail is perfect.

However, murder rears its ugly head once again one night.  Annie, the Amish teen who works for Claire, is out Christmas caroling with some friends, and when they stop at the Esch’s farm, they find both of the them dead.  Detective Jakob Fisher is quick to realize it was murder.  Unfortunately, the last people to visit the victims were Claire’s Amish friend Ruth and her new husband Samuel.  Even worse, the couple appear to have a motive for committing the crime.  Claire doesn’t believe they could have done it, but Jakob has to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it ruins the unofficial inroads he has made in building relationships with the people who used to be his family before he left the Amish community.  Can Claire help him solve the case before that happens?

This series works best when the characters are driving a strong mystery.  This book is a perfect example of that.

The characters in this series have always been super strong.  I felt like I knew them from the first time they walked on the page of book one.  That continues here.  There are a large group of series regulars, but I never have a hard time keeping them straight, and I can’t help but smile when they first appear in this book.  I was thrilled to get to spend time with these old friends.  That extends to the new characters as well.  They are just as strong as the returning players, and, honestly, I want updates on some of them in the future.

Heavenly, being a town right on the edge of an Amish community, always feels like it has a bit of a slower pace to it, and that does come across in the plots of the book.  This is not a mystery with a twist on every page.  Now, don’t misunderstand, there are twists and surprises as well as a logical conclusion.  However, they are spaced out a bit more.  But anything faster paced in this setting wouldn’t feel right.  And, it also allows us time to see how the characters process what they are learning.  Honestly, this is much of the charm of the series and why the characters are so strong.  They aren’t just getting clues, but those clues are impacting them.  And it’s because of this that I found this book impossible to put down.  The mystery is driving forward, but I need to make sure my friends will be okay when it ends.  In fact, this series is the one I am most tempted to peak at the ending when I’m reading.  (No, I didn’t actually do that.)

Then there’s the setting itself.  I want to visit Heavenly.  It seems like I’m always rushing to get something done, and Heavenly, with its slower pace, is just what I need to relax.   Reading this book is the next best thing, and I can feel my spirit being refreshed just by reading the first page.  As much as I love Christmas, the fact that this series has a Christmas setting makes this one even more relaxing.  The Christmas details are fun and really do add to the charm of this book.

Yes, I did have a couple of niggles with this book as I was reading, but they didn’t bother me that much.  I was enjoying spending time in the setting and with the characters too much.

A Killer Carol is a fantastic addition to one of my favorite series.  It will provide a nice bit of calm to enjoy in December.  Or now if, like me, you wouldn’t be able to wait that long to catch up with Claire, Jakob, and the rest of the characters.

Be sure to enjoy all of your visits to Heavenly with the rest of the Amish Mysteries.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Giveaway!

Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy of this book to give away.  Because it is a physical book, the contest is limited to residence of the US.

Just leave me a comment with your e-mail address so I can get in touch with you if you win.  I will pick the winner Thursday September 26th, so please leave your comment before midnight Pacific Time on 9/26.  You will have until midnight on 10/1 to get back to me, or I will choose a new winner on 10/2.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Movie Review: Mystery 101 - Words Can Kill

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong mystery, fantastic characters
Cons: A light does of Hallmark cheese
The Bottom Line:
Myst’ry conventions
Leads to real life mystery
Twists that entertain

“My Phone Call Was Not an Invitation to Join Me at the Crime Scene.”

Of the three new mystery movie franchises that Hallmark has debuted this year, Mystery 101 is my favorite.  If my thrill at the announcement we were going to get two new movies this month weren’t proof enough, the smile on my face while I was watching Words Can Kill, the first of those movies, proved it to me.

The college where Amy Winslow (Jill Wagner) teaches is putting on the Mystery We Wrote mystery convention this year, and her father, Graham Winslow (Robin Thomas), is the featured speaker.  No surprise since he’s a bestselling author and a professor emeritus of the college.

However, the convention brings some faces from Graham’s past with it, including his former best friend, who stole his first manuscript, and his first editor, who also betrayed him.  However, things really take a drastic turn when a former consultant of Graham’s turns up with a warning note implying that Graham is in danger.  And all that’s before a dead body turns up.  When the police, in the form of Travis Burke (Kristoffer Polaha), arrest Graham for murder, Amy jumps in to prove his innocence.  Can she do it?

After watching enough of these Hallmark movies, you begin to get the feeling for when key plot points will happen.  I was actually surprised here when the murder took place a bit later in the movie than I was expecting.  However, that wasn’t an issue since there is more than enough drama and conflict to keep us intrigued.  In fact, when the murder does take place, it only heightens the drama that’s been going on around our characters.  There are still several twists and plenty more revelations to come, but they all lead to the logical solution.  And there were some important clues that we got before the murder took place that allowed Amy and Travis to solve it.

Yes, I did say Amy and Travis.  While Amy goes out investigating on her own at times, she works with Travis plenty and keeps bringing him what she’s learned.  While Amy is understandably angry when Travis arrests Graham, she still knows that he is the best chance of clearing her dad.  Like I said when reviewing one of the Aurora Teagarden movies last month, the movie makes a point of explaining why Travis had to arrest Graham and how he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t.  It’s so refreshing to see a rational given for this particular familiar plot point.  Of course, it helps to keep Travis sympathetic, so it serves a dual purpose.

And I do love these characters.  While there are a couple of other supporting players, it really is about the three leads, and their chemistry is strong.  I love watching them on screen.  The rest of the cast does a perfect job bringing their characters to life as well.  Yes, there is a tad Hallmark cheese in the movie, but it is pretty much worth noting only in passing.

Of course, one reason I love these movies is because of the talk about mysteries as a genre that is worked into the movie.  Once again, those scenes were fantastic.

If you haven’t started watching the Mystery 101 movies yet, you are truly missing out.  Words Can Kill will entertain and keep you guessing until the end.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Book Review: Fashionably Late by Lisa Q. Mathews (Ladies Smythe and Westin #3)


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Wacky characters in a good mystery
Cons: All cons showed up too late to be mentioned
The Bottom Line:
A model murder
Opens a wacky, fun case
Smiled as I read




I May Have Been Late Reading This Book, But I Enjoyed It

My intention was to get to Fashionably Late earlier in the year.  But books have a way of getting hidden on my to be read list, and unfortunately, this book went into hiding.  But when I remembered it, I bumped it up to the top so I could catch up with the latest adventure of the Ladies Smythe and Westin.

If you haven’t started this series yet, it features a pair of mismatched sleuths.  Summer Smythe is a twenty-something year old living in her late grandmother’s condo in a seniors only complex in Florida.  She has become good friends with another resident, Dorothy Westin.  Together, the two have found a couple of killers, and they are about to find themselves part of a third case.

It all starts with a fashion show.  It’s fashion week in Milano – Milano, Florida, that is, and Summer has snagged them tickets to the luncheon and fashion show that are kicking things off.  However, things take a strange turn when Angelica Downs, one of the models, asks them for help before the show starts.  When they try to track her down, they find her dead body.

Angelica’s mother, Frankie, is living in the part of their senior center for those with memory issues, and Dorothy and Summer are worried that Frankie might be next.  However, when they go to talk to Frankie, that only leaves them with more questions.  Is a killer after Frankie?  Who killed Angelica?  Can Dorothy and Summer figure out what is really going on?

Having read the previous two books in the series, I knew what to expect when I picked this book up, and I wasn’t disappointed.  The book starts out quickly, and the mayhem only spreads from there.  We might not be gathering clues right away, but there is plenty happening to keep our attention.  And all that activity does help us form a complete picture when Summer and Dorothy figure things out in the end.  The ending is a bit rushed, but it is fun and does answer all of our questions.

And the characters!  This series is filled with eccentric and slightly wacky characters.  Okay, fine, some of them are fully on wacky.  They certainly would be out of place in a more serious novel, but they fit perfectly here.  And they are a hoot.  These characters are so much fun to spend time around, they will have you grinning and laughing as you read.

There is a range on how wacky the characters are, with some being more grounded than others.  Dorothy is the most realistic character in the bunch, with Summer being fairly grounded but not quite as realistic.  That certainly helps pull us into the story and relate to what is happening.  They truly are both lead characters, with us spending equal time in both of their heads as things unfold.

The book is set in December, but, this being Florida, there isn’t a ton of Christmas atmosphere.  It does pop up occasionally and it adds a nice touch, but this isn’t a book to pick up when you want something to put you in the Christmas spirit.

But I definitely recommend you pick up Fashionably Late.  It is a fun book from the first page to the last.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Monday, September 16, 2019

TV Show Review: Supergirl - Season 4


Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Crossover, a few episodes at the end
Cons: Politics over entertainment
The Bottom Line:
Superhero show
Does not entertain, lectures
So it’s hard to watch




“I Used the Info You Got and Found a Location.  Would You Believe It’s an Abandoned Warehouse?”

While Arrow has always been the darkest of the Arrowverse shows, Supergirl has always been the most political.  However, they reached new lows in their politics with season 4.  Honestly, if it weren’t for the annual crossover, I probably would have stopped watching long before the season was over.

The season opens with an attack on pro-alien leaders by the remnants of Cadmus.  Naturally, Supergirl, aka Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist), sets out to protect them, especially President Olivia Marsdin (one-time guest star Lynda Carter).  However, the attack was really a ruse to reveal President Marsdin as an alien.  Forced to step down, we are now dealing with President Baker (recurring guest star Bruce Boxleitner).  He seems nice at first, but his demands to know Supergirl’s real identity begin to create issues, especially for Kara’s human sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), who is now in charge of the DEO.  Meanwhile, J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood) tries to honor his father by helping aliens in need.

And that effort has become more important than ever thanks to the rise of Ben Lockwood (Sam Witwer), aka Agent Liberty.  He is demanding that the “alien threat” be handled, and other anti-alien types are joining his side.  He even has the ear of President Baker.

Meanwhile, there’s Nia Nal (Nicole Maines), the newest reporter at CatCo.  While Kara is trying to mentor her, Nia has some secrets and is about to undergo a super transformation of her own.

Okay, I admit that one of my issues with the season is petty.  I have loved Bruce Boxleitner for over 20 years since I first saw him on Babylon 5.  And he’s playing a character named Baker.  Yet it is obvious, despite my desire to love him, that we aren’t supposed to love him.  Petty, I agree.  But if that were my only issue with the season, I could have lived with it.

The show isn’t even subtle about their attempts to take on the current illegal immigrant issue in the United States.  And there is no attempt to show any shades of gray at all.  Oh, there is an episode where we get Ben’s backstory so we can at least partially understand why he is so anti-alien, but no one ever thinks to address his very real concerns.  Instead, they just dismiss him, which leads to his rise.  And his actions?  They are vial.  Don’t get me wrong, he is a villain.  But since he is supposed to stand in for the anti-illegal immigrant side, he fails since his actions and words are not what that side of the debate is saying.  Instead, he is a strawman to be knocked down each week in a way that makes people feel good about themselves for being better than him.

Then there’s Nia Nal.  Going into the season, I knew she was going to become the superhero Dreamer and become the first transgender superhero on TV.  The show was quite proud of themselves for this addition.  As expected, this gave the writers several chances over the course of the season to lecture us on transgender issues.  (Remember when TV entertained instead of lectured?  Me, too.)  However, it gets worse.  In creating Dreamer’s backstory, the writers created a giant plot hole.  And how did they cover it up?  When someone asked about it, Dreamer burst into tears over the hate speech that she had just had to endure.  Actually, that was a rather unintended comment on much in our culture today, which makes it kind of funny while also being lazy writing and infuriating.

I’m not blaming the actors for any of my frustration with the season.  They do a great job of bringing the words they have been given to life.  Likewise, the special effects are top notch.  No, the blame goes to the writers for the direction they took the season.

A word about the season 3 cliffhanger – yes, it does play a part in season 4.  That plot thread has a slow build up, and by the end of the season, it becomes very important.

So, what did I enjoy?  This season’s crossover with Arrow and The Flash was fun.  It included Tyler Hoechin’s Superman and introduced us to Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane, as well.  Plus, Smallville fans got a delightful Easter Egg.  The crossover also gave us an introduction to Ruby Roses’ Batwoman, coming this fall.  The final few episodes of the season actually built to a decent climax that was more about entertainment than lectures, which I enjoyed.

Yes, I will be back for season 5, at least the start.  The crossover this year is going to be huge, and I will be watching all the shows involved until at least the crossover.  How Supergirl has been fairing until that point will determine if I continue.

So, season 4 of Supergirl is only for the diehard fans.  If you haven’t been watching the show, definitely don’t start here.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Ornament Review: Sesame Street - Celebrating 50 Years



Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Celebrate Sesame Street with light and sound
Cons: Brought to you by the number 0
The Bottom Line:
50 years of show
Marked with this fun ornament
Nostalgia for all




Celebrating 50 Years of Sesame Street

Hallmark landed a new license this year – Sesame Street.  And it’s just in time, too, because this is Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary.  Which brings us to this ornament, designed to celebrate this golden anniversary.

The ornament feature Big Bird standing next to that famous street sign.  He’s got his beak open and one arm out like he is talking – probably welcoming us to Sesame Street.  The entire thing is on a gray circular base designed to look a bit like sidewalk.

But that base has another purpose – it holds the workings that turn this into a magic ornament.  If you put in three button batteries and press the button on the ornament, you’ll see the light light up and hear the famous theme song.  They’ve got a nice, long clip, going into the second verse before it fades out.  All told, this lasts about 30 seconds, which adds to the fun.

Hallmark is releasing a total of three Sesame Street ornaments this year, but this is the only one I am buying.  (Seriously, I mean it!)  However, I couldn’t miss marking this milestone, and this was a great way to do it.  Big Bird has always been such a fun character, and pairing him with the street sign is fantastic.  Add in the theme song, and it was a must get, and I’m not at all disappointed.  While I was always a bigger fan of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, I did enjoy watching some Sesame Street over the years.

Because of the base, you can set this ornament any time or anywhere, which is nice since there isn’t really anything that makes it a Christmas ornament, so you can enjoy it year-round.

If you do want to hang the ornament, you’ll find the loop on top of Big Bird’s head.  Slip the hook through it, and you’ll find that it hangs ever so slightly to the right, but not enough to truly be an issue.

Anyone with fond memories of Sesame Street will enjoy this nostalgic ornament.  And that’s quite a few people since the show has been on so long, isn’t it?  You’ll be glad you picked up this ornament today.

Original Price: $22.99

Saturday, September 14, 2019

September 14th's Weekly TV Thoughts

American Ninja Warrior – Wow!  That was a lot of finishers tonight.  And that first finish had me holding my breath.  21 finishers.  Someone got to make it to stage 4 with how they’ve been teasing the season all summer.  And yes, with 21 people making it on to stage 3, it’s obvious now why they needed four weeks for Vegas.  But how hard are they going to make Vegas next year.  Or will they take away the safety passes?  We’ve got a couple people who have moved on solely because of them.

A Very Brady Renovation – Yes, I’ve seen enough Brady Bunch to be intrigued by this, so I am watching my first HGTV series.  And I’m so glad I tuned in.  Yes, the fact that they aren’t going to recreate the way the house should look in my mind is going to bug me.  But I’ll just have to get over it because that house outside could never have matched the inside.  And wow, the care they are putting into this is amazing.  To my eye (and I haven’t watched the show in years), the final results sure did look right.

BH90210 – First of all, what’s up with giving away the final twist in the previews from last week?  Yes, a few things got resolved, but for the most part, I felt like they left us pretty much in the air on all the storylines.  Especially who would actually be in the reboot.  And we will probably never know since I doubt we are going to get any more of the series.  It was fun.  And maybe I’m caring too much over a fake reboot since I had so much fun watching over the last few weeks.

Suits – Let’s talk the ending first.  I did not see that coming.  Talk about a bombshell out of left field.  Granted, we never saw that much of Harvey’s mom, but still.  I like seeing the past come back to haunt them.  But boy, if Faye a piece of work.  Yes, the storyline with Esther started out feeling like a rote #MeToo story, but by the end, I was really enjoying it as well.  They managed to make it interesting despite how it started.  And that last scene was so powerful.

Pearson – It’s taken me most of the season, but I think I am finally on board.  I hope the contractor gets it next week.  Why do I feel like the city attorney won’t actually be able to get away from city hall?  Jessica’s cousin sure is stubborn.  She seems to make the worst decisions possible, too.  It will be interesting to see how they wrap all this up next week.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais (Elvis Cole & Joe Pike #18)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fast paced story; enjoyable main characters
Cons: Some minor characters are extremely annoying; John Chen
The Bottom Line:
Kidnapped bank teller
Start this thrilling mystery
Hold on; it’s a ride




“We Know Your Secret.”

When I realized a new book in Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series was coming out this summer, I started focusing on his books so I’d be ready for A Dangerous Man when it came out.  It took me a little while to get it from my library, but it proved to be an exciting thrill ride.

This book in the series focuses on Joe Pike.  His trip to the bank for a routine deposit ends when he witnesses two men try to kidnap his teller, Isabel Roland.  Joe being Joe, he jumps into action and rescues her.  However, when the kidnappers are released from jail, they are both murdered.  Was kidnapping Isabel a crime of opportunity, or was she a target?  Is she safe?  Why would someone target her?

Joe witnessing a crime and getting involved in a set up we’ve seen before in this series, but from there the similarities end.  I didn’t expect the direction the plot took, and I was quickly hooked.  Mr. Crais uses multiple viewpoints to get effect to increase the tension as the book progresses.  At times, his overlap makes the timeline a little hard to follow, but that is a minor complaint overall and is understandable since he was working to make it easy for us to follow the view point of each chapter.

By this point in the series, PI’s and business partners Elvis and Joe are pretty well-defined characters.  Fans will be happy to spend time with them here, although there is little new we learn about them.  This is a thriller, and the emphasis is on the action, which the book delivers on perfectly.  I was hoping to get a little update on Elvis’s personal life, but that didn’t happen since he was the supporting player this time around.

One thing I have noticed in the books is that some of the supporting characters can be very annoying, doing the opposite of what any smart person would do.  Fortunately, that is kept to a minimum.  Unfortunately, some of the characters who have very little page time have very challenging personalities.  I’m not a fan of John Chen, the crime scene investigator that Joe and Elvis sometimes call on when they need his expertise.  Unfortunately, he’s present in this book and his usual immature self.  I have a feeling the characters that annoy me are supposed to be comic relief, but if so, I don’t get it.

Since this is a thriller, the language and violence is higher than the cozies I normally read.  Naturally, I expected that going in, but I was happy to see it was less than in some of Crais’s other novels.

As usual, I listened to the audio book narrated by Luke Daniels.  I am wondering if some of my issues with certain characters is how he chooses to narrate them as a few times I found myself thinking he was overacting a scene.  Those were minor occurrences, however.  For the most part, he did another fantastic job bringing the story to life and hooking me on the events as they unfolded.

Elvis and Joe have a huge following, and these fans will be thrilled with A Dangerous Man.  This is a page turned that is over all too quickly.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Book Review: Judge Thee Not by Edith Maxwell (Quaker Midwife Mysteries #5)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Enjoyable mystery and characters
Cons: Pacing hurts mystery; how theme is handled
The Bottom Line:
Rose steps in again
When friend accused of murder
Plot not quite pulled off




I’m Still Trying to Judge My Reaction to This Book

If I’d been paying more attention to what the book was about, I might not have picked up Judge Thee Not, the fifth Quaker Midwife mystery from Edith Maxwell.  It isn’t that I don’t enjoy her books; I’ve been reading her for years, after all.  But parts of the subject matter of this historical mystery ventured into the modern political realm, and that was my biggest issue with the book.

Midwife Rose Carroll is surprised to step into the Amesbury, Mass., post office one June afternoon and find Mayme Settle complaining loudly about postmistress Bertie Winslow.  The problem isn’t poor service but Bertie’s untraditional lifestyle, specifically that she lives with another woman.  Mrs. Settle doesn’t feel this is proper, and is making her feelings known.  While Rose is upset for her friend, Bertie is more than willing to let the slight go.

However, one morning Mrs. Settle is found dead in her bed, and the police are quick to rule it murder.  Unfortunately, they are just as quick to focus on Bertie as their prime suspect.  Can Rose help the police find the truth?

Before we get into my biggest issues with the book, let’s do the usual discussion of plot and characters.  The plot was good, with several viable suspects and good twists along the way.  I did feel the pacing was off at the beginning and the end, however, and the result was that it didn’t quite pull off the ending.  Mind you, the ending is logical, but in the rush to wrap things up, we get a lot of information thrown at us all at once.

Most of the characters are good.  Rose herself is a great lead character, which isn’t unusual.  I like Bertie and David, Rose’s fiancĂ©.  There are some interesting developments with her family that I enjoyed as well.  The suspects were strong, with believable motives, and are developed enough to keep us guessing until the end.  However, I felt Mrs. Settle, the victim, was a bit of a clichĂ©.  She might have been a better fleshed out character if she had lived, but as she was presented here, I found her all too familiar, and not in a good way.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with the book – the theme.  Don’t misunderstand, I certainly agree that judging others can be wrong.  The character of a blind woman and how she is treated is a perfect case in point.  And, for the record, I LOVED this new character and hope we see more of her in the future.  However, too much today is immediately put in the realm of judging others when that may not be the intent.  Ironically enough, by calling someone out on judging others, you can be judging them yourself.  This book quotes Matthew 7:1 at one point, which isn’t surprising since that verse gave the book its title.  However, two verses later in Matthew 7, we get a passage about removing the log in your own eye before you go to your brother to tell them about the speck in their eye.  The point of that passage?  We need to confront people who are wrong, but we need to do it with humility and grace and not harshly making sure our motives are pure.  However, any disagreement today is considered judging and shut down on the spot.

And that’s where I felt the book was leaving the historical setting aside.  While there may have been some people back in the 1880’s who had Rose’s attitude toward Bertie, I felt like these views were presented in a more modern way than they would have been for even the most progressive people of that age.  Mind you, I haven’t done the research, so I could easily be way off base.  Yes, I am now judging without all the facts, but it still felt like a stretch to me and put me out of the book a few times.  And there was no effort to show why anyone would have the views they did back in the 1880’s, which seems like a minimum to help show the historical context.  Instead, we just get Rose coming very close to judging people for their attitudes judging others.

Mind you, I am reacting to a small portion of the book.  This is a mystery and it focuses on that more than anything else, but there were enough of these scenes to bother me.

In the end, I am rating the book based solely on the mystery, which doesn’t quite pull off what it wants to do while still being enjoyable.  If you have enjoyed meeting Rose in the past, you’ll want to judge for yourself Judge Thee Not.

Looking for more visits to the past with Rose?  Here are the rest of the Quaker Midwife Mysteries.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Movie Review: A Darrow Mystery - Witness to Murder

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fun to see the characters
Cons: Mystery weak; Hallmark cheese
The Bottom Line:
Joanna’s old firm
Comes back, and leads to murder
In fun but weak film

Joanna’s Past Returns

Eventually, the past always comes back to haunt you.  Oh, that isn’t always true in real life, but it certainly is always true in fiction.  And it’s Joanna’s past that comes to the forefront in Witness to Murder, the newest Darrow Mystery (formerly Darrow and Darrow) from Hallmark.

Back in the first movie, Joanna (Wendie Malick) had moved in with her daughter Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and granddaughter Lou (Lilah Fitzgerald) when she was fired from her job as a corporate lawyer at a prestigious New York law firm and accused of insider trading.  In the time since she’s moved in, she’s gotten to enjoy life with Claire and Lou and working at the small law firm that Claire runs.

However, Joanna’s past walks back into her life in the form of Cassie, the very woman whose accusations got Joanna fired.  Now, the same thing has happened to Cassie but there are criminal charges pending, and she knows she is innocent.  She wants to get Claire and Joanna to represent her and clear her name.  Joanna is reluctant until she is pressured to drop the case.  Then a murder happens with Cassie as the prime suspect.  What is going on?

While I haven’t mentioned him, yes, Miles (Tom Cavanagh) is involved.  This franchise really is part legal mystery and part romantic comedy.  In fact, the romance between Miles and Claire is very strong in this movie and provided some good laughs.

Which is nice since the mystery was a little weak.  While I didn’t have all the details worked out, I had the major plot points figured out early on.  Still, I enjoyed watching to get those details figured out and see how the characters would figure things out.  The ending was rushed, leaving us to assume that some things are wrapped up but never explicitly saying how they turned out.

Likewise, a sub-plot involving Lou running for class president is fairly predictable but fun.

Then there are the courtroom scenes.  I’m not a lawyer, but they still seemed pretty unrealistic to me.  However, I enjoyed watching how things played out, so I’m not going to complain too loudly.

Fun really is the important word for this movie.  I was enjoying watching it, so I’m not completely upset about the plot being familiar.  However, it is a mystery, so a surprise along the way would have been nice.

Being a Hallmark movie, you have to expect a dose of cheese in the writing and acting.  It’s not too bad, but it is definitely there.

While not the strongest mystery movie from Hallmark, Witness to Murder is still fun.  If you are a fan of this franchise or the actors, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Book Review: Fatal Cajun Festival by Ellen Byron (Cajun Country Mysteries #5)


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Maggie, the rest of the cast, fast moving story
Cons: One niggle, but overall it’s minor
The Bottom Line:
Music festival
Brings murder to Pelican
Fast paced and fun book




Murder Isn’t Music to Maggie’s Ears

Louisiana has festivals for just about everything – at least more than we do here in California.  And, while the best known are in New Orleans, the small town of Pelican is getting into the act in Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country Mysteries.  Fatal Cajun Festival find Pelican offering their answer to Jazz Fest, with murderous results.

Cajun Country Live! has arrived.  The brainchild of Maggie Crozat’s grand-mere, it is taking place the week before Jazz Fest and has managed to land a huge name.  Tammy Barker is a local girl made good since she won a national television singing competition, and she has agreed to return and make a couple of appearances at the event.  However, this proves to be a problem for Maggie’s friend Gaynell.  Gaynell and her band were hoping to use their show at the event as an audition for Jazz Fest, but Tammy has a grudge against Gaynell from their high school days and manages to sabotage things.

Tammy has a set on the opening night of the festival.  It goes fine, but tragedy strikes after her show is over when someone is murdered.  Unfortunately, Gaynell finds herself the most logical suspect, something that Maggie knows is crazy.  But can she prove her friend is innocent?

The book does a great job of introducing us to everyone before the murder takes place.  There is a list of characters at the beginning of the book, but I never had to refer to it since everyone stands out.  There is a long list of series regulars, but since this is book five, we’ve gotten to know them pretty well at this point.  It was fun to check in with them and see how they are all doing.  While we do meet the suspects rather quickly, it isn’t too long before we can keep them all straight since they have very different personalities.

Once the murder takes place, we are off and running.  I did feel that the police were a little too willing to work with Maggie, but that was my only complaint with the book.  We get some good twists and turns along the way to the climax with some fun sub-plots popping in and out to keep us entertained.  One involving Maggie’s grand-mere is particularly good.  This is a fast-moving book that kept me hooked.

Maggie spends some time in the book making various Pralines to sell in a booth at the festival.  It was no surprise to me that we got a couple different variations of Praline recipes at the end of the book.  (What did surprise me is that not all of them have nuts in them; something important to me since I am allergic to nuts.)  There are a total of five recipes, with Pralines only being two of them, so there is something for everyone.

As always, one of the draws for me to this series is the chance to travel to Cajun Country.  I haven’t spent that much time in Louisiana in real life, but after reading one of these books, I always feel like I have visited.  Of course, the desire to travel there in person is also very strong when I am reading one of these books.  Be sure to read the Lagniappe at the end of the book, which gives a little more background on some of what we read about in the book.

Author Ellen Byron has developed a loyal following that will be delighted with Fatal Cajun Festival.  If you have missed these books so far, be sure to fix that today.

Need more of Maggie’s adventures?  Check out the rest of the Cajun Country Mysteries.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, September 9, 2019

TV Series Review: This Is Us - Season 3


Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Performances, some storylines
Cons: Randall, and to a lesser extent Beth, this season
The Bottom Line:
Drama continues
But it begins to grow thin
With Pearson saga




“When Have We Ever Listened to People?”

When I gave in and started watching This is Us during its first season, I was quickly hooked on this family drama.  However, I felt the show took a step down in season two.  Unfortunately, it has taken another step down in season three.

If you aren’t familiar with the show, it follows the Pearson family.  In the present day, we follow the “Big Three,” triplets Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown).  However, we also flash back to the past, which allows us to see their father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) as they attempt to raise their kids.

This season finds the family dealing with more drama.  Kate goes in for artificial insemination to get pregnant, something that is extremely risky given her age, weight, and previous miscarriage.  Fortunately, her husband Toby (Chris Sullivan) is there every step of the way.  Kevin begins to question what exactly happened to Jack during his time in Vietnam, so he heads over to that country, leading to a surprising revelation about the family.  And Randall decides to run for city council in Philadelphia even though he lives in New Jersey, leading to issues with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson).  While we get flashbacks from several different time periods, the focus this season is on Jack’s time in Vietnam and the early relationship between Jack and Rebecca.

Of course, we can’t have this show without some big mystery.  In that case, we now also get occasional glimpses of the future, and with each piece of the future we get, we get several more mysteries to be unraveled.

Frankly, that was one of my frustrations with the season.  It was one thing when they were teasing us with what happened to Jack in the past, but now we are getting strung along with what happens to the family at least a decade (possibly longer) in the future.  Seriously?  Can’t we just watch their lives unfold?  That was the beauty of the first season.  We were watching the character’s lives unfold in the present with trips to the past that allow us to understand why the characters behave the way they do today.  Now, with the future timeline, we have more timelines to keep track of and more details to remember.  And, they don’t seem to be in a rush to offer any kind of resolution to this either.

Then there is Randall and Beth.  Personally, I don’t think you should be able to run for office unless you actually physically live some place, and I think there should be a minimum residency as well (something I’ve been saying for a while).  So right there, I was struggling with his storyline for the season.  Then there’s the fact that he and Beth started fighting over this decision.  Honestly, he was a jerk, although Beth wasn’t completely innocent either (which is real life).  Their fighting was prolonged and really took the joy out of the second half of the season.

So what did I like?  Kate’s storyline was at times scary, but mostly sweet this season.  While some of the revelations that came out of Kevin’s Vietnam trip made me role my eyes at just how soap opera the show has become, I mostly enjoyed it.  And I really enjoyed Kevin’s relationship with his new girlfriend, Zoe (Melanie Liburd).

And the acting is still outstanding.  Seriously, this cast is exceptionally talented, and they pull you into each moment of the show.  Yes, the writers are still making us tear up each week, but the cast gets credit for making those moments seem to real for us.

Once again, the season consists of sixteen episodes, each of them designed to pull you into the Pearson family drama.

With as good as the first season was, I hate to give up completely on This is Us, but I am seriously debating if I want to continue beyond season three.  While there are still some enjoyable aspects to the show, the melodrama and introduction of the future mystery has taken some of the joy out of watching the show.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Music Review: Order by Jason Gray


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 5 songs for the calm parts of life
Cons: It is only an EP
The Bottom Line:
New Jason music
Looking at life in order
Five songs, so it’s short




The Orderly First Part of a New Release from Jason Gray

Jason Gray has an interesting new idea he’ll be trying out over the next year.  Instead of releasing one disc full of new music, he is releasing three EP’s, each on a different part of a theme.  The idea being that we will have time to meditate on each group of songs for a few months before we get the next batch of songs.  Order is the first of these three EP’s.

The idea behind this cycle of songs is actually articulated in the last song on the disc, “Order Disorder Reorder.”  The idea being that God takes us through cycles in our lives.  Order represents the times when things are going well.  It is easy to praise God in this part of the cycle, but we tend to stop growing.  Disorder is when life gets rough, losing a job or a health crisis would be two common examples, and we cling to God as our faith grows.  Finally comes Reorder, as God brings us into another time of peace.  The song itself?  It’s is upbeat and fun while it explores these ideas.

Honestly, all five of the songs on this disc are upbeat and fun.  The music is Jason at his soft rock best.  The songs are mostly mid-tempo and sound like classic Jason Gray.

“Maker of Mornings (I Am Loved)” and “The Wonder” focuses on the joy we feel at this part of the journey as we relish in feeling safe in God’s hand and praise Him for all the good things He has given us.  “Becoming” hints at the times to come while also looking back at how far we have come in our journey to be like Jesus.  Finally, “I’m Gonna Let It Go” is a song about giving our problems over to God, something that seems easy to do in the good times.

My only issue with this disc is the fact that it is an EP.  I don’t tend to stick those in my car nearly as often as I do full length CD’s.  Yet that is the nature of this disc, right?  Still, I am enjoying these five songs and I’m very curious how Jason will explore the rest of the cycle.  Knowing him and his song writing abilities, there are some great songs ahead.

Not that these songs aren’t great on their own.  Each song has its own truth to share and for us to meditate on.  There are so good reminders no matter which part of the cycle you are currently in.

Honestly, any new music from Jason Gray is an auto buy for me.  I’ve come to appreciate his insights into the Christian life and his way of expressing them.  I’m enjoying Order, but I’m also anxious to see what comes next.

CD Length: 17:29
Tracks:
1. Becoming
2. Maker of Mornings (I Am Loved)
3. The Wonder
4. I’m Gonna Let It Go
5. Order Disorder Reorder

Saturday, September 7, 2019

September 7th's Weekly TV Thoughts

American Ninja Warrior – Again with the editing, both sides of the episode.  I knew the first couple of people would fall.  And I knew The Kid would make it since he had the do over and was running last.  Still, enjoyed it overall as always.  Surprised to see Drew need to use his already.  Sorry that Jessie fell.  Thrilled Joe and Grant made it on.  And, with almost 30 people moving on to stage 2, I can see how this is going to take two more weeks to wrap up.

BH90210 – Is that really all there is to the stalker mystery?  Because that was anti-climactic.  However, the scene where they talked to the guy in the bar was hilarious.  They have started to wrap a few things up, so we will see how they do about wrapping the rest up next week.

Suits – Can we say placeholder?  Yes, it was nice to see Samantha get a little closure on her past, and Lois’s story turned out to be more fun than I was expecting, but with everything going on at the firm, it definitely felt like a place holder.  I’m ready to move things forward.

Pearson – So does this mean we’ve resolved the illegal immigrant storyline?  With only a couple of episodes left, they’ve got to resolve something.  Without the crime storyline, I was actually into this episode.  It was almost all the female characters.

Friday, September 6, 2019

TV Show Review: Home Improvement - Season 5


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 26 laugh filled episodes
Cons: The Vasectomy One
The Bottom Line:
Sitcom Improvement
As writers find new stories
And fill them with laughs




“Someday, You Are Going to Turn into Me.”  “I’m Going to Need a lot of Medical Insurance.”

I started watching Home Improvement late in its run, so as I’ve gone back and watched the earlier seasons, I’ve been wondering if my take on the show from 20 years ago was accurate or not.  I’m happy to say that watching season 5 showed the show shifted to more what I remembered.

Not much has changed in the basic set up of the show.  The sitcom follows the life of Tim Taylor (Tim Allen).  At home, he’s married to Jill (Patricia Richardson), and they have three kids, Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and Mark (Taran Noah Smith).  He works as the host of Tool Time, a home improvement show that is local to their home town in Michigan where he works with his assistant Al (Richard Karn) and the “Tool Time Girl” Heidi (Debbe Dunning).  Rounding out the cast of regulars is the Taylor’s neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman).

Over the course of these 26 episodes, Tim tries to work as much fun as possible into a family reunion for Jill’s side of the family.  Brad starts high school, gets a fast-talking girlfriend, and hosts a party at the Taylor home.  Randy, meanwhile, starts having some trouble in school and spends a day waiting for some medical news.  Over at Tool Time, Binford Tools, the sponsor, is sold and the new owner wants to expand the show’s reach, with possible bad repercussions for Al.  Wilson starts to get out of the backyard set more, even directing Randy’s school production of Romeo and Juliet.

The earlier seasons of the show had a very set formula – Tim did something to make Jill mad.  He didn’t see how what he’d done was wrong.  Wilson gave him some advice that Tim didn’t quite understand, but it helped him patch things up.  These seemed to be the majority of the episodes of the early seasons, and I found them annoying because they were repetitive and because I don’t appreciate the depiction of a man as completely and totally clueless all the time.

This season definitely got away from that.  Yes, there are some times that Tim messes up.  He’s human, I get it.  And Tim isn’t necessarily the smartest character, but he is smarter than he was.  However, as you can see above, we get a greater variety of storylines that don’t focus on Tim messing something up.  It helps that the boys are older and can handle more screen time.  While Mark doesn’t get any major storylines this season, there are episodes that really focus on Brad and Randy.  They also give episodes to everyone else.  The writers were clearly trying to up their game this season, and it worked.

And, of course, the show is still funny.  Tim still has classic accidents as he either ignores safety warnings or tries to give stuff more power.  The dialogue is witty.  Yes, I can often predict where a punchline I going, but the actors deliver it with such perfect timing that it works.  As I mentioned, Wilson gets out of the backyard more than ever this season, and the things they use to keep his mouth hidden from us are creative, fun, and create some fantastic laughs.  This is a fun running gag.

The actors are all at the top of their game, bringing their characters to life perfectly.  They’ve learned how to play off each other well, milking the scripts for every laugh they can get.

I mention Randy’s health scare earlier.  While a bit more serious, they still had some good laughs in the episode.  The one episode I could have done without was one involving Jill wanting Tim to get a vasectomy.  Some of the dialogue didn’t seem appropriate for a family sitcom.

Season 5 consisted of 26 episodes, and they are all part of the three-disc DVD set.  The full frame picture and stereo soundtrack won’t challenge your system, but they are consistent with a 1990’s sitcom, and that is all we really need.  The only extra is a season long blooper reel that includes some moments already shown in the individual episodes but plenty of new material.

Speaking of bloopers, the episodes don’t all have bloopers.  Some do, but some have tag scenes or a combination of the two.

Season 5 reminds me why I enjoyed the episodes of Home Improvement I’ve watched in the past.  I’m looking forward to finishing out the show.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Book Review: Terns of Endearment by Donna Andrews (Meg Langslow #25)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Characters we love, mostly fast paced story
Cons: Pacing at either end
The Bottom Line:
No relaxing cruise
Broken ship and suicide
Keep us entertained




This Cruise Will Not be Smooth Sailing

When you think of cruises, you think of relaxation and being pampered.  Of course, if Meg Langslow is on the cruise, you know that it will be wild, wacky, and unpredictable.  That’s exactly what we get in Terns of Endearment, the twenty-fifth book in the series.

Meg’s grandfather has taken a job on a cruise ship for one voyage presenting nightly lectures on animals and the environment.  Primetime, the cruise line, has offered a discount, so Meg and several other family members have joined this cruise to Bermuda.  They are sailing on a small ship, only about 200 passengers, but they are looking forward to having fun and relaxing for a few days.

However, things don’t go as planned.  The first morning as sea, the passengers wake up to find that the ship is dead in the water.  Then, as the captain is briefing the passengers on the situation, another crew member bursts into the meeting to say that one of the passengers has gone overboard.  It appears to be suicide, and the captain is willing to write it off as such, but Meg’s dad isn’t so sure.  While the passengers wait for the ship to be fixed, he goads Meg into doing a little investigating.  What will she uncover?

Those familiar with the series will be thrilled to know that among the family members on board the ship are the usual suspects, so to speak.  While I must admit that I find the characters more amusing than funny these days, they never fail to entertain me, and this book is no exception.  I grinned multiple times at the antics of the characters.  And yes, I did laugh a few times as well, although that was mostly at the new characters.  We have a ship full of new characters to get to know, and author Donna Andrews does a great job of adding them to the cast and making them memorable.  I also appreciated the way she developed some of them as the action unfolded.

And unfold the action does.  After an admittedly slow start, the action really kicks off when the ship stops.  Yes, the ship becoming stranded seems to be the event that sets things in motion.  Between that and the suicide (sorry, apparent suicide) there is plenty to keep our attention, and I was completely hooked.  The twists surprised me and the book sucked me in so much that I read the final 200 pages in 24 hours, while sleeping and working during that time.  The ending was a bit rushed, but everything was wrapped up nicely.

I have to take a moment to again mention that this is the twenty-fifth book in the series.  It’s rare a series lasts this long, but not only is Meg still around, but she is showing no signs of slowing down.  In fact, we will get another Christmas book in this series next month.  While the characters have grown and changed over the years, we get a fun reference to an important part of some of the early books in the series here, and it made me smile.

Terns of Endearment proves why this series has lasted so long – delightful characters and page turning stories.  This is a relaxing book you’ll enjoy, although you might not want to take it on your next cruise.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Meg Langslow mysteries.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Ornament Review: Kris O. Kindly - Snowtop Lodge #15 - 2019 Hallmark Ornament



Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great looking snowman with a Santa theme
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Snowman plus Santa
Combine in fun ornament
Will look great on tree




Santa Snowman is Coming to Town

Like many Hallmark series, not all of the Snowtop Lodge ornaments have related directly to Christmas, although they have all related to winter in some way.  We are dealing with a series of snowpeople after all.  However, Kris O. Kindly is definitely a Christmas entry in the series.

You see, Kris is dressed up as Santa.  He’s wearing a Santa hat on his head, and he’s got a sack of toys and other goodies next to him.  He’s smiling and waving at someone he’s about to make very happy with a delivery.  Like his fellow snowpeople in this series, he has a scene painted on his lowest snowball.  As you’d expect, it’s a scene of Santa flying off after delivering presents to a snowy village sleeping below him.

I started this series late, just a couple of years ago, but I’m glad I did.  The combination of the theme with the picture on the snowperson is delightful, and this ornament is no exception.  I love the bow on the package in his sack, and the picture on him is wonderful.  Combined, it makes for a great ornament.

This series is made from porcelain, so you’ll want to be careful when you handle it to make sure you don’t break it.  Like all snowpeople, Kris has a flat bottom, so you can set him out somewhere to be displayed as long as you are certain you won’t knock him over.

Or you can hang him on a sturdy branch on your tree.  The loop is sticking up through his hat.  Unfortunately, he does tip forward a little, but a few tree branches should help disguise that.

We’ve reached the fifteenth ornament in the series.  Can you believe it?  You’ll find the series marker painted on the bottom of the ornament.

Kris O. Kindly is a nice addition to the Snowtop Lodge series, and I’m not just being kind.  With his Santa theming, he’ll be a welcome addition to any Christmas ornament collection.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Snowtop Lodge series.

Original Price: $19.99

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Book Review: The Zombie Ball by John Gaspard (Eli Marks #6)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Characters, good mystery
Cons: Seems to wander a bit in the first half
The Bottom Line:
Charity event
Marred when a murder takes place
In this fun, fast book




You’ll Have a Ball

I have come to enjoy the Eli Marks mysteries.  The fact that Eli is a magician initially pulled me in, and the complex mysteries keep me coming back.  So when I saw that The Zombie Ball was coming out, I quickly added it to my reading schedule.

While this is the sixth book about the magician, it’s a good place to jump in and meet Eli.  It’s a flashback story taking place not too long after his divorce from his first wife, Deirdre, was finalized.  There are a couple of scenes that frame the action in the present, but there is nothing that really spoils any of the ongoing storylines, so you can meet Eli and a few other characters here and get a glimpse into his past.

The action revolves around a Zombie Ball.  Yes, there is a magic trick with that name, but in this case, we are also talking about an annual fund-raising event that takes place in Minnesota.  It has morphed from its original bar crawl days into a fancy dinner, entertainment, and dancing event where some of the guests dress up as zombies to various degrees of makeup and costume.  Eli has been hired at the last minute to perform when the originally scheduled magician backs out.  He hasn’t been going out much since his divorce, but he needs the money, so he agrees to do the gig that night.

Of course, Eli quickly sees tensions going on behind the scenes, including two competing top donors who everyone is handling with kid gloves and trying to keep away from each other.  Then someone is murdered, and Eli finds himself involved with the case.  Will he figure out what really happened?

The murder actually takes place relatively late in the book.  Normally, I might find that frustrating, but it worked here.  Of course, the time isn’t wasted since we are meeting suspects and gathering clues that we don’t know are important, yet.  Once the murder has been discovered, all those little things come back into play, and the solution is brilliant.

The action all takes place over the course of one day, so we don’t really miss the series regulars whom Eli hasn’t met yet.  There wouldn’t have been time for any sub-plots involving them, anyway.  While I was disappointed not to spend time with them, I did get pulled into the action pretty quickly.

This is a shorter book than I normally read, and I was able to easily breeze through it in a couple of days.  Yet stretching the action out to fulfill an arbitrary word count definitely would have hurt things.  The book is the right length for the story told.

While not many of the series regulars make it into this book, we do see a few.  Uncle Harry gets a few scenes, but we see more time with Deirdre and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton.  Makes sense we’d see him since this is a mystery, right?  I can find these characters annoying at times, but in this case, I enjoyed our time with them.

This gives the new characters plenty of time to develop, and they are well done.  I had a few suspicions on where the story was going, but the suspects kept me guessing until Eli pieced things together at the end.

We get to learn a bit about magic along the way, including the title trick.  No secrets are shared here, but I still find the magic included enjoyable.

The Zombie Ball is a fast, fun read.  Those who are already fans of Eli will enjoy this look back in time.  And those new to the series can jump in here and discover just how enjoyable the series is.

Looking for more magical mysteries?  Here are the rest of the Eli Marks Mysteries in order.

NOTE: I was sent a copy of the book.