Friday, February 3, 2023

Book Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Action, humor, fun
Cons: Could have used just a bit more
The Bottom Line:
Target: assassins
Book filled with mindless action
Fun; could be stronger

If You Plan to Take Out Killers, Make Sure You Don’t Miss

When I first heard about Killers of a Certain Age, the new novel from Deanna Raybourn, I was certainly intrigued. But it wasn’t until I started hearing people rave about it that I concluded I had to read it. Since it starts on a Caribbean cruise, I figured my recent cruise was the perfect time to dive in and find out what everyone was raving about. 

Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have spent their lives working for the Museum. Despite the picture the name might bring up, it’s actually an organization of highly train assassins, and these four friends are some of the best. They were recruited and trained together, and they’ve worked together many times over the years. 

But now they are ready to retire, and as a parting gift, the Museum is sending them on a Caribbean cruise. However, they are startled to realize one of the staff on the ship is really a fellow assassin. It quickly becomes obvious his mission is to take them out. By why? What will the women have to do to survive?

This is more of an action-adventure novel than a mystery, and the language and violence definitely keep it from being one of my cozies. As I was talking about the plot to some friends I had made on my cruise, they said it would make a great movie, and I can see it. This would be a high octagon action movie. 

And I certainly enjoyed it. There is a reason action movies are popular, after all. There are plenty of great scenes here that had me turning pages. 

However, a book needs a bit more than an action movie, and this book was missing that. A two-hour movie can get away with having less than a book that takes longer than that to read, right? I need some more twists and surprises than I got here. I was usually a step or two ahead of the story and reading to catch up. 

I did feel the characters were good. They were stronger than typical action movie characters, although, again, they could have been just a little stronger. 

Now, this isn’t to say that I didn’t like them or didn’t get caught up in the story. As I’ve often said in other reviews, predictable isn’t bad if you are enjoying the journey, and I was. The action takes us to several different locations, which was lots of fun. 

And there was the humor. I smiled plenty and laughed many times at the dialogue and situations the characters found themselves in. 

Most of the book takes place in the present and is written in first person past sense from Billie’s point of view. However, we do get some chapters in the past. It’s always easy to tell when we switch, and they do help shed some light on the events of the story. What I found most interesting is that these passages were written in third person present tense. 

It could just be my expectations were too high as well. Maybe if I had read this book back when it came out in September instead now, after seeing plenty of people raving about it, I would have fallen even more under its spell than I did. 

I’m glad I picked up Killers of a Certain Age. If you are in the mood for fun but mindless action, this is definitely the book for you. 

February 3rd's Friday Post

Thanks to my vacation, it's been a few weeks since I did a Friday post, but I need to fix that.  I will be linking up to:

Book Beginnings
First Line Friday
Friday 56
Book Blogger Hop

This week, I will be pulling teasers for the first three from Of Manners and Murder by Anastasia Hastings.

This is the first in a new historical series set in 1885 England.  It's got an interesting premise, the person behind a newspaper advice columnist solving murders.

And here's how the book begins:

It should be known from the beginning, I am no flibbertigibbet. Nor am I inclined to the sorts of vapors which often envelop my half sister Sephora and cause her to swoon—usually when there is an attractive young man in the vicinity to offer assistance.

This sets a bit of a fun tone for the book.  However, things take an interesting turn at the 56% point in my eARC.

It was hard to come up with a plausible fiction to explain my presence so I opted for the truth. “I’ve come about your husband,” I told her. 

Marguerite’s bottom lip trembled, her knees gave way. She sank down upon the sofa. “Reggie? Why? He’s been dead these five years now.”

I'll leave you to discover why Violet, our narrator, is asking about someone who died five years ago.

I finished the book while I was on vacation, and I really enjoyed it.  It's official release day is next Tuesday, but I'll be reviewing it on Monday.

Meanwhile, let's do this week's Book Blogger Hop.  I had to make sure I did it since this week's question was one I had submitted.

What was your favorite genre to read a child? Do you still read that genre, or do you read something else now?

You'd think since I submitted this, I'd have a good, short answer ready to go.  I don't.  So we are going to get the long, rambling answer.

In third grade, I actually stopped reading the first Hardy Boys book I'd picked up (The Secret of the Caves) when I got hooked on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  That's right, I set down a mystery for fantasy.  Of course, I did get hooked on the Hardys a couple of years later.

As a kid, I read more of everything.  Some of my favorite books from childhood were more real life like Beverly Cleary or science fiction/fantasy.  However, I still read plenty of mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Trixie Belden.

It wasn't until I'd been out of college for a couple of years that I started reading more mystery than anything else.  And, obviously, that's where I am today.

So I'd say I don't know that I had a favorite genre as a kid, but I did read mystery back then.  Looks like I did have a short answer after all.

I'm looking forward to reading everyone's answers!

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Book Review: Wined and Died in New Orleans by Ellen Byron (Vintage Cookbook Mysteries #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: great plot and wonderful characters 
Cons: I won’t be wining about any cons 
The Bottom Line:
Valuable wine
Was it motive for murder?
Fun, page turning book

Murder is Nothing to Wine Over

I always look forward to a new book from Ellen Byron, so I was excited to pick up Wined and Died in New Orleans. And I was rewarded with another fun book from a great author. 

This is the second book in her Vintage Cookbook Mysteries, so if you haven’t started the series, you aren’t that far behind. It features Ricki James-Diaz, who has turned her love of vintage cookbooks and her expertise in old books in general into a shop that sells cookbooks and vintage kitchen items in Bon Vee, one of the historic homes in New Orleans. Opening her shop coincided with a murder, and fortunately for us, another murder is on the horizon. 

It starts with a shocking discovery on the grounds of Bon Vee - multiple crates of 150-year-old wine. These bottles could be worth a fortune, which is good news since Bon Vee could use the proceeds for maintenance on the buildings and grounds. 

However, Ricki’s social media posts about the discovery and upcoming auction have an unintended consequence. Distance relatives start to show up, some of them previously unknown, demanding that they deserve a piece of the proceeds as well. It quickly starts to become too much for Eugenia Charbonnet, the President of the Bon Vee board and niece of the estate’s previous owner. Then one of these relatives turns up dead. Can Ricki figure out what is really going on?

Quite obviously, if you are looking for a dead body in the first chapter, you will be disappointed. The story needs a little time to introduce some new characters and set up the premise of this book. However, it does a great job of that. Things move quickly and the tension builds nicely before the murder. It only gets stronger once Ricki has a murder to solve, and none of that set up was wasted. There are several fun complications and diversions along the way to the logical solution. Add in some sub-plots and you’ve got a book that was hard to put down. 

Ricki gets some good character development in this book. I enjoyed watching these changes in her character. She isn’t the only one. Several of the returning characters and even some of the new characters get some nice growth here. 

And I haven’t even touched on the cliffhanger ending from the previous book. Yes, that ending is addressed here. And I loved how it played into this story. 

If you haven’t read the first in the series, be warned that a couple scenes here have minor spoilers for the first book. However, there is still much there you won’t know if you read them out of order. However, they are so fun I would recommend you go ahead and read the first one. 

Ellen Byron loves Louisiana and New Orleans and it comes through in this book. I felt like I was visiting the city as I read. 

As you’d expect from a culinary cozy like this one, we get five recipes at the end. In a fun twist here, each one is adapted from a real vintage cookbook. 

Wined and Died in New Orleans is lots of fun. The inventive plot and great characters will keep readers happy until they turn the final page. 

Note: I received an ARC of this book.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

January 2023's Reading Summary

Welcome to February!  I'm going to start the month by looking back at what I read in January.  That's always a great way to start a month, right?

Once again, I didn't get the index updated.  I'll really make an effort to work on it in February.

All ratings are on a scale of 1 (bad) to 5 (great).  Links take you to my full review.


Fatal Fascinator by Jenn McKinlay (Hat Shop Mysteries #7) – 5

Cousins Scarlett and Viv have agreed to create the hats for the wedding of the season.  Scarlett is mainly excited because it means they’ve scored an invitation, and the wedding is taking place in a castle in the country.  Even their friend Andre is there as the wedding photographer.  But joy turns to tragedy when Scarlett finds the dead body of the groom in the library.  With no one allowed to leave while the police investigate, Scarlett can’t help but poked around.  Will she figure out what happened?

Since author Jenn McKinlay is so busy writing, we don’t get quite as many entries in this series as in some of her others.  That makes it nice to get to revisit these characters again.  A few of the regulars have cameos than a real part, but it was still nice to see everyone and see how they are continuing to grow.  The book is filled with suspects, but I never had a hard time keeping them all straight.  The story was always moving forward, and the plot had a few nice surprises on the way to the climax.  The pages just flew by.  Meanwhile, there were plenty of moments that made me laugh or grin, including some pun wars, which I always enjoy.  Whether you are a fan of the series or just checking it out, you’ll enjoy this book.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.


Gone for Gouda by Korina Moss (Cheese Shop Mysteries #2) – 5

Willa Bauer is thrilled to be hosting a stop for Phoebe Winston on her tour promoting her new cookbook.  The celebrity chef is sure to bring in lots of people to Willa’s new cheese shop.  However, when Willa meets Phoebe, she discovers the author is a bit of a diva, with demands that make the event a much harder prospect than Willa bargained for.  Then Phoebe is murdered in the house she was renting in the area, with Willa’s employee Archie the last person on the property’s security system.  Can Willa figure out what happened?

I enjoyed the first book in the series, but this was even stronger.  We meet Phoebe long enough to know what a pain she is before she dies, but then we learn even more, opening up the suspect pool.  The climax becomes a race to figure things out, and I was along for the twists that kept coming at that point.  I was thrilled that the supporting players got a bigger role this time around.  They are fantastic, and I enjoyed spending time with all of them.  I grew up in Sonoma County, so I have a special connection with the setting even if I did have to move my mental map of the fictional town where most of the action takes place.  This book will leave you hungry for cheese, so the three recipes at the end will be welcome.  I’m already anxious to see what happens to Willa and the others in the next in the series.


Aerobics Can Be Deadly by Ryan Rivers (Bucket List Mysteries #1) – 5

Sho Tanaka and Levi Blue have decided to make a triathlon the first item they tackle on their bucket lists.  When they go to the local gym to sign up to train, Levi manages to get them jobs as background extras in an aerobics video being shot the next day.  However, when one of the stars dies during the first scene, Levi is ready to jump in and find the killer.  Will Sho go along with it?  Will they figure out what is going on?

While this is the first book in the series, it follows the novella that really introduces the characters.  I read them out of order, but I didn’t have trouble figuring out the main characters and their relationships.  There are plenty of laughs, especially in the beginning, but as the book progresses, things get more serious, lending itself to some great characters moments.  Not that the humor ever goes completely away.  Meanwhile, we have a strong mystery that kept me guessing until the very end.  I will definitely be back for the prequel soon.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.


Death by Smoothie by Laura Levine (Jaine Austen Mysteries #19) – 5

Someone is trying to revive the cult classic sitcom I Married a Zombie as a stage musical, and freelance writer Jaine Austen has been hired to punch up the script.  Since the producer is also the writer and the star, the script needs a lot of work, but the biggest problem is Misty, the actress hired to play the lead.  She can’t act and she can’t remember her lines, but the producer is enchanted with her.  That is until someone poisons her afternoon smoothie.  Jaine jumps into action to figure out who the killer is.  Can she do it?

Anyone familiar with this series will know exactly what to expect here, and they will be delighted by it.  It’s more of the same in the best way possible.  By my count, we have four sub-plots that weave in and out of the story, and they keep the reader from ever getting bored.  The sub-plot involving her parents might be my favorite yet.  These sub-plots also help provide plenty of wacky situations, and this book is filled with humor from beginning to end.  The characters are a bit more types as a result, created for their humor potential, but they work.  The mystery is strong and kept me guessing until the end, even when I thought I had it figured out early on.  I was smiling or laughing with every page.  It’s always a treat to pick up a book in this series.  If you are looking for a light, fun mystery, this is the one for you.


Oh Danny Girl by C. Michele Dorsey (Danny and Nora O’Brien Mysteries #1) – 5

When Danny O’Brien goes to court that morning, she’s not expecting anything too difficult in the uncontested divorce she is there to handle.  That’s before a gun is found in her briefcase – a gun connected to the high-profile cop killer case where her husband is the defense attorney.  Then her husband is murdered in a hotel room with a woman.  As Danny realizes the legal peril she is in, she tries to make sense of all that is happening around her.  Will she figure things out before it is too late?

This was a great thrill ride from the very beginning, and I had a hard time putting the book down.  The characters are great, and help pull us into the story.  The chapter breaks also signal that we are switching to another character’s point of view, and this technique is used perfectly to help us understand them better and to fully see what is unfolding.  I did think a couple of character moments happened too soon, and a couple of times the chapter breaks were used for false suspense (to keep us from learning something the character had just learned), but these were minor issues for me.  Most of the twists surprised me and kept me hooked until I reached the satisfying end.  I can’t wait to see what happens to these characters next.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.


Where the Guilty Hide by Annette Dashofy (Detective Honeywell Mysteries #1) – 5

Erie City Police Detective Matthias Honeywell has been called to the site of a second home invasion robbery in a matter of days.  The difference here is that the husband managed to escape and go after the thieves.  Unfortunately, the next morning, photographer Emma Anderson finds the man’s body in some debris that washed on shore from Lake Erie.  The more Honeywell investigates, the more he finds that revolves around Emma.  Can he solve the case?  Will she be the key to unraveling it?

This is a strong start to a new series.  Both Honeywell and Emma come alive quickly for us, partially thanks to their backstories which are slowly given to us without over teasing.  The rest of the cast is just as strong.  We get the story from both Honeywell’s and Emma’s third person points of view in alternating chapters, so it is always easy to tell when we are switching.  And the story is strong.  I struggled when I had the put the book down, especially when I hit the page turning climax.  (Stupid real life!)  Since this is a police procedural, it is darker than the cozies I often read, so know that going in.  Those already a fan of the author will be delighted with the new series.  If you haven’t started reading her books yet, this is a great place to jump in.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.


Irish Coffee Murder by Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis, and Barbara Ross – 4

Once again, these three authors are teaming up for a holiday themed novella collection.  This time, their stories are set around St. Patrick’s Day.  In the first story, Leslie Meier’s character, Lucy Stone, is doing a story on four local Irish dancers.  Then one of their mother’s is murdered.  Next, Lee Hollis’s sleuth, Hayley Powell, gets involved when the headlining comedian for the St. Patrick’s Day show dies after proposing a toast with his Irish coffee.  Finally, Barbara Ross’s Julia Snowden is enjoying a stormy St. Patrick’s Day in with friends when they start talking about the local unsolved murder from 150 years ago.  Everyone has a theory about who did it, but can Julia figure it out after all this time?

Since these are novellas, each story is roughly 100 pages, giving us a good taste of the series and characters before we move on to the next one.  I enjoyed all three of them.  I do struggle some with Leslie Meier’s entries in these anthologies, but I enjoyed it overall.  On the other hand, I am considering starting Lee Hollis’s books because I continue to enjoy their entries in the series.  Barbara Ross’s series is one of my favorites, so it’s is no surprise that I loved her entry.  All three stories do feature good characters and an intriguing mystery.  Lee Hollis and Barbara Ross include recipes with their stories, so you’ll have several traditional Irish recipes.  This is a great book to sit down and enjoy with a mug of Irish coffee.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.


Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #36) – 4

Poirot is called to a small British village after a tragedy at a Hallowe’en party takes place.  Someone used the tub that the guests had bobbed for apples in to drown Joyce, a thirteen year old girl who was helping with the event.  Earlier in the evening, she had bragged that she had witnessed a murder, however the residents of the village didn’t take her seriously since she was always embellishing if not outright lying about things.  If that wasn’t the motive, what happened to her?

Yes, I picked this particular book to read this year because of the upcoming movie “inspired” by it.  I suspect the movie will be vastly different, but we will see.  The book originally came out in 1969, and you can tell with some of the theories that Poirot hears about what happened.  It was interesting to see how society was thinking about some of these issues back then.  My biggest issue was the victim’s age, it’s just not something I’m used to.  However, I was drawn into the story, interested in finding out exactly what happened.  The characters could have been a little sharper, but they did help make me care about the story.  I was on the right track, but didn’t have everything pieced together when we reached the climax, which was pretty thrilling.  It’s easy to see why this is a lesser-known book from Agatha Christie, but it is definitely enjoyable.


Dead-Bang Fall by J.R. Sanders (Nate Ross #2) – 5

PI Nate Ross thinks he has a simple case when he’s hired for a penny-ante theft caper.  But that’s before one of his suspects is killed in a back alley.  While Nate didn’t witness the crime, he did see the victim go into the alley with someone that Nate helped put in prison five years ago.  However, a few hours later, that man turns up at Nate’s office claiming to be innocent and hiring Nate to clear him before disappearing again.  Nate buys most of the story, but he knows he didn’t get the whole truth.  That feeling only grows as he starts to investigate.  Can he figure out the whole truth?

This is a great trip back to 1939 Hollywood, and the setting comes to life.  As a throwback PI novel, it does start out with a little too much jargon of the time, but fortunately, that calms down as we get into the story.  It does have a bit more violence and foul language than in one of the cozies I read, but it doesn’t go overboard.  The plot is strong with quite a few twists, compilations, and half-truths before we reach the fun climax.  Nate much face his past here, and we are reminded about enough to make the growth real.  Meanwhile, we get a couple of fun returning characters and a batch of great new ones.  If you enjoy PI novels set in this era, this is one to check out.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Book Review: Dead-Bang Fall by J.R. Sanders (Nate Ross #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, plot, and setting
Cons: A bit too much slang early on
The Bottom Line:
Simple turns deadly
With connection to Nate’s past
Strong historical

Helping a Face from His Past

While I got both books published so far in J.R. Sanders’s Nate Ross novels last year, I only got the first one read.  I decided to fix that early in 2023, so I picked up Dead-Bang Fall.

Nate Ross is a PI solving cases in late 1930’s Hollywood.  He’s an ex-cop forced out when he took down a few dirty cops, making him a pariah among his former co-workers.  Even as a PI, he hasn’t lost that distrust from his former brothers in blue.

But Nate’s still getting work.  His most recent case starts out quite by accident.  He’s been hired to figure out if the usher at a small theater is reselling tickets, something Nate quickly confirms.  However, things take a deadly turn when the usher is murdered in a back alley while Nate has him under surveillance.  Nate didn’t witness the murder, but he did see one other man go into the alley – one of the cops he helped convict five years earlier.

So you can imagine Nate’s surprise when this corrupt cop stumbles into Nate’s office a few hours later insisting he is innocent and hiring Nate to find the men he says really committed the crime.  Then his newest client goes on the run, making Nate question the truth.  The more he digs, the more questions he has.  Without a clue who to trust, can he figure out what is really happening?  Or is his client guilty?

As with the first book, this is very much a private eye novel.  As a result, it has a bit more language and violence than I would read in a cozy, but it isn’t excessive.  The one thing that did bother me was an excessive use of slang.  Early on, the characters seem to want to work as much police jargon from the time into the story as they could.  Fortunately, that eased up as the book went along, so the few times it was worked in added to the fun instead feeling overwhelming.

The plot is strong.  Nate doesn’t know who to trust, and with good reason because it becomes clear early on that no one is telling him the whole truth.  But he is good as learning what is truly going on, even if he hits a few brick walls along the way.  The ending was creative and wrapped things up in a satisfying way.

Nate still had some wise cracks in this book, but he was a bit toned down from the first book in the series, or they didn’t hit me the same way they did in the first book.  Still, I grinned several times as his antics.

And he makes a strong lead character.  While we don’t get quite as much backstory here as we did in the first book, we get enough to fully understand the background to this story.  That allows for some interesting growth, and I’m curious to see where things go in the future.

There are a few returning characters in this book, and I enjoyed seeing them again.  The majority of the characters are new, and they came to life for me, keeping me guessing about what exactly was going on as I read.

I also enjoyed reading about Hollywood in 1939, and the setting came to life for me.  While I didn’t spot any cameos by real people, it was still fun to be living life back in the era for a few hours while I read.

If you are looking for a PI novel that harkens back to the early days of the genre, Dead-Bang Fall is for you.  This book will have you turning pages through all the twists and reaching the last one before you know it.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Movie Review: The Pacifier

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Family friendly laughs and action
Cons: Predictable, some laughs didn’t work for me
The Bottom Line:
A Seal babysits
Out of water comedy
That has its moments

Mindless Disney Fun

There are many movies on my “I’ll see them someday” list, and The Pacifier was on it.  It looked like it could be fun.  So when some friends wanted to watch it recently, I didn’t put up any fight at all.

This movie centers on Shane Wolfe (Vin Diesel), a Navy Seal.  When a mission goes horribly wrong, Vin finds himself in the hospital for a couple of months recovering from his injuries.  His first assignment back isn’t one he expected.  He’s assigned to the Plummer family.  The father, who was developing an amazing new piece of technology, has died, and the mother, Julie (Faith Ford), needs to go to Switzerland to retrieve the contents of the box he had there.

And so, Shane finds himself responsible for the daily care as well as the safety for five kids ranging from teens down to a baby.  None of them trust him.  None of them want him there.  Can he convince them he is a good guy?  Are they in danger?

Anyone familiar with a family comedy can pretty much guess where things go from here.  The things that I didn’t see coming were things I should have seen coming.  But, as I have said before, as long as you are having fun, it really doesn’t matter.

And there is fun to be had here.  The cast is filled with many familiar names, especially for 2005, like Carol Kane and Brad Garrett.  As you’d expect, they all make the most of their scenes, giving us plenty of laughs.  The emotional moments work as well, and I teared up a time or two.

Yet, some of the scenes don’t work like they were supposed to, and I found a couple of the characters who were supposed to be funny to be more annoying.  I get what the laughs were supposed to be; they just didn’t work for me.

Vin Diesel is known more for his action movies than his comedy.  He works as the out of his element Navy Seal here, but part of the reason he works in this role is because the film calls for plenty of action.  Don’t worry, it is in keeping with the family friendly movie, but I enjoyed that aspect of things.

I am glad I saw The Pacifier.  I’m not sure I need to see it again, but it was enjoyable to watch once.  If you are a fan of the cast or curious about it, give it a shot.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Music Review: One Name by Selah

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Six new songs of praise from Selah
Cons: None from me
The Bottom Line:
Six new songs of praise
In Selah’s uplifting style
For amazing God

Selah Releases an EP filled with Anthems of Praise

The trio Selah is best known for their modern covers of classic hymns, and rightly so.  However, I also love the more modern anthems of praise they’ve started filling their releases with.  Last fall, they released two new CD, one a Christmas project and one a brand-new collection of hymns.  I liked both of them, but I was missing the anthems, so I was happy when they followed those releases up with One Name.

This is a six track EP, but it is filled with new to me songs.  The first of these is the title track.  “One Name” has a Latin flavor that makes it lots of fun.  It reminds us that Jesus is the only way to be saved.  Things slow down for “So Beautiful,” which focuses on what God has done for us and praises Him because of it.  “God of Ages” comes closest to feeling like a classic hymn and it focuses on praising God for who He is, while “Jesus Victorious” feels like it could be a more modern praise song.  The tempo picks up a little more with “Crying Holy” before we get to the souring melody of “Glory Hallelujah.”

There’s actually a bonus track on the disc.  This seventh song is “Gloria E Aleluia” or “Glory Hallelujah” in Spanish.  For this track, the trio is joined by Gabriel Guedes.  I skip right by this one since I don’t know Spanish, but it’s a bonus track, so that doesn’t bother me.  Those who speak Spanish will love it.

By now, I feel like Selah fans know what to expect from them, and that’s exactly what they will get here.  There really isn’t any change in their sound and their lyrics are still focusing on praising God.  But that’s why we love them, right?

If you’ve never given Selah a chance and this sounds like something you’d enjoy, I recommend you pick up One Name.  If you are already a fan, you’ll love this shorter release.

CD Length: 31:45
1. One Name
2. So Beautiful
3. God of Ages
4. Jesus Victorious
5. Crying Holy
6. Glory Hallelujah
7. Gloria E Aleluia (with Gabriel Guedes)

Saturday, January 28, 2023

TV Show Review: United States of Al - Season 2

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Season premier, early episodes
Cons: Second half of the season destroys what fun the show had
The Bottom Line:
Season started well
But second half went downhill
Recommend you pass

“You Are Destroying My Life.”  “Only Because I Love You.”

I was amused enough by the first season of United States of Al to give season two a chance.  I was impressed with how the season started, but as it went along, it lost much of the enjoyment I was getting from it.

If you’ve missed this show, it focused on Al (Adhir Kalyan), an interpreter for the US Marines in his native Afghanistan who has immigrated to the United States and is now living with his best friend, former Marine Riley (Parker Young) and his family, including his father, Art (Dean Norris), and sister, Lizzie (Elizabeth Alerfer).  Rounding out the cast, we have Riley’s ex-wife, Vanessa (Kelli Goss), their daughter, Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie), and Vanessa’s new boyfriend, Freddy (Brian Thomas Smith).

While I know the characters and show are purely fictional, I couldn’t help but think of the characters as the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan was happening during August of 2021.  The writers felt the need to address it as well, so we get the season two opener, which was the best episode of the show, hands down.  While this is a sitcom, they actually made this episode without any jokes, and it felt more like a thriller as Al was trying to get his sister out of Afghanistan.  It was tense and heartwarming at the same time, and the actors brought their A game, pulling us into the story.  If you have never watched an episode of this show, I recommend you watch at least this one.  It was that good.

From there, the show got back to its comedy roots.  Yes, there were some references to Afghanistan and Al’s family, although the references to real events dropped away.  Instead, we got more stories about Al trying to fit into his new country and the college classes he started to take.  We still get some serious storylines as Riley deals with his time in the Marines, but there is still humor as well.

I actually appreciated these storylines.  They were realistic about what our soldiers have to deal with during and after they leave active service, but they did it without disrespecting the men and women who serve or our armed forces.  It was a perfect balance of comedy, public service, and respect.

I also felt like the humor was getting better.  This was never a sitcom that gave me huge laughs, but it was always amusing, and I felt like the writers were beginning to find themselves and the humor in the characters.

Then came the second half of the season, where things went off the rails.  We began to have more and more storylines related to Riley and Al’s love lives, and I didn’t appreciate where they took either character.  I especially felt like Al was out of character this part of the season.  Not only that, but they started to go for the easy and cheap joke.  I rarely laughed in these episodes, and, if we weren’t so close to the end of the season, I might have stopped watching.  That’s not to say that we didn’t get some of these jokes and storylines all season, but they took over at the end of the season.

Needless to say, when CBS decided to cancel the show at the end of season 2, I wasn’t heartbroken at all.  I’d already decided I wasn’t going to be back for season 3 if it had happened.

Since the show was cancelled at the last minute, there are several storylines that are left unresolved.  I wouldn’t say there are any direct cliffhangers, but it would have been nice to get some closure on certain relationships.

Honestly, I recommend you watch the season 2 premier, and then skip the rest of the season.  What could have been a great show was never allowed to bloom, but instead was choked out by sex jokes.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Movie Review: John Wick Chapters 2

Stars: 1 out of 5
Pros: The first 15 minutes entertain
Cons: The rest is a repetitive violent mess with cardboard for characters
The Bottom Line:
Taking one last job
A boring action movie
Way too violent

“I Don’t Know If You Noticed, But You’ve got a Crack in Your Windshield.”

The friend who talked me into watching John Wick fully admitted that the first movie was bad, but he promised that John Wick Chapter 2 was a better movie.  While some things were better, overall, he was wrong.

This movie picks up just a few days after the last one ends.  John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is hoping to finally go back into retirement from his former life as an assassin when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his front door.  He’s heard that John is back as an assassin and therefore wants to call in the marker that John has with him.  It takes a little persuading, but John eventually does take on the assignment – going to Italy to kill Santino’s sister.  What will happen when John takes on the assignment?

With the first movie, I did complain about the motive for John going out committing all the murder and mayhem – revenge.  Here, he’s hired to go out and kill someone.  Ironically enough, I wasn’t as disturbed by his motive here as I was before.

However, the first movie had better and more action scenes.  This movie starts out with a great action scene.  Unrealistic?  Sure.  But lots of fun.  From there, it devolves into a video game movie.  What do I mean by that?  John takes on wave after wave of bad guys out to kill him, just like we would if we played a video game.  Heck, at one point, they are even showing three different fights that happened close together in time, but interspersed with each other.  One has to wonder why.  We never get the answer for that.  Late in the movie, we do get a creative location for a fight sequence, but it goes on much too long.

And that was the biggest problem with the movie – I got bored in an action movie.  It was the same thing over and over again, and I was counting down the seconds until it would end.  Yes, it ended on a cliffhanger, but I’m not sure I care.

Granted, that is partially the script’s fault.  Oh, don’t worry, the dialogue, what little there is of it, is better written than in the first movie.  I know, that isn’t saying much.  I felt like a little thought and effort was put into the dialogue here.  But we get nothing as far as character development.  As much as I thought John’s behavior was out of line in the first one (revenge and all), it at least gave him something relatable.  Here, he could easily be a mindless killing machine.  We just don’t care about him.

I said it was partially the script’s fault.  The other fault is the acting.  For me, Keanu Reeves is a hit or miss actor.  Here, he was a miss.  His dialogue came off as stiff, which again made it hard to care about the character.  For the most part the other actors are better, but the script doesn’t give them much to work with either.  Of course, most of the “characters” are just the nameless people that John Wick has to kill, so they don’t have much to work with.

Just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, this movie is violent.  And there are several scenes that are needlessly violent.  They could have toned it down, but by going over the top, it turned me off again.  There’s also quite a bit of foul language, although that seemed to die down as the violence ramped up in the second half.  Either way, this movie earns its R rating.

Honestly, there’s isn’t much to recommend the movie.  After the first 15 minutes, it devolves into a boring, gross mess.  Even mocking it with my friends didn’t make it enjoyable because it was so repetitive.  You will be best served by avoiding John Wick Chapter 2.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Book Review: Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #36)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Interesting mystery
Cons: Biggest for me – victim’s age
The Bottom Line:
Death at a party
Can Poirot find the motive?
Overall, still good

Drowned in the Apple Bobbing Tub

I probably wouldn’t have picked up Hallowe’en Party right now if it hadn’t been announced that it was going to be the inspiration for the next Kenneth Branagh Poirot movie, coming later this year.  I wasn’t the only one suddenly interested in this lesser-known Christie book since it took me a couple of months and a few tries to get the audio version from my library.  While this doesn’t have the renown of some of Agatha Christie’s other books, there is a good mystery here.

This book is near the end of the Hercule Poirot series, originally coming out in 1969.  It finds Poirot called to a small English village after a Hallowe’en party ends in a tragedy.  Thirteen-year-old Joyce, who was helping with the party for the children of the village, is found dead in the tub used for the apple bobbing.  Earlier in the evening, she had bragged about seeing a murder, but no one believed her.

Poirot’s friend, mystery author Ariadne Oliver, was one of those who found Joyce.  She thinks that Joyce might have been telling the truth, but as Poirot starts to interview those who have known Joyce longer, everyone says that Joyce was always lying or embellishing stories, so there is no reason to take her seriously.  But if not, why did someone kill her?

I mentioned 1969 earlier for a reason.  This is definitely a later entry from Agatha Christie since the theory in the village is that the killer is a wandering sex criminal, a problem that they were having in “modern” British society.  I’ve got to admit, I found that a bit jarring.  No, we don’t get much more discussion than that, but it’s not something I was expecting.  The book does provide a bit of interesting commentary about how some topics we are still dealing with in society were being viewed at the time.

The other thing I found a big jarring was Joyce’s age.  I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a victim this young.

However, I definitely got into the story.  As Poirot digs into the past and the present in order to make sense of the crime, he uncovers some pretty strong motives, and I enjoyed trying to piece together what happened.  The ending is an edge of your seat thrill as he must race to keep tragedy from striking again.  I didn’t have everything pieced together, but I was definitely on the right track, so I felt the ending made sense.

I also felt the characters were good.  We didn’t get to know everyone super well, but we got to know them enough to care about the outcome.  I think if the characters were better developed, the victim been thirteen might have impacted me even more than it did, so this was probably a good thing.

As I said at the beginning, I listened to an audio version of this one.  Hugh Fraser was the narrator of this particular version, and he did a good job of helping bring the story to life and keeping the characters straight without overwhelming the story.

Since the new movie will be “inspired” by Hallowe’en Party, I’m expecting some major changes (including the location, I believe).  But it will be interesting to see if I recognize anything from this book in the movie.  In the meantime, I’m glad the movie inspired me to read this lesser-known Agatha Christie books.