Sunday, March 29, 2020

Movie Review: Knives Out

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong who done it mystery
Cons: Gratuitous politics and bathroom humor
The Bottom Line:
Who killed patriarch?
Classic big screen mystery
Few missteps, but fun

Killer Mystery Movie

Being the mystery fan that I am, it was impossible to avoid hearing about Knives Out when it was released last fall.  All of my mystery loving friends were raving about it.  I didn’t make it out to see the movie in the theater, but I did recently watch it.  I mostly enjoyed it.

The action of the movie takes place a week about author Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) death.  He was discovered with his throat slashed the morning after his family had gathered at his home for his birthday party.  The initial coroner’s conclusion is that he slit his own throat.  However, Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) was hired by an anonymous source to figure out what really happened.  On the surface, the family seems to be a loving, caring unit.  But under the surface, motives and resentments boil.  Did one of them kill Harlan?  Can Blanc find the truth?

It is easy to see why this movie made so many of my mystery loving friends happy.  It is a very good mystery.  I was pulled into the story, trying to sift through clues and suspects to figure out what was really going on.  The solution is something that would make Agatha Christie proud, but all the pieces are there when Blanc finally confronts the villain.

It seems like most big screen mystery movies that have been released over the last few years have leaned toward suspense over a pure who done it.  The emphasis here is on the who done it, however, and there are some funny scenes and moments to help break the tension.

The movie has an impressive mix of big names and people I didn’t recognize but probably should have.  They are all amazing at bringing their characters to life.  The script calls for their masks to slowly slip, and the actors pull it off perfectly.

There were a couple of things I didn’t appreciate, however.  One is the politics of immigration.  It comes up a few times in the movie, and when they spoke to motive, they were handled okay.  But there is one scene that is clearly gratuitous and used to push a political agenda.  It added nothing to the plot, and the movie would have been stronger without it.

One of the characters is her own lie detector – she throws up every time she lies.  Naturally, this comes into play several times over the course of the movie, and I found it distasteful each time.  Yes, it was played for laughs, but I didn’t find it funny.

As a fan of Hallmark’s mystery movies, I especially enjoyed a shout out to a fictitious Hallmark mystery movie.  It’s mentioned a few times, and I smiled each time.

Also a fun shout out was an Agatha teapot hidden in the background of one scene.  What am I talking about?  This is the award given out each year to traditional mysteries at the Malice Domestic convention.  I love that the producers put one of those into the film.

It’s nice to see a classic who done it on the big screen again.  While there are definitely moments of Knives Out that I didn’t appreciate, on the whole I enjoyed this modern take on a classic mystery.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

March 28th's Weekly TV Thoughts

A short week of TV watching, but here's what I did watch.

Batwoman – The more Alice the better, so I was thrilled with this episode.  Yes, dark and heavy, but still, it was great.  But what’s going on with Luke?  Nice to see him get more screen time, but how are they going to fit this storyline in with everything going on with Alice?  It seems pretty late in the season to introduce something new like this.  Yes, there were hints before, but nothing about it becoming such a major focus of things.

Supergirl – This season is definitely taking an interesting turn.  I didn’t like that we had people trapped in AR two episodes in a row, but I’m trying to figure out who or what the bad guy is going to be by the end of the season.  We have a couple of different ways things could go.

Survivor – I can’t believe Sandra completely walked away.  Yes, I understand her reasoning, but I’m still surprised.  I hope they get back in the game soon because I was rooting for most of the old school players.  With Yule gone, it’s all the more recent winners.

LegoMasters – Given the superhero/villain options, I was actually impressed with what the teams came up with for the battles.  I would see those films for sure.  I liked getting to see two teams working together, too.  I agree with the judges, and I am surprised that Aaron and Christian left.  They started out so strong I was expecting them to make the finals.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Book Review: Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong psychological suspense story
Cons: Beginning a little slow
The Bottom Line:
Reporter with book
Begins to question the truth
Page turning thriller

Claustrophobic Game of Cat and Mouse

I’ve been following Hank Phillippi Ryan’s career since her first book came out, so I fully intended to follow her to her new psychological suspense stand-alones.  However, I’m just now getting around to reading Trust Me, the first one she wrote.

The story introduces us to Mercer Hennessey, a former reporter who is getting over a deep personal loss.  Her life is altered when her former editor, Katherine, asks her to cover the Baby Boston trial.  Ashlyn Bryant is about to go on trial for the death of her daughter, Tasha Nicole.  Mercer is among those who is certain that Ashlyn is guilty, and Katherine is asking Mercer to write a book about the case and the trial.  With the way it grabbed headlines, it is certain to be a best seller.  Mercer reluctantly agrees, but Ashlyn’s constant claims of innocence begin to get to Mercer.  As Mercer delves further into the book, Ashlyn begins to get into her head.  What is true?  Is Ashlyn guilty?

I’ve got to say the book started out a little slow for me.  I feel like we could have gotten through that part of the story faster.  Yes, there is important background and set up in there, but I feel like it also kept us from the meat of the story.

But once we do, hang on.  Psychological suspense is definitely a good description for the book as Mercer tries to figure out what is truth and what isn’t.  Ironically enough, I read it as the quarantine was starting for the coronavirus, and Mercer spends much of the book inside her house not able to get away from the questions she is facing.  While this claustrophobic setting would definitely be creepy for the book any time, it took on an extra measure based on everything going on in the world today.

Of course, for a book like this to work, the characters have to be real enough to make us question who they are and what they are saying.  There, this book succeeds in spades.  The characters pulled me in and took me for a ride.  There aren’t that many of them, but they truly shine.

While I have said “read” above, I did listen to the audiobook, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld.  It took me a little bit to get into her narration, but it wasn’t long before I was completely lost in the world of the book.  And that early problem might also explain my issues getting to the story overall.

No matter how you experience this book, it is a story that will captivate you.  Trust Me, once you start, you’ll need to know what is really happening.

March 27th's Book Beginning and Friday 56

We've made it to Friday.  And once again, I'm participating in Book Beginning and Friday 56.

This week, I'm featuring Murder at the Mena House by Erica Ruth Neubauer.

This is the first in a new series set in 1926 Egypt.  It's a lot of fun, and you can guess from the opening:

When selecting an exotic location for travel, it's advisable to choose one where the air isn't trying to kill you.  I would try to remember that for the next time.

Isn't that a fun opening?

Page 56 is the start of chapter 10.  Here's how it begins:

Redvers stayed with me for a time, and I appreciated the concerned glances he kept sending my way.  At least one person seemed to be concerned for my well-being, and for that, I was grateful.

I'm planning to post a review on Monday ahead of the Tuesday release date.  I hope you'll come back then to see what I thought.

In the meantime, enjoy a quiet weekend full of reading.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book Review: Murder at the Taffy Shop by Maddie Day (Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun characters and a strong plot
Cons: Issues early on that could easily have been me
The Bottom Line:
Grumpy neighbor killed
Cozy Capers on the case
Fun return visit

Bad Neighbors Become Murder Victims

I loved the first book in Maddie Day’s Cozy Capers Book Group Mystery series, so I was looking forward to visiting the gang again in Murder at the Taffy Shop.  Fortunately, I really enjoyed this return visit.

If you missed the first, it features a group of friends who live on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  They meet together weekly to discuss a different cozy mystery.  Naturally, they use the knowledge they gain from their books to jump in when they find murder hitting close to home.

Our main character in the series is Mac Almeida who owns a bike rental shop.  When visiting her parents, who live just down the street in her town of Westham, she encounters Beverly Ruchart, their neighbor.  Beverly is always complaining about something, be it the local soup kitchen or Mac’s parents’ puppy.

Mac goes walking every morning with her friend Gin, who owns the town’s salt water taffy shop.  When Mac goes to meet up with her two days later, she finds Gin crouched over Beverly’s dead body.  When the police begin to suspect that Gin had something to do with the death, the Cozy Capers jump into action to clear one of their own.  But can Mac piece together the clues everyone is finding?

There are a lot of characters in this series.  The members of the Cozy Capers don’t get equal page time, but as each pop on the page, we do get reminders of who they are, which helps us keep them straight.  With a group this large, I’m sure we’ll get to know them all as the series progresses and different books give each a chance to shine.  I did miss some of their conversations about mysteries in real life versus fiction we got in the first book, but that’s a minor complaint.

I also had trouble keeping the suspects and their relationship to the victim and each other straight near the beginning of the book.  I have a feeling that is on me – I was a little distracted by life as I started reading.  However, as the book went along, I was able to get that all straight in my mind.  The suspects are strong characters once we get to know them.

The plot was definitely strong.  It’s obvious early who the victim will be, and the book spends just enough time to introduce us to her and a couple of suspects before the murder takes place.  While a universally despised victim gives us plenty of suspects, I appreciated that Mac’s investigation led her to a few people who did like Beverly.  The ending was a bit abrupt, but things made sense.

I have to give a special shout out to Mac’s pet.  No, she doesn’t have a typical cozy pet but an African Gray parrot named Belle.  Belle has a couple of scenes that made me laugh out loud.

Since Mac and her friends love cozy mysteries, we get to see the occasional reference to an author I recognize.  I always enjoyed those nods.

As an extra, we get five recipes for everything from an adult drink to a twist on bear claws.  There is something to everyone to enjoy after you’ve finished reading the book.

Murder at the Taffy Shop is a great return visit to these fun characters.  If you enjoy cozy mysteries, you’ll enjoy solving one along with characters who love them as much as you do.

NOTE: Like the first in the series, this book is a Barnes and Noble exclusive release for the first year.  Links currently take you to  In 2021, it will be available from all retailers in all formats.

NOTE 2: I received an ARC of this book.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Movie Review: Top Gun

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, good performances
Cons: A bit unfocused and predictable at times
The Bottom Line:
Fighter pilot film
Popular 80’s story
Still holds up today

High Flying Action, Drama, and Romance

I had never seen Top Gun.  I know, I know, someone growing up in the 1980’s who had never seen that movie.  My college roommate loved the soundtrack, so I was familiar with the pop songs used in the background of the film, but I’d never had an interest in watching the movie.  Still, with the sequel coming out soon (this summer as of right now, but who knows), I decided it was time to finally watch the movie.

If, like me, you hadn’t seen the movie, it follows two friends, Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) as they enter the US Navy’s top flight school.  Along the way, they gain a rival in the form of Iceman (Val Kilmar), and Maverick meets their civilian trainer, Charlie (Kelly McGillis).

Yes, that does sound a bit generic.  This movie isn’t famous because of the plot, that’s for sure.  There isn’t much here you haven’t seen before, and I’m sure that was the way when the movie came out in 1986.  Of course, predictable is okay with me as long as I’m still enjoying it, and I definitely did.

So what makes the movie so popular?  This is one of those perfect movies that can appeal to everyone.  It’s got plane fights and the navy for guys.  And it’s got a great romance for women.  Between the two, just about everyone is going to have something to keep them interested in the film.  All of this does make it a bit unfocused as times, but that’s a minor issue.

And the characters are great.  Maverick appears arrogant early on, but we quickly see his human side.  His friendship with Goose is really appealing.  I enjoyed watching him flirt with Charlie as well, and she was just as much fun to watch flirt back.  Even though Iceman is an antagonist, he never crosses the line into mean.

I mentioned the flying, right?  Parts of the movie take place in the sky, and it is such fun to watch.  I’ll admit to having a bit of a struggle following it at times, but I still enjoyed watching it.  Their mix of real footage and specially filmed stunts helps pull you into these scenes.

Much of the cast was young, and the popularity of this film helped boost their careers.  Along with those I’ve already mentioned, this film includes Tom Skerritt and Meg Ryan in supporting roles.

Top Gun is a fun movie.  It’s easy to see why it was popular when it first came out, and nostalgia keeps it popular today.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book Review: Abstract Aliases by Ritter Ames (Bodies of Art Mysteries #3)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters in a fast moving, fun story
Cons: Cons too abstract to nail down
The Bottom Line:
The hunt continues
Amidst some revelations
Fast paced and fun book

Hunting for a Killer’s Alias

Obviously, I have a hard time keeping up with all the wonderful series out there.  I had intended to get back to Laurel Beacham and Jack Hawkes before now, but I was thrilled to finally be able to slip back into their world for Abstract Aliases.

If you haven’t met Laurel and Jack yet, please don’t start here.  While each book in the series has a beginning, middle, and end, each book is also part of a much larger story involving an art heist that the pair are working to stop.  As such, elements of the first two books in the series are spoiled and some things might be confusing to you.  There is enough explanation that you can still follow the players here, even if it’s been a while between books (which I was very thankful for), but it really is good to have the background the first two books provide.

As this book opens, it’s been two months since we last checked in on Laurel and Jack.  While they have been doing their best to gather clues to stop the coming heist, things have been quiet.  Too quiet.  However, something is about to explode on New Year’s Day, and I’m not talking about the London fireworks

While Laurel and Jack are waiting for those fireworks to start, they are shocked have an encounter with one of the men involved in the upcoming heist.  Then the next day, Laurel’s London office is broken into.  Once again one step ahead of danger and one step behind their prey, Laurel and Jack must act quickly.  Will they gain any new clues?

Honestly, the less you know going into this book the better.  It is fun watching the plot play out.  And the story moves quickly from one plot point to another with hardly any down time for the characters, or us, to breath.  There are some revelations along the way that surprised me, but there is plenty left opened.  There are two more books in the series, after all, and I’m assuming the resolution doesn’t come until the final book.

The cast of regular characters is rather small, but they are wonderful characters.  I’m enjoying watching Laurel and Jack’s relationship evolve and watching how they are both evolving.  The other characters who pop in and out of the book are also well defined.

This series falls into the cozy caper genre.  The plot isn’t a typical cozy plot, and we do quite a bit of traveling in search of the truth.  No, I’m not going to spoil where because that’s part of the fun, but be prepared to get swept up in a high speed, high stakes plot.

I can’t let it be too long before I check back in with Laurel and Jack because I have to know what happens to them next.  Abstract Aliases will please series fans, and if you haven’t read the books yet, go back and start the series today.

Looking for more?  Here are the Bodies of Art Mysteries in order.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Ornament Review: Forky - 2019 Hallmark Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Good representation of the character
Cons: Won’t stand on its own
The Bottom Line:
Forky for your tree
Represents character well
But nothing extra

This Ornament Isn’t Trash

It was clear early on that the breakout character from Toy Story 4 was going to be Forky, the new toy Bonnie created out of trash.  Hallmark had the foresight to create an ornament based on the character for release in July of 2019, just after the movie came out.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Forky was a character made from trash.  He’s a spork with a couple of mismatched eyes, and a broken popsicle sticks for feet.  And that’s exactly what we get here.  Okay, so he’s mostly plastic, but it looks like the items used in the movie.  One of his eyes really is a googly eye, and his arms are hard plastic covered to look like pipe cleaner.  Bonnie even signed her name on the bottoms of his feet.

Often, Hallmark will put a character in action or capture something else about them in their ornaments.  That’s not the case here; it’s just the character.  However, they have captured him well.  I suspect this was one of the last ornaments created for the 2019 line.  And, certainly, they couldn’t capture more than the character himself before the movie came out and we saw him in action.

Forky’s feet are pointing in different directions, so you can’t set him out to be displayed.  When you go to hang him, you’ll find that he hangs straight.

Initially, it was looking like this ornament was going to be a sellout, and early on, he did.  But Hallmark produced quite a few more, so he turned out to be readily available by the time that Christmas rolled around.  Additionally, I don’t think the movie turned out to be quite as popular as the first three, which also may have meant fewer people wound up wanting to buy him.

Forky was a fun addition to the Toy Story family, so I was glad to add him to my ornament collection.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Music Review: Everything As It Should Be by Andy Gullahorn

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong lyrics and great music
Cons: Now that I have this disc, everything’s as it should be
The Bottom Line:
Simple arrangements
Filled with beautiful music
Powerful lyrics

Things Will Be as They Should Be When You Buy This Release

Last month, Jason Gray posted on Instagram about his friend and fellow musician Andy Gullahorn.  Considering how much I love Jason’s music, a recommendation from him is something I take seriously, especially when I noticed that Andy has recorded a few songs that Jason also recorded.  I decided to sample his music with his newest release, 2018’s Everything As It Should Be.  I love it!

Andy Gullahorn takes a simple approach to making music here.  The focus is on him and his guitar.  Yes, there are other instruments, and yes, there are background vocals, but the main impression is him and his guitar.  It’s acoustic in its simplicity, really.  But it is also beautiful in its simplicity and allows the lyrics to shine through even more.

If you haven’t noticed, I am very much a lyrics guy when it comes to music.  Yes, some songs I enjoy for the music, but the songs I really love are the ones with strong lyrics.  That’s the case here.

“Different Now” opens up the disc and talks about struggling to please others versus really living a good life after God has transformed you.  It’s got a catchy melody and is just a fun opener all the way around.

“Village” is a song that will hit you between the eyes.  It’s a reminder that we need to love those around us despite our political differences.  And yes, there are brief references to current political events in the song, but the ultimate reminder of the song is that “It’s gonna take a village to put love back in this town.”  And it’s true.

Which brings us to the title track, a song that paints a picture of domestic bliss that is real.  In other words, it’s chaotic and messy, but it is still the way it should be.

Then there’s “Your Worst Day,” which is a commitment to love someone even when they aren’t being at all lovable.

I was familiar with “Death Without a Funeral” since Jason Gray had recorded it a few years back.  No surprise to discover that the two friends cowrote it.  It’s a melancholy song about loss and grieving something instead of a person who has died.  I’ve already enjoyed the song, and this version of it is just as strong as the one I’m used to hearing.

In fact, there are a couple more somber songs to close out this disc.  “The End of the World” is written from the point of view of someone who has just had their world up ended by a tragedy –  the loss of a child.  It looks at the world going on as if nothing has happened when, for the singer, the world has stopped.  It’s has powerful and poignant lyrics.  “Light a Candle” is the logical next step.  It’s taking that first step out of tragedy to more forward with life.  Sad songs can overwhelm me, but that isn’t the case with either of these songs.

But the disc also has a very funny song on it.  “Teenagers” looks at life with teens and pokes some fun at them and their parents.  I have laughed every time I’ve heard the song.

As I said, I bought the disc last month, and I’ve listened to it multiple times since then.  I am constantly drawn back to it and the reminders and hope it offers.

I’m definitely glad I gave Andy Gullahorn a chance, and based on this disc, I’ve bought the rest of his releases.  With as much as I’ve enjoyed Everything As It Should Be, I’m looking forward to many more great song.

CD Length: 45:00
1. Different Now
2. Village
3. Everything’s As It Should Be
4. Let It Go
5. The Brave One
6. Death Without a Funeral
7. Teenagers
8. Mirage
9. Your Worst Day
10. The End of the World
11. Light a Candle

Saturday, March 21, 2020

March 21st's Weekly TV Thoughts

Normally, things would be going full steam ahead until season finales in May, but with shows shutting down due to the corona virus, it's looking like some shows will be taking longer breaks that usual and probably won't even finish off their seasons.  It will be interesting to see how I feel about the way things end when we get there.  I suspect it will be very frustrating.  But I bring this up because these recaps are going to be less populated than normal the next few months, I'm sure.

God Friended Me – I needed that episode.  Yes, I was crying through much of the final act, but it felt good.  With everything else going on, I needed the dose of fun the show provided.  And it was nice to see Ally out helping with the main plot for a change.  I wonder how much time her new girlfriend is going to let her push her away, however.

Batwoman – I missed part of the episode due to breaking news, but I’m okay with that.  In fact, I fast forwarded a bit during the episode.  I knew from the preview it would be too dark, and I was right.  Wasn’t expecting the ending, but I wasn’t surprised by it either.  Again, dark.

Supergirl – And I’d just been talking with some friends about how the show hadn’t been as political this season.  Fortunately, I read a recap, so I skipped Nia’s scenes and instead just watched Alex’s scenes.  That was an interesting B story that I think will play into the larger story of the season.  I’m confused as to when that evil lady really grabbed Richard.  I’m surprised they even brought up Jeremiah since it’s been years since we saw him.  I wonder how that is going to play into the stories for the rest of the season.

The Flash – The Nash storyline was interesting at best.  I did like seeing Barry saving the day twice without using his speed.  When are people going to fully recognize that Iris isn’t herself at all?  And when will we end the mirror storyline?

Legends of Tomorrow – That which I dreaded has come upon us.  I’ve known Ray was leaving mid-season for months.  I’m glad he and Nora got a happy send off, but I’m going to miss his character on the show.  He was always so much fun.  I’m really sorry to see them go.

Survivor – The tribes are smart – kicking out some huge threats again this week.  It’s almost like we have the best of the best out there this season or something.  Love that the person Sandra went to blindsided her.  I’m just wondering if and or when anyone is going to be let back in the game.  And how many.  Oh, and I’m over Tony again.  He can go.

LegoMasters – Those were some fun builds.  I do feel sorry for some of the teams in the second part.  Some of the add ons were easier than others by far.  Still, the team that left had been in the bottom before, so I was okay with them leaving.  We are down to four teams.  And the four teams can be really strong teams, too.  This is going to get harder with each elimination.

Friday, March 20, 2020

March 20th's Book Beginning and Friday 56

I couldn't believe it's been two months since I last checked in with a Book Beginning and Friday 56.  I think it's time to change that.

I'm going to be pulling quotes from Abstract Aliases by Ritter Ames.

Here's how the book begins:

We stood across the wide moonlight river from Big Ben, in the prime spot for viewing London's New Year's fireworks extravaganza.  the jubilant crowd jostled and shouldered its way to fill every inch along the Thames, more than a half-million people crowding into every open space around us this clear cold night.

It's a bit weird reading that right now, isn't it?  But the book came out a couple years ago.  Who would have thought we'd be where we are now?

And here's from page 56:

"Maybe Simon was trying to kidnap you.  That's why he posted the rear guard."

I really enjoyed this book.  Look for my review on Tuesday.  Meantime, happy reading this weekend.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book Review: Coconut Layer Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke (Hannah Swensen #25)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Decent mystery, characters we love
Cons: Little character development; pacing, especially early on
The Bottom Line:
Lonnie in hot seat
Slow start; mostly good pacing
Characters we love

Clearing Lonnie

Over the past couple of books, Hannah Swensen’s life has become a soap opera.  I’ll admit to rolling my eyes at the cliffhanger at the end of the last book.  So I wasn’t sure how I’d react to Coconut Layer Cake Murder.

Hannah Swensen, owner of The Cookie Jar, has been ordered to rest – it came straight from Doc himself.  But a trip to California to help a friend pack up is cut short when Hannah’s younger sister, Michelle, calls in a panic.  There’s been another murder in Lake Eden, and Michelle’s boyfriend, Lonnie, is the prime suspect.  After a night out with friends, Lonnie took a drunk woman home only to pass out on her couch.  The next morning, he wakes up to find her dead in her bedroom with no memory of anything after he passed out.  Since Lonnie is a detective with the police department, most of them can’t investigate since they are friends with the suspect.  Naturally, Hannah immediately flies home, but can she figure out who is the killer?

If you’ve read the previous book, yes, we do get an answer to the cliffhanger, and it comes fairly early.  And if you haven’t read the last few books, you definitely should do that before you pick up this book.  While most of that drama appears to be in the past (at least I hope so), there are references to those events in this book.  It would be hard for this book to proceed without them, so I get why they are there.  For those who aren’t up to date on the series, the discussions the characters have are spoilers, so you have been warned.

The book gets off to a slow start.  Honestly, we could have dumped a couple of chapters with very little impact on the book itself.  However, once Hannah gets back to Lake Eden and starts investigating, the pace is steady.  There are still plenty of discussions about baking and Hannah’s newest culinary treats, but we get some good clues and red herrings.  I didn’t spot the killer until we neared the end of the book, and the climax was logical when we got there.

This series is notorious for its love triangle.  Fair warning, it is back in play here.  I still maintain that author Joanne Fluke knows who Hannah should pick but just can’t actually do it, and this book makes it even more obvious.  Or maybe it’s my bias since that’s the guy I’m rooting for.  Not that I expect Hannah to ever decide.  I’ve resigned myself to this love triangle continuing forever at this point.

Anyway, characters.  Honestly, we get the usual interactions here.  It’s nice to check in with everyone, but very little seems to change with the characters any more.  Still, fans will enjoy seeing them again.  I know I do.

I can’t leave out the recipes.  Once again, the book is full of them with a total of nineteen by my count.  Your mileage may vary depending on how you count frostings and variations.

Coconut Layer Cake Murder is a book that will please Hannah’s fans who have stuck with the series this long.  If you are new to the series, you should be back to the beginning to see why we fell in love with these characters.

Looking for more Hannah Swensen mysteries?  Here are the books in order.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Movie Review: Terminator - Dark Fate

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Action, a few nods for fans
Cons: Shallow characters, ruins parts of franchise
The Bottom Line:
This franchise returns
With chases, scifi action
Very little else

“You Come with Me, or You’re Dead in the Next 30 Seconds.”

When I first heard them talking about Terminator: Dark Fate, I was hoping for an enjoyable movie.  Then I started hearing the reviews, and I decided to skip this one until it hit Blu-Ray.  I’ve watched it now, and I think it was better than some of the reviews I’d seen made it out to be, but it’s not nearly as good as it could have been.

In order to bring back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, they had to forget all the sequels that have been created since Terminator 2.  Makes since because her character had been killed off a number of sequels ago.  However, I always find it funny when a film franchise suddenly goes “Just kidding, all those other events didn’t happen after all.”  It’s just messy storytelling and makes me wonder why we should care about a franchise if the events we are watching can just suddenly be undone.  But that’s a rant for another day.

A bigger problem with this film is that, in the first five minutes, it gives a giant middle finger to audiences, ignoring the basic premise of the franchise in the process.  No, I’m not going to get any more spoilery than that.  But again, it feels like the producers, including original creator James Cameron, aren’t paying attention to anything the fans care about.  Instead, they figure that explosions and chases and special effects will be enough to make the film a hit.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little.  What exactly is this movie about?  We meet Dani (Natalia Reyes) on what starts as a typical day for her as she gets ready for her job at a factory outside of Mexico City.  However, this day is going to be anything but typical when Grace (Mackenzie Davis) shows up in an attempt to save her from a terminator from the future (Gabriel Luna).  Will Grace succeed in her mission?

Notice who is missing from this teaser?  Sarah Connor and any terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Yes, they are both part of the film, and their involvement comes as the story progresses.  It’s easy to see Arnold’s terminator showing up long before he does, but that’s okay.  He gets the best lines when he does.

In fact, there are several fun nods to classic lines from the franchise here.  These nods made me smile, and I’m only a casual fan of these films.

And the action.  Hold on tight because the film starts with a bang.  Things do slow down eventually, but there are several edge of your seat action sequences before we reach the climactic battle.  The special effects are also top notch, which isn’t a surprise.

However, that isn’t enough to hold the film together.  Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get over the middle finger the film has already given the fans.  Frankly, another issue is that it is hard to come to care for any of the characters.  Even when the action scenes slow down, we don’t get a lot of character development.  The script tries half-heartedly, but it is really just going through the motions.  Even Sarah comes across as one dimensional.  The character with the most depth is Arnold’s terminator.  The acting isn’t bad, but the actresses aren’t given anything to work with, so they come across as wooden.  With no connection to the characters, we enjoy the chases and explosions in the moment, but there is nothing to care about when the action slows down or the movie is over.

Honestly, as I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel that this was intended to be a transition film, as the original cast members pass the torch to new characters.  However, it was sold as a sequel.  I think this bait and switch is a lot of the frustrating with the film.

Some complaints I saw were about the movie turning the franchise into a female lead movie.  It is true that the main characters are all female with Arnold’s terminator playing more of a supporting role.  However, if you go back and look at the first film again, it’s always made Saran Connor a strong female who can hold her own.  From a storytelling point of view, an argument can be made that a few of the choices that were designed to give us twists about anything else. 

I’m still torn on this film.  There are aspects I enjoyed, but I can’t help feeling like it wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been.  I know serious fans of the franchise were disappointed.  Maybe I knew not to expect much going in, or my status as a casual fan made me not as disappointed with the end result.

In the end, I think Terminator: Dark Fate is a mostly forgettable film in a franchise that has nothing new to say.  If you keep your expectations low, you might find moments you’ll enjoy, but don’t go out of your way to see it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ornament Review: Good Luck Sweets - Seasons Treatings Special Edition - 2020 Hallmark Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great looking platter of treats for St. Patrick’s Day
Cons: Ornament is lucky enough not to have any
The Bottom Line:
Sweet treats for Patrick
Chocolate and cake in green
Fun March ornament

You’ll Be Lucky to Add this Ornament to Your Collection

We all become Irish in March, especially on the seventeenth.  With all the other holidays that exist, I’m not sure why St. Patrick’s Day has become more popular than some of the others, but it is.  It has been the March entry for many of Hallmark’s year round series, and the special editions for Season’s Treatings is no exception since they are giving us Good Luck Sweets.

The main treat for this ornament is a cake.  It’s shaped like a shamrock and covered in green frosting.  We can’t see inside the cake to know the answer to the most important question –  what kind of cake is it?  On top of the cake is a leprechaun.  Surrounding the cake on the circular platter are a few cupcakes and gold coins.  Those lucky enough to get one of those coins will find it is really chocolate, I’m sure.  Finally, there’s a sucker with green swirls in it.

Okay, I’m more of a pie person than a cake person (don’t worry, that’s coming in another couple of months), but that doesn’t change my opinion of this ornament.  I’ll take a piece of cake.  Or a cupcake.  And I’m definitely snagging a coin.  I mean, who can resist those delicious treats?  The leprechaun is a nice touch, as is the fact that platter this is all on is green.  As a result, it screams St. Patrick’s Day, which is the point.  I can easily imagine this being at a St. Patrick’s Day party.

While the platter has a flat base, this ornament isn’t particularly vertical, so if you just set it out to be displayed, you won’t be able to see much of it.  That’s a common issue with the series as a whole, so I expect it when I look at these ornaments.

The loop for hanging the ornament is in the cake, and when you go to hang it, you’ll find it hangs at a fun angle, like most of the ornaments in the series do.  I’m glad I bought one of Hallmark’s display stands a couple years back so I can display this one.

I don’t do much more than wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, but I’m enjoying have a few ornaments I can set out to celebrate the day.  For that reason, I’m glad I added Good Luck Sweets to my collection.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Book Review: Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X #5)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Well defined characters in page turning thriller
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Evan on last case
Characters are still so great
Page turning action

Evan Heads Into the Fire for His Latest Client

I always look forward to the newest book from Gregg Hurwitz.  Yes, he writes thrillers, but he infuses his books with real characters we can’t help but care about.  Into the Fire is the latest in his Orphan X series, and it is another phenomenal book.

If you haven’t yet met Evan Smoak, aka Orphan X, he is an ex-operative from a highly classified government program.  Trained as an assassin, Evan eventually escaped the program and uses his skills to help those in truly desperate situations.  The last book in the series ended a multi-book story arc, so if you are new to the series, you can easily jump in here.  There are some recurring characters and a few references to past adventures, but everything you truly need to know is explained here.

As this book opens, Evan is planning to retire.  He is going to take on one last case to help someone in trouble, but then he is out.  Now, it’s just a matter of waiting for a phone call from his new client.

That phone call comes from Max Merriweather.  Max’s cousin Grant was just brutally killed, but he left Max with a mysterious envelop that should only be opened if Grant has died.  The problem is, someone else knows that Max has the envelope, and now they are after Max.  Evan uses his usual tricks to find out who is after Max, but will his final case be that simple?

Thrillers, especially movie thrillers, have a reputation for emphasizing action over character.  That’s not the case here at all.  Evan is an extremely complex character, and we get to watch him grow in each book.  That makes us care even more about the outcome of the cases he takes on.  The rest of the people who populate Evan’s world are just as complex and compelling, and it is fun to check in with them again in each book.  Max and the characters he brings with him as just as complex.  I think Max is one of the strongest of Evan’s clients so far in the series, and I enjoyed watching him grow as well as a result of the action of the book.

But make no mistake about it, this book is a thriller.  The action starts quickly and moves forward quickly until we reached the end.  I got caught up in these actions scenes and kept turning pages to find out just how Evan would get out of his current predicament.  The climax resolves things, and I felt completely satisfied when I set the book down.

Well, the book does have a small cliffhanger that is leading into the next book, but as far as this book goes, everything is resolved.  And I can’t wait to find out where Evan goes next because this is definitely not the final book in the series.

The book does include more language and violence than my normal reading choices do.  It’s a thriller, I expected that when I picked it up.  Just know that going in, and you’ll be fine.

What I hadn’t expected was the humor.  There are some very funny scenes, usually involving Evan trying to interact with his neighbors.  Yes, we’ve had lighter moments in earlier books, but I thought these scenes were the funniest in the series to date.  They helped relieve the tension of the main plot without ever slowing things down.  They also helped us see another side of Evan that made him even more human.

Into the Fire is nothing short of superb.  If you enjoy thrillers and haven’t pick up any books from Gregg Hurwitz yet, you are truly missing out.  If you are already a fan, you won’t be disappointed in a page of this new novel.

Missing Evan’s other adventures?  Here are the Orphan X thrillers in order.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Disney Pin Review: Mad Tea Party - Crests of the Kingdom - 2019 Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great combination of crests and the Mad Tea Party
Cons: Cons?  Do you think I’m mad?
The Bottom Line:
This Tea Party crest
Captures the attraction well
Inside scene looks great

Enjoy a Crest with Your Mad Tea

While the Crests of the Kingdom pin series was released at Disneyland, many of the attractions they chose to include are in multiple parks.  A case in point is the pin I’m looking at this month – the Mad Tea Party.

The pins in this series are hinged.  The front part is in pewter, and is therefore a gray color.  However, it is raised, so the crest stands out.  Not surprising, this one features three of the tea cups – one in front with two behind it.  Farther in the background, we’ve got bits of the leaves and the lights from the Mad Tea Party scene of Alice in Wonderland.  These are also used in the theming of the attraction at Disneyland.  The crest includes a Latin phrase.  This time it is “Cito Circumcirca,” which translates to “set in motion all about.”

The hinge for the pin is on top, and when you flip it open, you’ll find a full color scene inside.  No surprise, this one features Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the White Rabbit in one of the cups enjoying a spin.  Well, the White Rabbit seems a bit unsure about things, but the other two are definitely enjoying themselves.

This pin is great.  While I don’t always go on the ride, I always enjoy it when I do.  They’ve captured the details of it in both parts of this pin well, and I really enjoy.  The Latin phrase is a little rough if you take it literally, but it captures the spirit of the ride even if you don’t try to translate it.

Since this really is two pins, one of them pewter, it is definitely heavier than the average Disney pin.  I’m not sure I’d wear it in the parks, but they do give you two sticks in the back to help hold it on to whatever you hang it on.

The pins in this series are fun.  They capture the fun of the rides with the old crests well.  Any fan of the Mad Tea Party will enjoy this pin, no matter which park they know best

If you'd like to see the pin, check out my pictures on Instagram.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

March 14th's Weekly TV Thoughts

I wound up with more time than I thought this week, so here are my full TV thoughts.  Sounds like sooner than expected, I will not have a full list as TV productions are shutting down at least temporarily.  Not sure how that will play out with story arcs for the shows.  At least the one season finale on the list this week was already planned.

God Friended Me – I’m happy they are playing around with faith on the show again.  Obviously, as someone who believes in God, I hope Miles eventually goes back to faith, but I’m not really expecting that.  I’ve got to say, the revelation that the author fell in love certainly surprised me.  It’s not often they surprise me that much.

Batwoman – Did they seriously do a stupid slasher victim?  I mean, that was directly out of what not to do in a horror movie 101.  And yes, this show is definitely going dark.  Not sure how much of next week’s I’ll watch in real time and how much I’ll fast forward through.  Sophie’s story is their opportunity to preach at us, at least for this week if not a few episodes.

Supergirl – They are preaching again right now, this time against social media addiction.  I agree with them, so I am not as bothered as I was by the stuff last year, but it is still extremely obvious and not good storytelling.  Plus I’m not enjoying whatever Brainy is up to.  I hope Lena sees the error of her ways soon.  Or turns pure evil.  One way or the other.

The Flash – Wally sure went through quite a few transformations.  Nice guy to super angry to nice guy again.  And he’s the first to see something wrong with Iris.  So what is really going on with her?  I wonder how long with will be that Barry doesn’t have his powers.  That could be interesting for a couple of weeks, but then we need to get back to The Flash.

Legends of Tomorrow – I’d heard about this Mr. Rogers spoof months ago, and I was looking forward to it.  However, I was underwhelmed.  Maybe it was because they spent so little time in the show.  I will say, I was rolling my eyes at them bringing Damian back originally, but I actually didn’t mind by the end.  I’m just curious how he didn’t recognize Sara.  Surely, they’d met at some point, right?  And no discussion of him killing Laurel?  Or has that happened in the past as well.

Survivor – Honestly, I was surprised Rob’s antics worked the first time, but obviously they did since he won that season.  But I knew there was no way they would work again.  I can’t believe he thought they would.  It was interesting that we got no time on Extinction.  I guess they didn’t have their own challenge.  With three new tribes, I can get why they focused on the players still in the game since I no more than one or two ever make it back into the game.

LegoMasters – I might have been okay at the car part of the challenge.  Might.  But the bridges?  I would have been in the bottom two for sure.  I’m very impressed with those who built bridges that help 1000 pounds.  That’s amazing.

Carol’s Second Act – I was spoiled for which actors would pop up in this episode, so it was easy to guess who he was and what his announcement would be.  Interesting cliffhanger to go into next season.  It will be interesting to see where the shows goes if it comes back.  For the record, I don’t buy Dr. Frost’s interest in Carol, and I hope they bring Dr. Lewis back because I really like him.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Book Review: Mermaid Mysteries by Diane Vallere

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great main characters, fun setting well used, great stories
Cons: All cons washed away
The Bottom Line:
Three undersea tails
Mystery with fantasy
Fun combination

Go Under the Sea for this Novella Collection

While I mostly read cozy mysteries, if you pay attention to my reviews, you’ll find that I also enjoy fantasy.  So when Diane Vallere announced she was going to write three mystery novellas featuring mermaids, I immediately perked up.  I waited until the stories were collected in one volume, Mermaid Mysteries, and they were an enjoyable as I expected them to be.

Each story in this collection features a one of three sisters.  They are all the daughter of the leader of Sirenia, one of many settlements of mermaids under the sea.

Up first is Zoe, the middles of the three sisters, in “Tails from the Deep.”  Unlike her sisters, Zoe loves to explore.  One of her favorite places is a shipwreck beyond the edges of her merfolk village.  She sneaks out there quite frequently, so when things seem off one day, she is quick to notice.  When she returns the next day, she finds a human diver trapped on the bottom next to a dead body.  She frees the diver, but her actions lead to questions that might impact her settlement.  Can she figure out who to trust and what is really going on?

Kyra, the youngest sisters, is the star of the second story, “Murky Waters.”  She has been coddled and babied her entire life.  Known for her beauty and her singing voice, she plays into both of those roles, flirting with every merman who shows interest.  On her way to music lessons one morning, she finds the Nautilus Vault opened and several squid tied up near the entrance.  She frees them, but she can tell someone has been inside the vault.  Can she figure out who is responsible?

Finally comes “Sleeping with the Fishes,” which is oldest sister Ava’s time to shine.  Ava has been groomed to take over the leadership of Sirenia someday.  Most view Ava as aloof and bossy, but Ava will be the first to tell you she is really afraid – afraid her past will come out and afraid she will fail when the time comes.  The time comes sooner than she expected when Mother is kidnapped and Ava must take over leadership immediately.  Then comes word that sharks are encroaching on mermaid territory.  Can Ava deal with this crisis?

This is the order the stories were released, and it is best to read them in this order since this is the order in which the stories take place.  There are references to past adventures in the later stories.

These books are just as much coming of age tales as they are mysteries.  Each of the sisters grows as their story unfolds, and I enjoyed watching these transformations.

Each story is told first person from the point of view of the sister who stars in that story, and it is very interesting to watch how the different sisters view those around them.  Through each one’s interactions, we get a more complete picture of the other residents of Sirenia.  No, these other residents aren’t as well developed as the sisters, but they are developed enough to help draw us into the undersea world.

Speaking of the undersea world, this is a delightful place.  There are some fun twists on things that we as humans take for granted, and their take on humans and our world made me smile at times.  It’s those little details I loved, and there were enough of them to make me feel like I was under water myself as I was reading.  I’ve always been drawn to water, and this made me want to live under water even more.  If only I didn’t have to breath, right?

The mysteries were compelling.  I did feel like the climax to Zoe’s story was a bit abrupt, but that is my only complaint with this collection, and it is a minor one.

These stories were originally released individually as ebooks only.  Then, they were collected into one ebook offering as well as collected into a print collection.  However you want to get them is fine, but make sure you don’t double buy.

I do want to mention again that these stories are novellas.  Each story is about 90 pages each.  As long as you know this going in, you’ll be fine.

I realize Mermaid Mysteries might not be for everyone.  But if you are willing to try something new, you’ll be glad you picked up this collection.  While this feels like a complete collection, I hope that Diane Vallere decides to journey back under the sea someday for some more tails.  I would certainly go along for the ride.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Ornament Review: Bonjour! - 2019 Hallmark Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Captures a great moment for Belle
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Belle in a bookstore
Piece captures her in action
A great ornament

Belle at a Bookstore – I Didn’t Need to Know Anything Else

I have long maintained that Belle is my favorite Disney princess, and one reason is because she loves books as much as I do.  So when I saw Hallmark’s Bonjour! ornament this last year, I knew I had to get it.

This ornament captures Belle from the song “Belle” that starts the movie.  It’s the scene where she is in the bookstore, and she is riding the ladder in front of the bookshelves.  She’s holding on with her right hand, but her left arm is flung out, and the way her dress is flying out, she is clearly in motion.

I love that moment in the movie, and I love this ornament as a result.  It’s a great action pose for Belle, and her features are perfect.  The books behind her on the shelf are painted on, but that makes no difference to me.  This is a great ornament.

No surprise, the bookshelf stands on its feet just fine.  You really could set this ornament out to be displayed year-round since it doesn’t have anything directly related to Christmas on it.

However, it is a Christmas ornament, and I hung it on my tree this last year.  When you do, you’ll find that the ornament tips back ever so slightly, but you have to be watching for it to even notice.  Belle looks wonderful on your tree as well.

That’s because this ornament is just wonderful.  Seriously, if you are a fan of Belle for the same reason I am, Bonjour! is definitely an ornament you’ll want to track down.