Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book Review: A Dark and Stormy Murder by Julia Buckley (Writer's Apprentice Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, fun plot
Cons: A few issues near the end
The Bottom Line:
Writing with idol
Dead body on the lake’s beach
Recipe for fun

Chance of a Lifetime.  Plus Murder.

I’ve been a fans of the comic strip Peanuts and especially Snoopy’s failed writing career for years.  Naturally, that means that a book entitled A Dark and Stormy Murder would peak my interest.  I finally put it on the top of my TBR pile, and I’m glad I did.

No, the book doesn’t revolve around anything Peanuts related.  In fact, the book plays off Gothic tropes.  You see, the book centers on Lena London.  She’s long been a fan of the Gothic suspense novels of Camilla Graham, so she is shocked when her friend announces that she knows Camilla.  But when Lena, an aspiring novelist, gets the chance to work for Camilla, polishing her newest novel, Lena jumps at the chance.

And so Lena moves to the small town of Blue Lake, Indiana, and into the mansion that Camilla has inherited from her husband.  Lena arrives in town just before a bad rainstorm.  That afternoon, Lena finds the dead body of a local young man on the shore of the lake near Camilla’s home.  Why was he killed?

There is certainly a level of wish fulfillment in this book as Lena gets to work with her idol.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that.  Lena finds herself living a wonderful life, and it’s easy to slip into that fantasy.  I did feel that went too far too quickly near the end of the book, but it was a mostly minor issue.

Meanwhile, the plot is intriguing.  While I haven’t read many (if any) Gothic suspense novels, I could certainly recognize some of the things from that genre that author Julia Buckley was adding to the usual cozy elements here.  As a result, the story doesn’t evolve in a typical cozy manner, but that change of pace was fun.  My lack of knowledge of gothic novels might have made me miss a couple of things, but if so, I didn’t notice, and everything here made sense to me as presented.  A sub-plot involving the mysterious man next door adds to the fun.  The pacing and timeline were a little off near the end, but again, that’s a mostly minor issue.  The ending will definitely make you want to pick up the next in the series.

It’s hard not to like the characters.  I can only think of a couple that I hadn’t warmed up to by the end of the book.  Yes, Lena learns a lesson about judging a book by its cover (to steal an appropriate cliché) here.

To add to the fun, each chapter of this book opens with an appropriate excerpt from Camilla’s work in progress, the book that she and Lena are working on in this story.

A Dark and Storm Murder is fun debut.  I’m certainly looking forward to picking up the sequel soon.

NOTE: I was sent a copy of this book in hopes I would review it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

What's on My Nightstand - February 2017

It's been a long time since I've done What's on Your Nightstand.  I just keep forgetting to do it!  But let's change that this month, shall we?

Of course, these days, what's on my nightstand is a teaser a long way out.  For example, I'm reading The Silence of the Flans by Laura Bradford.  The book doesn't come out for a week, and I won't be reviewing it until March 9th.  I like to give myself plenty of lead time in case something comes up and I can't read like I normally do.  But I've got three book reviews coming up between now and then, A Dark and Stormy Murder, Bitter Harvest, and Gone with the Twins.

After that?  I'm going to be working on the Agatha Award nominees I still want to read, including Say No More, Design for Dying, and The Semester of Our Discontent.  That should keep me busy for a few weeks.

Ornament Review: A Sweet Surprise - 2016 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great scene and fun magic elements
Cons: Really wish it were a Magic Cord ornament
The Bottom Line:
A gingerbread house
Complete with music and lights
Pleasing ornament

Light and Music Make This Ornament Sweet

I have self-control when it comes to Hallmark ornaments.  (Really, you can stop laughing now.)  I don’t buy every ornament I want as soon as it comes out.  In fact, in the case of 2016’s A Sweet Surprise, I waited until after Christmas and bought it for half off.

This ornament combines Hallmark’s recent rash of scene inside ornaments with the recently completed Noelville series.  Add in a magic element, and you have an ornament I ultimately fell for.

The ornament itself is a teardrop shaped ball with the point at the bottom.  It is blue on the bottom half and white glittery snow on top.  Inside, we see a scene of a gingerbread house sitting in the snow.  Next to it is a reindeer made from a roll cake.  There are two trees next to the house, but they are the only thing that doesn’t appear to be made of food.

As someone who was collecting the Noelville series, which featured a town made from gingerbread houses, I immediately caught the connection here.  But this ornament works well even if you didn’t collect that series.  After all, this isn’t an official series piece.  It’s very festive and beautiful looking.

And that’s before you add the light and sound.  When you press the button disguised as one of the stones leading up to the house, you get a second sound clip of “Deck the Halls” while lights inside the ornament flash along.  The clip is just over 20 seconds.  The house and trees themselves light up, and the background switches between green and blue lights.

Which brings me to my only real complaint about this ornament.  To get the show to play, you need to install 3 button batteries.  This is the perfect piece for Hallmark Magic Cord.  If this were a Magic Cord ornament, I probably would have bought it right away.  I would love to see this ornament interacting with others and their light shows.  It’s fun as an individual ornament, but it would be awesome as a Magic Cord piece.  And the price point certainly supports that since this is on the pricey side for a magic ornament but in line with what Magic Cord ornaments cost.

Since the point of the teardrop is at the bottom of this ornament, you have to hang it.  Fortunately, the ornament hangs straight.  That’s no real surprise since the ornament is a ball.  It is heavy, however, so you’ll want to make sure you put it on a sturdy branch.

Even though this is just a regular magic ornament, it is still very fun.  If you missed A Sweet Surprise, you might want to give it a second look.

Original Price: $29.95

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Music Review: Doxology by Aaron Shust

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Many of the songs are fun on their own
Cons: The songs sound too similar to each other; some repetitive lyrics
The Bottom Line:
Overall okay
Good individual songs
Sound too much alike

Sum Not Greater Than the Pieces

Sometimes, an artist I usually like releases a disc that I don’t like right away.  When that happens, I put the disc aside and come back to it later, and those new ears are often enough to make me like the disc again.  However, in the case of Aaron Shust’s Doxology, I’m finding my initial impression holds true.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really do love many of the songs on this disc.  “Always Will Be” starts things off strongly with an upbeat song about our God who has always existed.  “It Is Finished” has made my Easter playlist with this reflection on Jesus’s work on the cross.  God’s power over everything in life is the theme in “The Great Overcomer” and “Triumphant Conqueror.”  And there are songs of pure praise such as “Oh Praise (The Only One)” and “To the Only God.”

The problems come when you start looking at this disc as a whole.  And I could tell the problem right away.  “Always Will Be” finishes up with an upbeat, guitar driven sound and bleeds into “It Is Finished.”  If it weren’t for a few seconds of silence between the songs, you might think they were part of the same song.  They sound the same stylistically and they even sound like they are in the same key.  There are some minor changes in other songs, like the Gospel flavored “Come Quickly,” but the disc needed more style variety since most of the songs sound like these two.

Aaron Shust is a worship artist, and he has always walked that border between that genre and the contemporary Christian genre I love.  This disc heads more to the worship side of the genre, which means it lacks a certain depth.  Even worse are the repetitive lyrics, like on “Come Quickly” or the six and a half minute “Nothing More.”  Songs like that turn me off to a disc, and I start zoning out.  Couple that with songs that all sound similar, and there’s a real problem.

Which is a shame because there are many songs on here I do like individually.  I’ve added those songs to my iTunes library and always smile when one of them pops up to be played.  But when I listen to the disc together, it starts to lose its appeal.

So I recommend that you sample Doxology before you buy the entire thing.  This is definitely a case where finding and buying your favorite songs is the best way to go..

CD Length: 45:15
1. Always Will Be
2. It Is Finished
3. Oh Praise (The Only One)
4. The Great Overcomer
5. Never Gonna Let Me Go
6. How Majestic
7. Come Quickly
8. Nothing More
9. Triumphant Conqueror
10. To the Only God

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ornament Review: Freddy F. Freestyle - Snowtop Lodge #6 - 2010 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great skiing themed snowman
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Snowman and skiing
Great combination again
For this series piece

Freddy Takes His Skiing Seriously

What snowman wouldn’t love skiing?  It’s such a natural fit that of course we had to get an entry for it in the Snowtop Lodge ornament series from Hallmark.  Freddy F. Freestyle fills the bill with style.

Freddy is ready to hit the slopes.  He’s holding his skis with his left arm.  In an effort to fight off the cold, he’s got a red scarf around his neck, and he’s wearing a green vest.  And he has his ski goggles on his forehead so he can lower them into place just as soon as the sun’s glare hits him.  He’s excited for the day to come since he is smiling.

Or maybe he’s thinking about the day that’s been.  Either way, he is not actually skiing.  However, the snowpeople in this series all feature a scene painted on them, and Freddy’s shows some people who are currently enjoying the slopes, most on skis but one snowboarding.  There appears to be snow coming down right now to make the skiing even better.  Behind the skiers you can see some trees and more mountains.

Like the rest of the series, Freddie has a nice flat base, so you could set this collection out to enjoy together.  They are porcelain, so you’d want to make sure they were in a place they wouldn’t be bumped if you did that.  You’ll find the six in a Christmas tree series marker on the bottom of the ornament.

Or you can hang Freddy on your tree.  If you want to do that, you’ll find the loop on top of his head.  He does tip forward a little, but it’s not too bad, so you can easily hide it with branches on your tree.

Even though I’m not a skier, it is easy to appreciate Freddy F. Freestyle.  The work and detail in this ornament make it another winner for the Snowtop Lodge series.

Collect more of these fun snowmen with the rest of the Snowtop Lodge series.

Original Price: $18.95

February 25th's Weekly TV Thoughts

And here we go - thoughts on what I watched this week.

24: Legacy – So is the kid dead this time?  Seems like he would be, but I thought he was dead two hours ago.  I’m a little surprised, I figured they’d drag that out and make him a throne in the side before he died.  I’m also surprised the father confessed so quickly, although you know he’s not going to cooperate in the future at all.  His motives?  I can almost see it except for how he just wrote off those deaths.  At that point, I was done with him.  And we have a soon to be fire CTU analyst.  Could they have made that any more obvious?  I’m curious what the wife’s storyline is going to be going forward.  That’s about the only cliffhanger we don’t have.

Supergirl – That was fun.  It also really should have aired last Monday, but that’s beside the point.  Any episode I’ve ever seen with that villain has been fun, and the way they trick him into saying his name backwards…yes, I knew what Supergirl was having him do there at the end, but it was still so much fun when he figured it out.

American Ninja Warrior – The All Star episode is always fun just because we get to see what those people can actually do.  Wow!  Pretty impressive.

The Flash – Is it just me, or the more they try to change the future, the more it seems to be happening.  Although it looks like Grodd had something else up his sleeve at the end and didn’t need them anyway.  I’m not a fan of Grodd in general or Planet of the Apes type stories, so I didn’t care for this week’s episode.  Not looking forward to next week, but I’m sure then we can get back to normal.

Legends of Tomorrow – This show can be so funny.  Yes, we are fighting an epic battle of good and evil, but there were so many funny lines, especially from Nick.  Considering Arthur is more legend than history, I liked their explanation for it, but it was still fun to visit.

This Is Us – So what does it say about me that this is the episode that affected me the least of the entire run so far?  Maybe it’s that we’ve known William was going to die since the very first episode.  I’ve never really liked his character, but maybe that was me protecting myself since we knew this was coming.  I was very wrong in my prediction that it would happen in the season finale.  I should have seen it coming at this point, however, because it gives us a couple of episodes to see Randall react to all of this.

Arrow – We’re playing with Oliver’s secret again.  And now the press has wind of the “cover up.”  This is going to get very interesting.  And I enjoyed the fact that we were back to regular Arrow and not a political hot button Arrow.

Lethal Weapon – The college may have been fictional, but I loved seeing the Rose Bowl pop up.  I know this show is set in LA, but still.  And how much cheaper was the actress to just use her voice instead of actually show her?  That’s what I want to know.

Suits – That was a bit of a surprise.  I was expecting a twist/cliffhanger on the Mike storyline, not on Louis and his fiancée.  Everyone is all in on Mike getting into the bar.  How will Harvey react when he learns Mike doesn’t intend to come back to their firm?  That’s going to make him furious.

The Big Bang Theory – That was the funniest episode of the season.  So many great lines and funny stories.  I loved Howard actually doing chores, poor Stuart and how he was being treated, and Penny and Leonard trying to stick with something they didn’t want.  Plus their compromise at the end was hilarious.  However, the best line of the night was Leonard’s “We don’t know.  His mother didn’t have him tested.”  Way to play on an old running gag.

The Great Indoors – Strongest episode of the season.  That party was hilarious in how many ways it went wrong and just kept going wronger.  Of course, it helped to know the characters, but really, that was great stuff.

Powerless – Obviously, I was looking for laughs or these three shows were all great Thursday night.  Dating a henceman was a brilliant plot idea, and the computer screen (yes, I paused my DVR) was pure comedy.  They played it out perfectly.

Friday, February 24, 2017

TV on DVD Review: Newhart - Season 7

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Mostly good episodes and laughs
Cons: Definitely going over the top
The Bottom Line:
The laughs are still there
As characters go broader
Fun if not the best

“Because of You, I May Have to Eat Beetle Tonight.”

I’ve longed believed season 3 through 6 were the sweet spot of Newhart.  Those seasons have some of my favorite episodes of the show period (yes, even better than the famous season finale in my opinion).  That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy some of the episodes from season 7, something that was confirmed for me as I watched the recent DVD release of the show.

The setup of the show is the same as it has been for years.  Dick and Joanna Loudon (Bob Newhart and Mary Frann) own and run the Stratford Inn, a bed and breakfast in Vermont.  Naturally, they have two employees, George Utley (Tom Poston), who has been the handyman at the inn all his life, upholding a long family tradition, and Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) a spoiled rich girl who has been forced to become a maid.  In addition to running the inn, Dick also writes how to books and hosts a weekly TV talk show at the local television station.  His producer on the show, yuppie Michael Harris (Peter Scolari), is also Stephanie’s boyfriend.  While these are the five main characters, we also regularly see Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad).  These backwoodsmen also run the Minute Man Café next door.

Over the course of these 22 episodes, Stephanie winds up with appendicitis and gets blood from the last person she wants.  Joanna starts a new career as a realtor.  The love of George’s life, a former maid at the inn, shows up again.  Larry and the Darryls throw a surprising dinner party.  And in one of my favorite episodes, Dick tries his hand at fiction writing with a murder mystery with thinly disguised characters based on all the people in his life.

This season actually introduces a story arc for the first time in the show.  Early in the season, Michael loses his job at the TV station and spends time trying out various careers before winding up in the mental institution.  Meanwhile, he breaks up with Stephanie to protect her from having to deal with what he is facing.  Naturally, we gets episodes that focus on this and some that spring off this while others completely ignore it with Michael just having a couple of scenes.

And, honestly, this is one of the things that hurts the show this season.  The story arc itself is very uneven.  Some of the episodes are actually pretty funny; others border on the painful.  It does provide a bit of interesting growth for the characters, although I’m not sure it was worth it.  Then again, this arc does give us “A Message from Michael,” which is one of my favorite episodes of the season.

Not that all the bad episodes of the season are related to this arc.  For example “The Nice Man Cometh” is absolutely painful as Dick becomes a nightly target for an insult comic, with the rest of the town getting into the act.  Seriously, this episode is painful to watch and there is nothing funny about it.

The uneven nature of the humor is coupled with the characters going over the top, something they’ve been flirting with for a couple of seasons now.  This is most notable with Michael, whose use of alliteration and cutesy nicknames finally crosses a line at times.  Again, at times it is fun and other times it is overbearing.

Because this season isn’t as strong as the last four, the flaws are more pronounced.  However, there are still plenty of laughs in this season.  And we do love these characters, so it’s hard not to enjoy spending time with them.

The acting is still fine.  Yes, there is some overacting in a few episodes, but it feels like the acting is following the writing and not the other way around.  Kathy Kinney shows up as Miss Goddard for the first time in this season, which surprised me.  I was thinking she was a season 8 invention.  Her character isn’t too bad yet.  I definitely didn’t care for some of her episodes next season.

This DVD set features all 22 episodes in full frame and stereo sound.  The picture isn’t the best quality all the time, but they are watchable.  We don’t get any extras, but we haven’t since season 1, so that’s no surprise.

While the glory days of Newhart was clearly behind it, there are still plenty of laughs in season 7.  Pop this in with the proper expectations and you’ll find yourself entertained.

Season 7 Episodes:
1. Town Without Pity
2. Apples, Apples, Apples,
3. This Blood’s For You
4. I Married Dick
5. Goonstruck
6. I Came, I Saw, I Sat
7. Twelve Annoyed Men…And Women
8. Home for the Holidays
9. Shoe Business Is My Life
10. George and the Old Maid
11. Hi, Society
12. Cupcake on My Back
13. Another Saturday Night
14. The Nice Man Cometh
15. One and a Half Million Dollar Man
16. The Little Match Girl
17. Buy, Buy Blues
18. Message from Michael
19. Homes and Jo-Jo
20. Georgie and Bess
21. Murder at the Stratley
22. Malling in Love Again

February 24's Book Beginning and Friday 56

Another Friday, which means it is time for this week's Book Beginning and Friday 56.

This week, I'm highlighting Bitter Harvest by Wendy Tyson.

I just finished the ARC of this book yesterday, and it is fabulous!  My review will be up on Thursday of next week, and the book officially comes out March 7th, although I see Amazon is already shipping it.

The first line is very evocative, isn't it?

The harvest moon glowed bright overhead, a burnt offering to the demons plaguing Megan's peace of mind.  

I often share a large teaser for the Friday 56, but today, I'm got a short one:

"And if he hasn't done something, and I make his life even worse - "

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review: Oliver Twisted by Cindy Brown (Ivy Meadows #3)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, great plot, plenty of fun
Cons: I am not currently on a cruise
The Bottom Line:
Thief on a cruise ship
Ivy acting and sleuthing
Readers will find fun

Ivy Must Solve another Twisty Case

I really didn’t intend to go so long before I returned to the Ivy Meadows series.  After all, I enjoyed the first two books in the series, and I know that book 4 is coming soon.  In fact, it was that knowledge that prompted me to pick up Oliver Twisted, the third adventure of this part time actress and part time PI.

Her worlds are combining perfectly for this adventure as Ivy and her uncle Bob, her PI mentor, are taking on an assignment together.  They are going undercover on a Get Lit! cruise to find a thief.  People have been robbed of items on multiple cruises recently, and the owners want the thieves found.  Ivy and Bob are boarding the S.S. David Copperfield, a ship that is themed around the works of Charles Dickens.  Bob is going under cover as a rich rancher and Ivy is joining the cast of the current show – Oliver!  At Sea!

However, the ship has barely left the port when Ivy discovers her new roommate’s body stuffed into a closet in their room.  Meanwhile, Uncle Bob is sidetracked by a woman he’s met – a woman Ivy doesn’t trust because she is sure the woman is hiding something.  Have the thieves escalated to murder?  Is Uncle Bob in danger from his new friend?

Things really do jump in that quickly, and the pace never lags until we reach the climax.  There are some fun distractions along the way that Ivy has to separate from the clues that actually pertain to the case.  As things come together at the end, I was left in awe at how author Cindy Brown wove everything together.

I was a little worried that, with this book set on a cruise ship, we would miss some of the characters I’ve already come to love from Ivy’s life.  They managed to make some nice appearances mostly via texts and phone calls as Ivy tried to stay on top of a sub-plot taking place in her native Phoenix.  (Having gone on my first cruise last summer, I’m not sure I bought the cell phones working even sporadically at sea thing, but I was willing to let that go since I enjoyed the rest of the book so much.)

Since Ivy spends the book on the ship, we get to know her cast mates very well.  Those cast mates are, conveniently, the suspects, which makes the plot strong.  They are wonderful suspects as they kept me guessing until the end.

And really, how can you go wrong with the cruise ship setting?  It’s the next best thing to actually being on a cruise.  (If only I didn’t have to work to earn money for fun things like vacations, right?)

I can’t leave out the humor.  Ivy manages to get herself into some interesting situations over the course of the book that keep the story fun.  You’ll smile if not outright laugh at several of the situations.

Author Cindy Brown does a wonderful job of juggling all the elements of the plot and bringing them in for a satisfying ending.  If you haven’t met Ivy yet, be sure to do so today.  And if you already love Ivy, be sure to check out Oliver Twisted.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Pin Review: Mary Poppins - Storybook Classics Collection #6 - 2017 Disney Store Release

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Captures images from a book
Cons: Really should tie better to the movie than an out of print book
The Bottom Line:
Pin features fun scenes
Characters too cartoony
If you don’t know book

Over Stylized Pin

The Storybook Classics Pin series is basing the images off the books that the Walt Disney Company released many years ago.  I get that.  And for most of them, that works out just fine.  However, for the Mary Poppins pin, it really doesn’t work well.

Like the others in the series, the pin looks like a book.  There are even hinges, so it can open.  The cover has Mary Poppins written on it in red on a dark pink background.  We can see lavender outlines of Mary Poppins and Jane and Michael Banks as they float around during the tea party on Uncle Andrew’s ceiling.

When you open the book pin, you’ll find a full color illustration of the three character’s walking to the tea party.  They are smiling, but there is nothing behind them but white.

Here’s my problem with the pin – the characters look nothing like anything I’ve seen with them on it.  That’s because I have never seen the book that was the inspiration for this pin.  All I see are three cartoony characters.  Because I know this is Mary Poppins, I can easily figure out who they are, but if I saw them out of context, I’d have no clue.  Yes, it is unfair since they are basing it on something I haven’t seen.  And yet, it might have been wiser to make the characters look a bit more like they do in the movie.  I’m not asking for perfection, but something closer to the actors would help a lot.  Since the rest of this series is based on animated films, they don’t seem to fall into this flaw.  Additionally, the writing on the top of the cover blends in so well it’s next to impossible to read.

Because of the hinges and the two parts to the pin, it is heavier than the average Disney pin and comes with two points to hold it in place.  You’ll definitely want to use both of them if you wear this one.

Mary Poppins is the only pin I’m not completely happy with in the series.  I get what they were trying to do, but for me, it just doesn’t work.

If you are interested in more, here are the rest of the Storybook Classics ornaments and pins.