Thursday, June 20, 2024

Book Review: Murder at an English Séance by Jessica Ellicott (Beryl and Edwina #8)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Characters we love in an engaging story
Cons: One character seems young for his age
The Bottom Line:
Psychic comes to town
But the case leads to murder
Great visit for fans

I Foresee a Fun Book in Your Future

As much as I might enjoy the first and second book in a series, by the time we’ve reached book eight in a series, I really feel like I know the characters and visiting them again is delightful.  So I was looking forward to reading Murder at an English Séance, the latest case for Edwina and Beryl.

If you haven’t met this pair, they are live in the English village of Walmsley Parva in the 1920’s.  Edwina Davenport is a native of the village while Beryl Helliwell is an American adventuress who has come to find the small village home, much to her surprise.  The two met at finishing school years ago.  They are complete opposites, but they complement each other perfectly, which is great for the private enquiry business they’ve started.

As this book opens, the biggest news in the village (well, aside from Beryl’s latest stunt) is the arrival of the Dinsdales.    Miss Dinsdale is a psychic, or so she claims.  Beryl has had previous experiences with so called psychics, and she has her doubts right from the start.  So she is fully on board when the two friends are hired to prove Miss Dinsdale is a fake.

Naturally, that means attending a séance or two to see Miss Dinsdale in action.  What no one expects is for them to find a dead body at one of the sittings.  Edwina and Beryl quickly change the focus of their investigation.  Will they solve their latest case?

The previous book in the series took place outside of Walmsley Parva.  I get it.  There are only so many murders that can happen in a small village.  But it was wonderful to be back.  As much as I love Edwina and Beryl, I enjoyed getting to see the rest of the villagers again as well.  They made me smile with some of their antics and how Edwina and Beryl are able to get the information they need from them.  The new characters are just as entertaining.  I do have to call out one new character who seemed a bit young for the age he must be.

The mystery is strong.  There are some good sub-plots to keep us engaged, too.  I was on board the entire time I was reading and always reluctant to return to the modern area.  The story comes to a logical climax that wrapped things up well.

I mentioned earlier that Edwina and Beryl are opposites.  While they are still very different people, they have rubbed off on each other for the better, and I love seeing how they continue to grow.  It helps that we get the story from both of their points of view.  Likewise, I enjoyed seeing how their relationships with some of the locals have grown over the course of the series.  I’m  curious what is going to happen with one particular relationship next.

While this story doesn’t incorporate any specific history into the plot, it is steeped in the time and place.  I enjoyed getting a sense for what life was like back then.

If you have missed this series, I highly recommend you pick it up today.  Fans will be as delighted as I was to catch up with Edwina and Beryl in Murder at an English Séance.

 Be sure to pick up the rest of the Beryl and Edwina Mysteries.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Movie Review: Kingsman - The Secret Service

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Some action and comedy, over the top plot mostly works
Cons: Violence and sex played for laughs, which I didn’t appreciate
The Bottom Line:
Comedic spy film
It’s very over the top
So results are mixed

“I’ve Never Met a Tailor Before, but I Know You Ain’t One.”

I don’t remember hearing about Kingsman: The Secret Service until a friend threw it out as a film to possibly watch together.  I heard comedic spy movie, and I was in.  Like many of the movies we’ve been watching together, there were parts I enjoyed and parts I didn’t.

The movie tells the story of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young man who has struggled through life after his father passed away.  Things change when Harry Hart (Colin Firth) walks into his life.  Eggsy’s dad died saving Harry’s life, and Harry feels he owes Eggsy as a result.  And so Eggsy is recruited to a secret society of highly trained spies.  They’ve just had an opening, and the competition to fill that spot is fierce.

Meanwhile, tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is trying to save the planet with a secret plan.  Harry’s organization has a hint that something is up, but they have no idea what.  Will they figure it out in time?  Will Eggsy complete his training in time?

This movie is clearly a loving homage to classic James Bond.  I wouldn’t say it is an outright spoof, but it is more comedy than anything else.  The characters also recognize this at times commenting on “if this were a movie.”  I really enjoyed that aspect of the film.  There are some references to other classic spy shows and franchises as well.

Some of that comedy extends to Valentine’s plans.  It’s a strange plan, but somehow, you buy it when you are watching.  This movie came out in 2014, and honestly, based on some of what has happened in the last couple of years, I feel like it was a bit prophetic.  Oh, the ultimate details were still over the top, but I feel like some of how this is playing out is infecting our society these days.

On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy all of the humor.  There were some sexually suggestion jokes that I could have done without.  Most of them were near the end, fortunately, so this wasn’t an ongoing thing.

The violence in the movie was also stylized and over the top in an effort to be funny.  Honestly, most of that didn’t work for me either.  There is one extended scene that was especially hard to watch.

I did appreciate that they picked on both sides of the political spectrum in the movie.

There are some great action sequences in the film that aren’t overly violent, and I enjoyed those.  They and the special effects worked for me.  Yes, there are definitely some special effects here.

The cast is all good.  They brought their characters to life and drew me into the film.  The character development was pretty predictable, but that’s on the writers.

As I said, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a mixed bag.  I enjoyed it enough I’d be willing to give the sequel a shot, but this isn’t anything I’m going to rush out to rewatch.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Book Review: Warped on a Moon Trek by Diane Vallere (Sylvia Stryker #5)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great scenes for Sylvia, lots of fun
Cons: Plot warps the brain a bit too much
The Bottom Line:
Back on the space case
Sylvia jumping through time
Loved seeing her here

Sylvia Races Through Time to Save the Day

I always enjoy reading cozies with slightly different settings.  Or, in the case of the Sylvia Stryker series, a majorly different setting.  You see, Sylvia is part alien, and her adventures take place on cruise ships that are cruising between the planets.  And she’s back for a fifth adventure with Warped on a Moon Trek.

Sylvia and her mentor, Neptune, are on the latest Moon Trek ship, which is on a test cruise just going between the Earth and Moon.  The company wants to make sure everything is working right before having passengers.  It’s a good thing they are doing this test since some of the systems aren’t working quite right, and Neptune is quick to figure out that the problem is a fault with the chip.  The best way to fix it?  Go talk to the engineer that designed it originally and get her to fix it.

So Neptune sets out to do just that, leaving Sylvia with a couple of bombshells.  The scientist?  Someone in her family.  How does Neptune plan to contact the scientist?  Go back in time through a worm hole that has opened up near the ship.  When Sylvia figures out what he is up to, she goes after him to try to prevent him from altering history.  Will she be able to?  Or will she make things worse?

You’ll notice so far, I’ve teased a familiar science fiction plot line and not much about a mystery.  That’s because, to be honest, the mystery was probably the least important part of the book.  Yes, there is a murder that Sylvia gets involved in.  But it’s not the main focus.

And I was perfectly okay with that.  I was caught up in the story from the beginning, and, as things spin more and more out of control, I was even more concern with how Sylvia would be able to fix things.  Yes, the book does leave us with a plot hole or two, and if you are familiar with the type of stories being told here, you can probably guess what they are.  Or maybe my brain got too warped to see how things worked out.  But I was enjoying the story enough that I really didn’t mind.

Part of that was because this is the fifth book with Sylvia.  It may have been a few years, but I was quickly back in her world, reconnecting with her and her friends.  As this book unfolds, she really gets some opportunities for growth.  Those scenes are very touching, and I enjoyed them.

And we had some fun along the way as well.  The situations and Sylvia’s reactions to them lead to some great laughs.

If you’ve read Sylvia’s previous adventures, you’ll definitely be glad to see her back in action.  Just go wherever Warped on a Moon Trek takes you, and you’ll have fun.

Blast off with the rest of the Sylvia Stryker Mysteries.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Movie Review: Marry Me in Yosemite

Stars: 1 out of 5
Pros: The scenery looks wonderful
Cons: Everything else
The Bottom Line:
Yosemite shines
Despite lackluster story
A movie to skip

Bad Movie Amidst Beautiful Scenery

I’ve noticed Hallmark has a series of National Park romances.  Since I love our National Parks, I thought these could be fun.  While the others call out that they are part of a series in their titles, Marry Me in Yosemite, which I believe is the first, flies a little more under the radar.

The story features Zoe (Cindy Busby), a photographic journalist, who is heading to Yosemite for her latest book.  She’s attempting to capture the way the park looks now, but she’s also looking for something new, including a photograph that will really capture her as an artist.

While there, she manages to get the extremely reluctant Jack (Tyler Harlow) to agree to be her guide.  He is a former climber who lives in the park year-round.  He leads her to the famous photography spots as well as some lesser known ones.  Will they find the perfect spot for her signature photo?

You’ll notice the one thing I left out of that teaser.  For a romance, this movie really forgot the romance.  Yes, we’ve got the reluctant people pushed together trope, and they do start to act like friends fairly quickly.  But the writers seem to forget that this movie is supposed to be a romance until well into the second half.  Even then, it’s a very subtle part of the movie.  And the complications they have in the second half?  Seriously, Jack was acting like a baby.

So just what does this movie fill the run time with?  Ecological lessons.  History of the region lessons.  Jack is a scientist, and the writers use this to give us lots of exposition.  We also meet a couple of Native American characters who give us the history of the region from their perspective.  The problem is, both of these things devolves into lectures that really don’t do much to advance the story.

Then there’s the fact that we seem to get a hint about something in Jack’s past, but we never find out what it is.  They sure seemed to set something up, but there was no significant payoff.

I’m placing the blame for this squarely on the writers.  I have a hard time believing someone actually greenlit this script instead of sending it back for another draft.

Not that the acting is top notch.  Granted, the actors don’t have much to work with, but there are plenty of moments that made me cringe in that department, too.

Which is a shame because there are moments that are great because the writers actually wrote something good, and the actors delivered it wonderfully.  If only those scenes weren’t the exception in the script.

The movie was filmed on location in Yosemite.  With how iconic the scenery is, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?  From what I’ve read, that helps account for the low cast count, but it also means we have some wonderful scenery.  Of course, I had to laugh at how easily the characters get the permits they need considering how far in advance you actually have to plan if you want to go to the park.

Honestly, the scenery is really about the only thing to recommend Marry Me in Yosemite.  I’m usually fairly lenient with it comes to Hallmark movies, but even by those standards, I can’t recommend this film.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Podcast Review: 1 Degree of Andy

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Interesting interviews with Christian musicians from a bygone era
Cons: Any cons are more than one degree away
The Bottom Line:
Music history
Fun, interesting stories
Listeners will love

Telling the Stories of Christian Music

I’ve been listening to Christian music all my life, but really got into it as a teenager.  It was the early 90’s when I spent the most time and money keeping up with the new releases from my favorite artists.  That’s why, as soon as I heard about the 1 Degree of Andy podcast, I knew I had to listen.

This podcast is hosted by Andy Chrisman.  If that name doesn’t sound familiar to you, he was one of the members of 4Him.  And anyone who listened to Christian music in the 1990’s and early 2000’s immediately places him since 4Him was a huge music group in the Christian market at the time.  Even if you weren’t a fan, if you were into the genre, you know who they are.

As a result of his career, Andy knows many of the players in the Christian music genre from the time.  Some better than others, obviously, but he has connections with so many of them.  And he decided to spend time interviewing them for us to learn more about what the industry was like at the time but also how God lead them into and out of their careers.

Most of the interviews of are fellow Christian artists.  Yes, the guys from 4Him have been on the pod.  In addition, we’ve had interviews with Wayne Watson, Al Denson, Geoff Moore, Susan Ashton, Eddie DeGarmo, Wes King, Steve Camp, Point of Grace, and so many more.  He’s also interviewed song writers, an A&R director, the man behind CCM Magazine, and he’s taken listener questions.  The pod focuses on the Christian music of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

As someone who grew up listening to the music of that era, I love every second of the podcast.  Even if the artist being interviewed isn’t someone I listened to regularly, I still recognize the name and a song or two they talk about.  And I really enjoy hearing the behind the scenes stories or what life was like.  It definitely brings the reality of touring to life – like most jobs, it’s a mixed bag.

Since the artists being interviewed are Christians, I also really appreciate that aspect of their stories as well.  It is amazing how God moved them into the Christian music industry and then how He has led them after their career ended.  I find my faith encouraged as I listen.

The episodes average about an hour.  Andy and his guests tend to get sidetracked, so, while Andy has some questions ready to go, they often go off on tangents.  That helps give it the feel or friends catching up, and I find it charming.

The episodes drop each Monday, and each Monday morning, I can’t wait to see who is going to be interviewed next.

If you are a fan of that era of Christian music, you owe it to yourself to listen to 1 Degree of Andy.  You’ll find yourself listening to songs you love with a new appreciation afterwards.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

June 15th's Weekly TV Thoughts

American Ninja Warrior – We’re taking three weeks off?  With the Olympics coming to preempt the show later in the summer?  Yikes!  Okay, back to what we watched this week.  Good runs by quite a few of the contestants.  Not sure anyone stood out to me in positive or negative ways.  Always happy to see Sean Bryant do well.

The Weakest Link – They actually got further than I thought they would based on some of those rounds.  Definitely a nice chunk of changes.  I do agree that hearing he’s putting it into stocks is a little off putting since most people have plans for that much money.  Then again, if he can invest it wisely, that will pay off well for him down the road.

Race to Survivor: New Zealand – All that drama and no one really left this week.  And how many teams got stuck right before the finish line of the leg?  I think it was three over two days.  I would have been frustrated, too.  I’m over the two teams that are constantly fighting.  They can be eliminated next as far as I am concerned.  And I had to laugh at the captions.  At one point, they were saying the teams had completed race 1 when this is race 2.  Oops.

The Acolyte – Obviously, everyone and their brother has thoughts on this episode.  And I get it.  Even from someone who isn’t a super Star Wars fan, I can see how what they did here goes against the franchise.  I’m just going to focus on how poorly it was written.  Seriously, some of that dialogue!  And they tried to set up the Jedi as being evil people.  I might have understood if they had explained who these witches are and what they want.  Oh, and if Mae hadn’t tried to kill her sister.  Seriously, that was over the top.  Plus, I’m not a fan of flashback episodes.  Give me the story, and don’t interrupt your story to tell me the background I need to know.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Book Review: Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman (Leaphorn and Chee #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good mystery, Leaphorn coming into his own
Cons: Pacing at times, usually due to tribal customs lore
The Bottom Line:
Search for missing boys
Leaphorn has stronger presence
Series progresses

Murder Crosses Tribal Lines

Since I’m finally diving into Tony Hillerman’s books, I was anxious to get back to his series and see just how it develops.  Dance Hall of the Dead is his third novel and the second in his most popular series.  And it’s a decent mystery.

This book returns us to the Navajo reservation in early December.  Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who works for the Navajo Tribal Police, has been called to work on a case involving two missing boys.  There is a huge pool of blood at the last place they were seen.  One of them, a Navajo, was seen the next morning and is wanted as a witness, although some suspect he might be the killer.  The other is a Zuni youth, and that just complicates the case for Leaphorn since that tribe has their own police department.

As Leaphorn investigates further, he finds many things that just don’t add up for him.  Can he make sense of it, find the missing boys, and catch a killer before the killer strikes again?

Unlike the book that introduced him, Joe Leaphorn is much more of a focus this time around.  The story is mostly told from his point of view.  We still don’t see much of her personal life, something that is a staple of detective fiction today.  It’s interesting to watch not just the series evolve but also how expectations of the genre were different back in the 70’s when this was written.  We still haven’t met Jim Chee; he’ll enter the series in another couple of books.

I do find I miss seeing Leaphorn outside of work, but I still feel like I got to know him better as a character.  Much of that came from his frustrations at dealing with some of the people he met along the way along with his passion to solve the case, especially as the danger mounts.

The book has a solid mystery.  Sadly, an official description kind of spoiled part of it for me, but much of the suspense comes not from who done it, but can Leaphorn figure it out in time, so I was still on board.  A part of the climax left me unsettled, but I think it was supposed to.

For those who shy away from children being in danger, know that the boys in this book are twelve and fourteen.  You’ll have to judge for yourself where that line would be.  The crimes in this book are rather brutal, too, although we don’t spend too long on the details.

I found the discussions of tribal customs a double-edged sword.  Some of that was interesting and relevant to the plot.  Other times, it seemed to go on too long, and I was wishing there were a faster way to get back to the story.  I know, part of why this series is popular is the look into Navajo customs.  It’s not enough to turn me off, but it is something I hope is more judicially used going forward.

I listened to the audio version narrated by George Guidall.  As always, he’s a fine narrator who brings the story to life without inserting himself into it.

Dance Hall of the Dead takes us more firmly into the series, and fans old and new will find it entertaining.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Leaphorn and Chee Mysteries.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ornament Review: Sir S'More - Noble Nutcrackers #5.5 - 2023 Hallmark Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun themed nutcracker
Cons: Makes me drool
The Bottom Line:
Summer camping treat
As nutcracker ornament
Delightful combo

Delicious Special Edition to the Noble Nutcrackers Series

I’ve wound up getting more of the Noble Nutcrackers Hallmark ornaments than I originally intended.  So, I pay attention every year to what the entries will be.  As soon as I saw Sir S’More, a special edition ornament for 2023, I knew that I had to get it.

As the name implies, this ornament is themed like the delicious campfire treat.  Sir S’More’s hat is multiple layers of smores with a chocolate covered marshmallow on top.  His shoulders are also chocolate covered marshmallows, and his feet look like them as well.  Most of his outfit is a chocolate brown with white decorations, but he’s standing on melted chocolate over melted marshmallow over graham crackers.  And his scepter is a stick with marshmallows with flames on them.

My first thought when looking at this ornament is YUM!.  Obviously, it’s made out of plastic, so I wouldn’t want to actually eat it.  But looking at how they worked the theme into the small details is so much fun.

Since he is standing on a graham cracker, the base is nice and flat, so you could set this one out to be displayed anywhere you want.  Since it’s a little bigger than a typical ornament, this series could be a fun addition to a nutcracker corner.

Unlike many Hallmark ornaments, this one comes with a white ribbon in the loop on the top of the ornament.  When you go to hang it on your tree, you’ll find that it hangs straight.

Okay, so I’m not sure what S’Mores have to do with Christmas.  It think of them as a camping, summer time treat.  But I’m not complaining.  This is such a fun ornament.  It does make me drool, however, if I look at it for too long.

If you enjoy S’Mores (and what’s not to love), you’ll be glad to have Sir S’More on your tree.

Here are the rest of the Noble Nutcracker ornaments.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Book Review: A Collection of Lies by Connie Berry (Kate Hamilton #5)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Kate and Tom; strong second half
Cons: Missing regular supporting characters; uneven first half
The Bottom Line:
Dead body turns up
While investigating dress
Uneven but good

Working Honeymoon Turns Deadly

Kate Hamilton’s plans for the future have been up in the air for a while now.  Yes, she got married in the Christmas novella we got in 2023, but her new husband, DI Tom Mallory, was considering a new job offer that would include her.  That plays into the premise of A Collection of Lies, which fans will ultimately enjoy.

If you are new to the series Kate is a widow who met Tom on a trip to Scotland.  The attraction was mutual, and she moved from Ohio to England to see where their relationship would go.  Fortunately, she’s been able to work with a local to help expand his antiques business.  Obviously, her relationship with Tom went well since they are now married and on a honeymoon to Devon.

While in Devon, Kate and Tom have been asked by the company that wants to hire them as professional investigators to look into a dress that has been recently donated to a local museum.  The dress proports to belong to Nancy Thorne, a lacemaker who was rumored to be involved in a murder back in 1885.  The murder was never solved – in fact, no body was ever found.  They’ve been asked to authenticate the dress, but Kate is intrigued by the very cold case.

However, a more modern mystery envelops them when someone fires a gun at a fundraiser for the museum.  No one is hurt – in fact, there seems to be some disagreement as to who the target even was.  Sadly, someone does turn up dead a couple of days later.  While Kate continues to investigate the dress, Tom gets pulled into the murder investigation.  Is there a connection between the two?

Obviously, there is a lot going on here.  Ironically, I felt like the first half dragged even with multiple storylines.  Part of that is because Kate gets distracted by historical detail that I didn’t care about.  And part of that is because Kate and Tom are spinning their wheels.  They learn a little bit, but not enough to feel like the story was advancing.

But this is a book of two halves.  Things really pick up in the second half, and at that point, I was fully on board.  There’s a great action scene, as we often get in these books.  This back half has plenty of twists as well.  They came late, so I felt like things were a little rushed, although the solution to the mystery does make sense.

Since Kate and Tom aren’t at home, we don’t get the normal supporting characters.  I did find I missed seeing them.  On the other hand, Tom was a much more active part of the story, which was great.  And this isn’t to take anything away from the new characters, which are good.

And yes, it does appear we’ve solved the mystery of what Kate and Tom will be doing in the future at the end of this book.

If you are new to the series, I recommend you got back to the beginning before picking up A Collection of Lies.  Fans of the series will find their patience with this book rewarded by the end.

Here are the rest of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Movie Review: Dial 1 for Murder - A Tipline Mystery

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Decent mystery
Cons: One thing loses credibility; Maddie is over the top
The Bottom Line:
A robbery tip
Leads Maddie to dead body
Uneven debut

“I Bet You’re Great at Chess.”

When I saw the previews for the first Tipline Mystery last month, I was really looking forward to this new franchise from Hallmark Mysteries.  However, I found Dial 1 for Murder a bit disappointing.

This movie introduces us to Maddie (Holland Roden), a hotel concierge by day who works at the tip line for the Detroit Free Press at night.  One night, she gets a tip for a jewelry store robbery that is going to happen.  However, since she has nothing else to go on, the police, in the form of new detective Beeks (Chris McNally) doesn’t take her too seriously.

Sure enough, a jewelry story is robbed that night, and the owner is found dead on the floor the next morning.  With Maddie inserting herself into the investigation at every turn, Beeks reluctantly accepts her help.  Can they solve it together?

I read more than enough cozy murder mysteries that my disbelief is pretty suspended.  I mean, how often is a civilian really going to get involved in a murder, much less solve it ahead of the police.  Yet this movie went too far for me to even believe.  The captain makes Maddie a reserve officer without any background check or anything.  It was just as excuse for her to be officially working with the police instead of sneaking around.

I also found Maddie annoying.  She’s a true crime junky who was always doing or saying the wrong thing.  Yes, it was supposed to be played for laughs.  Unfortunately, it made me cringe.

Please note that I am not blaming Holland Roden, who is doing her best with the script she was given.  In fact, all the cast was fine.  They were under served by the script.

I will admit as the movie went along, I found Maddie toned down, which made her more enjoyable.  I really did like Detective Beeks and found his character grounding with all the antics around him.

And the mystery was decent.  There were enough suspects and motives that I didn’t piece it together early.  Then again, I’m often confused.  I also liked how the duo followed the clues they got to reach the climax.

Would I watch another Tipline Mystery?  Probably.  I’ve stuck with some other Hallmark franchises that weren’t the best.  But I hope they tone down the characters from what we got in Dial 1 for Murder.