Saturday, July 21, 2018

July 21st's Weekly TV Thoughts

Adding a new hours of TV this week with the return of Suits!

American Ninja Warrior – Was it just me, or did the doorknob obstacle not drop nearly as fast this time.  Seemed like a smoother drop, which is a good thing.  How awesome was SweetT?  Making it well beyond 5 obstacles.  But I feel so sorry for Grant.  Just barely getting eliminated for the second year in a row.

Suits – I’m happy.  I wasn’t sure how I would like this season without Rachel and Mike.  Yes, I miss them, but there is so much going on with the characters we already know (and the one new one) that I didn’t miss them too much.  Lots of good dialogue and character interaction and high stakes soap opera just like always.  I do hope this is a sign of a good season to come.

TKO – Wow!  That was a very fast winning time.  I watched it, and I still can’t believe it.  I was impressed with how few people got TKO’d.  After last week, I thought it would be the majority of people every week, but there really weren’t that many this go around.

Take Two – So fun to see Detective Ryan again, this time as a potential victim.  Once again, a great mystery full of twists.  I still don’t have a line on their formula yet, so I’m loving it.  Sad ending, however.  Believable, but so sad.  And the line about "on my show, we skipped to the scene of me walking up to the right location" was so fun.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Movie Review: Hotel Transylvania 3 - Summer Vacation

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun threequel
Cons: Still really aimed at kids
The Bottom Line:
Monsters on a cruise
Enjoyable story, laughs
Mostly for the kids

Monstrously Fun Vacation

While watching the Hotel Transylvania movies had always been on my radar, I was motivated to get them watched earlier this year when I saw that Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation was coming out this summer.  While the movies are just okay, I went ahead and saw the latest in the franchise in the theater this week.  While it still has its flaws, I think it is the best to date.

As the movie opens, Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) and his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) are trying to get another wedding in their hotel off the ground.  Through it, Dracula’s loneliness comes out.  However, Mavis misinterprets what is happening as a sign of stress from working too hard, so she plans a wonderful surprise for him – a vacation on a cruise ship.  While Dracula isn’t thrilled with the idea, he goes along with it because of the potential for family bonding time.

The entire gang is on the ship, but it isn’t too long before Dracula’s attention is captured by Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn).  She may be human, but Dracula definitely has zinged.  Is there such a thing as two zings in a lifetime?  Unfortunately, there is a more sinister plot on the ship.  Will any of them survive?

My complaints with the first two movies have involved the very uneven pacing.  This movie actually does much better at it.  Yes, there is some set up, but it isn’t as drawn out as it has been in previous movies.  Likewise, when we hit the climax, the movie winds up pretty quickly without an overdrawn coda.

The plot itself is pretty predictable.  Even if the latest teaser hadn’t spoiled much of the plot, it would be pretty easy to figure out where everything is going.  Not that it is a bad thing by itself.

Watching the film, I still can’t help but think the franchise is aimed mostly at kids.  Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but it does mean I don’t find many of the jokes funny.  There were a few moments, especially the climax, that were hilarious and had the small audience I saw the film with (it was a weekday night) laughing loudly.  But the jokes still weren’t quite enough to distract us from knowing where the story is going.  And there is one scene that was actually much funnier in the previews than the cut version they gave us in the film.

The animation continues to be highly stylized.  That allows them to get away with even more unbelievable jokes since this clearly isn’t a realistic world.  The voice cast is still clearly having fun, and their enthusiasm comes through in the film.

Kids, especially those who enjoy the franchise, will want to see Hotel Transylvania 3.  If you are only a casual fan of the franchise, you’ll enjoy this one, too.  But there is nothing here that will change anyone’s mind about the films.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book Review: That Touch of Ink by Diane Vallere (Mad for Mod Mysteries #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great mystery; well-developed characters
Cons: All hidden by a touch of ink
The Bottom Line:
Mysterious bill
Puts Madison in a maze
Delightful to read

More Than a Touch of Fun

As I’m desperately attempting to catch up on all the new series I’ve started in the last couple of years, I have returned to Dallas, Texas, the home of Madison Night.  She’s a Doris Day fan who has built a career as a designer specializing in Mid Century Modern designs with a side of mystery and mayhem.  Her second adventure, That Touch of Ink, is fun from start to finish.

It all starts when a five thousand dollar bill arrives in the mail.  These bills are extremely rare, having been all but taken out of circulation fifty years ago.  But Madison knows that it is a message from her ex-boyfriend, Brad.  Two years ago, the man had lied to her, and she hasn’t seen or talked to him sense.  Suddenly, he is popping back up in her life, whether she wants it or not.

Trying to find out more about the five thousand dollar bill, she contacts a local numismatist.  When she goes to meet him, she finds a dead body instead.  Only the police, in the form of Lt. Tex Allen, don’t believe the dead man is the man Madison was going to meet.  Who died?  Where’s the numismatist?  Why has Brad come back into her life?  What has he gotten Madison involved in?

This book is impossible to put down.  Seriously, the pace is that fast.  There is always something happening to move the story forward as Madison searches for answers.  In many ways this reads more like a teen sleuth story than a cozy murder mystery.  Yes, there is a murder.  Yes, it gets solved.  But Madison is more focused on the other strange things going on in her life, and there are plenty of strange things to keep her and us guessing and confused until the very end.

Brad’s return does provide another complication in Madison’s already complex love life.  Yes, the love triangle introduced in the first book is still in place here, and honestly, I’m not sure which of the guys I want her to end up with.

That’s because, like the rest of the cast, both Tex and Hudson are well developed characters.  This cast really is top notch.  But Madison truly shines, which only makes sense since she is the main character and our narrator.  Brad’s return forces her to work through some pretty deep stuff, and the growth she shows is great.  I’m very anxious to see where she goes as a result of this book as the series moves forward.

Doris Day fans will recognize the title of this book as a play on That Touch of Mink.  While the plot of this book is nothing like that romantic comedy, there are a couple of Easter eggs that are fun to spot.  However, if you have never seen that movie, you’ll be perfectly fine reading this book and not for one moment be lost.

I can’t recommend That Touch of Ink highly enough.  You’ll get lost in the story and be finished all too soon.  Fortunately, there are still several more books in the series to go.  Now, to make the time to read them.

Looking for more?  Here are the Mad for Mod Mysteries in order.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

TV on DVD Review: The Good Place - Season 2

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots and lots of laughs
Cons: A couple of slower episodes at beginning and end
The Bottom Line:
Get ready to laugh
With afterlife comedy
Creative and fun

“I Call Them Opposite Tortures.”  “You Mean Presents?”  “Yes, That’s Better.”

Last summer, I got hooked on The Good Place, a comedy set in the afterlife.  I did my version of binge watching – watching one or two episodes a night – until I was ready for season two.  I loved it so much, I got some friends watching it as well, and we all watched season two, waiting to find out what would happen next and laughing along the way.

Before I go further, I have to issue a MAJOR SPOILER WARNING FOR SEASON ONE of the show.  There is no way to talk about this season without discussing a major twist from season one.  If you want to watch the show from the beginning unspoiled, just know I still recommend the show completely and go watch the first season.  If you’ve seen the first season or don’t care, we can move on.

This season picks up after the revelation that ended season one.  Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) have all had their memories wiped by Michael (Ted Danson) in his attempt to reset his torture experiment.  You see, despite what they’ve been told, these four dead humans are in the Bad Place, but instead of traditional torture, Michael is trying to prove that these four will torture each other for eternity better than the demons could normally torture them.  He’s really on edge because he is under orders from his boss that he can’t reset things again, and if they figure out the truth one more time, everything will be shut down, they will go about being tortured traditionally, and Michael will be dissolved.

With the stakes so high, our dearly departed human foursome finally try to gain an ally in hopes to get out of the Bad Place and get to the real Good Place.  Will they be able to keep the fact that they know the truth a secret?  Can they even escape?  Have they changed enough to make it to the Good Place?

Before we go any further, I need to make one thing perfectly clear.  I don’t agree with this show’s theology at all.  So, my endorsement of the show isn’t an endorsement of the theology.

But I absolutely endorse the show as a comedy show.  This show is hilarious!  All of the actors are given a chance to shine at some point in the season, and they all take full advantage of it.  The writers are geniuses at finding the comedy from the creative premise and milking it for all it is worth.

Because I didn’t find a way to work her into the teaser earlier, I will give a special shout out to D’Arcy Carden, who plays Janet, the robot afterlife assistant.  She is absolutely hilarious and spot on in the way she brings the character to life.  And yes, Janet is a complete character with her own complications and stories this season.

And again, the rest of the cast is absolutely wonderful.  While a character or two are on the annoying side, everyone gets their moments to shine and all produced genuine laughter from me over the course of the season.

I felt the first couple episodes of the first season were a tad slow as they were setting things up, and I felt that was true here as well.  The last couple of episode, likewise, transitioned to next season and were a tad slower on laughs.  Not to say they weren’t good episodes, but they weren’t to the level of the rest of the season.  But the majority of the episodes were filled with laughs and fun.  Not to mention some great cliffhangers that kept me coming back week after week.  We even finally learn how Tahani died, and it was worth the wait.

Being a comedy set in the afterlife, this show has something you don’t see often in TV comedies, lots of special effects.  And they are perfectly rendered, helping us believe the things we are laughing about.

One thing that is interesting about the show is that, while we are laughing, we are getting bits and pieces of philosophy and thoughts about good and evil and the true nature of both.  No, the show never forgets that it is a comedy, but for all the silliness on screen, there can be some surprisingly deep moments between the great gags.

Like the first season, this season consisted of only 13 episodes.  If the result is the strong comedy we get here, I’m perfectly find with the lower number of episodes.

I can’t see how The Good Place will run for a long time, but the writers seem to have a plan in place for each season, and I’m going to enjoy the ride for as long as I can.  Fans of the show will be happy to laugh along with season two.

Season 2 Episodes:
1. Everything is Great! (Two-episode season premier)
2. Dance Dance Resolution
3. Team Cockroach
4. Existential Crisis
5. The Trolley Problem
6. Janet and Michael
7. Derek
8. Leap to Faith
9. Best Self
10. Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent
11. The Burrito
12. Somewhere Else

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book Review: Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (Noodle Shop Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Mostly fun characters in entertaining mystery
Cons: Lana’s mother; pacing in middle
The Bottom Line:
Wrong dumpling order
Leads Lana to mystery
Fun series debut

Lana Finds Herself Delivering Death

In my quest to never catch up on my to be read mountain range, I decided I needed another new series to read.  Enter Death by Dumpling, set in a Chinese restaurant.  I just couldn’t pass it up, and I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Lana Lee is exactly where she didn’t want to be.  In her late mid-20’s, she’s working as a waitress at her parents’ Chinese restaurant, Ho-Lee Noodle House.  It’s just temporary until she gets her life back together – or at least that’s what she’s telling herself.

But, despite what she thinks, Lana hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.  After dropping off a lunch order for Mr. Feng, the owner of the Chinese village where Ho-Lee Noodle House is located, he dies from his sever shellfish allergy.  Yes, he was eating shellfish dumplings, however Lana thought she was delivering pork dumplings like always.  The police start asking questions of Peter, the restaurant’s cook.  Lana knows Peter couldn’t have done it, but things aren’t adding up.  Was Peter involved in the crime?  If not, who was?

This series is off to a good start.  We get to meet Lana and a fun cast of characters.  She and her best friend Megan make for a great team.  The other shop owners in the center make for intriguing suspects and potential series regulars.  I’m sure we will be getting to know some of them better as the series progresses.  Lana has some issues with her family that I hope we get to explore more in future books.  I really hope her mother gets better developed as the series goes along.  I felt she was the flattest of the characters here, but that can definitely change as the series progresses.

The plot started out well, with Mr. Feng dying before too many pages had gone by.  I did feel that things bogged down a little in the middle as Lana searched for anything that would help her figure out what had truly happened.  However, as we reached the final third of the book, things picked up again with some great twists and revelations before we reached the climax.

Unlike other culinary themed cozy novels, this one doesn’t have any recipes at the end.  But considering how long it has been since I did more than drool at the recipes included, that doesn’t make any difference to me.

Death by Dumpling is a promising debut that will leave you wanting more.  I may not need any new series to follow, but I’m very glad I picked this one up.  I’ll definitely be back for seconds.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Ornament Review: Bell Ringer Snoopy - Spotlight on Snoopy #21 - 2018 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great ornament that ties series into Christmas
Cons: Very slight tip
The Bottom Line:
Charity ringer
Snoopy, Woodstock helping out
In good ornament

Snoopy’s Ringing for Charity

Hallmark’s Spotlight on Snoopy ornament series rarely focuses on Christmas.  Yes, there are the exceptions, but most of the time, we get Snoopy involved in some career or hobby, many of them inspired by things he’s done in the Peanuts comic strip over the years.  We get a rare Christmas themed entry in Bell Ringer Snoopy, the newest addition to the series.

As the name says, Snoopy is taking a turn as a Salvation Army bell ringer.  At least it’s my assumption that he’s working for the Salvation Army.  We don’t see the collection bucket, but we do see Snoopy with a bell in his right hand.  He’s dressed like Santa, complete with a red hat and coat and a fake white beard.  Woodstock is doing his part as well.  No, he’s not ringing a bell.  He has a little tuba he’s blowing.  He’s dressed as an elf with a green hat and coat with red trim.

Since this ties directly to Christmas, this one is extra fun.  Plus, it looks great.  Snoopy and Woodstock are festive, and both are obviously in the middle of ringing the bell and blowing the trombone.

Snoopy and Woodstock are standing in just enough white snow to provide a nice base.  You can set this ornament out to be displayed if you’d like.  And you’ll find the 21 in a Christmas tree series marker on the bottom as well.  This series is getting to be one of Hallmark’s longer running series.

Or, you can choose to hang the ornament on your tree.  The ring is attached to Snoopy’s hat, and you’ll find that the ornament tips slightly to the right, but that should be easy enough to hide with tree branches.

It’s wonderful to see this series still coming up with great ideas for Snoopy and Woodstock.  Collectors will be mostly delighted with Bell Ringer Snoopy.

Don't miss the rest of the Spotlight on Snoopy series.

Original Price: $12.95

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: Encyclopedia Brown Carries On by Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown #14)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 10 fun, short mysteries to solve
Cons: Characters are thin
The Bottom Line:
Ten more short cases
Match wits with boy detective
Proves to still be fun

Ten More Cases with the World’s Smartest Ten-Year-Old

I have often confessed that, even with all the mysteries I read, I usually can’t figure things out much before the detective does if at all.  That’s nothing new.  As a kid, I had a hard time matching wits with Encyclopedia Brown, and as an adult, it’s just more embarrassing that he’s smarter than I am.

If you’ve missed this middle grade series, Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown is a boy who remembers everything he’s ever read and is super observant.  So when he is presented with a puzzle, he is able to point out what is out of place.  Quite often that trips up the criminal or would be criminal.  Each book consists of ten short stories with the solutions at the end of the book.  The idea is that the reader can solve the case along with Encyclopedia and then see if they figured things out correctly.

The books always open with a case that Encyclopedia’s father, the police chief in their town of Idaville, needs help with.  In Encyclopedia Brown Carries On, he’s trying to figure out how to move a giant mousetrap that a would be criminal left outside town hall when no one would buy it from him.  The rest of the stories find Encyclopedia and his partner Sally helping his friends and neighbors.  They encounter Bugs Meany a few times when Bugs tries to rig a drawing and again when he tries to set Sally and Encyclopedia up with the police.  They also help a friend keep his business giving for golf balls to himself and save the Left-Handers Club from sabotage.

As a kid, I was usually happy if I solved two cases per book without needing the solution at the end.  I’m glad I say I was somewhere around six or seven (I didn’t actually count) in this book.  And no, that’s not because I remembered the stories before I picked up the book; it’s been so long since I last read this collection they were all essentially new stories to me.

Each story is only about five pages, not including the solution in the back.  Throw in an illustration, and it is obvious they really do fit the short story classification.  There isn’t time for major twists or surprises, but that’s okay because this is a different kind of mystery focused on trying to have the reader think through the solution themselves.  Plus, they’re fun.

Because the stories are so short, it also means that there isn’t much in the way of character development.  Many of the kids in the stories are only around for that one story, so we hardly see them.  Even the series regulars like Encyclopedia and Sally aren’t super well developed.  But I didn’t care as a kid, and it didn’t really bother me now.

The books are a little dated, complete with the nickname Encyclopedia.  Do today’s kids even know what that is?  Overall, the stories and solutions hold up pretty well.  They certainly entertained me all over again.

I had almost forgotten just how much fun Encyclopedia Brown could be until I picked up Encyclopedia Brown Carries On.  While some elements might be dated, I think today’s kids would still enjoy time with him.

This review is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

July 14th's Weekly TV Thoughts

One new show added this week.  And Suits returns next week!

American Ninja Warrior – Wow!  So many inspiring stories tonight.  Truly inspiring, not like some of the ones we often get.  I was most moved by the woman who used to be in the wheelchair just two years ago.  Wow!  (Although did I miss it?  Did her husband not run?)  And donating a kidney and running just a couple of months later.  Having gone through surgery myself this year, that blows me away.  Of course, he was in better shape than I was before my surgery.

TKO – I was intrigued by this show, so I decided to give it a shot.  I might find myself getting tired of it fairly quickly, but for now, I think it is fun.  I’m actually surprised anyone can make it through any of those stages.  I think I’d fall off without any “help” from the other contestants, so my hat is definitely off to those two who did pretty well.

Take Two – One thing I am loving about this show is how the episodes start with one thing and quickly jump to something else.  From a sex tape to drug smuggling is the perfect example.  We are slowly seeing more of the characters, although they seem the least important part of the show.  Still, I’m loving what we are seeing.  Quirky and fun yet again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Book Review: The Death of an Ambitious Woman by Barbara Ross (Chief Ruth Murphy Mysteries #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong mystery, interesting main characters
Cons: Supporting characters a little on the weak side
The Bottom Line:
This car crash was no
Accident.  Complicated
Case well worth reading

It Definitely Wasn’t an Accident

When I started reading Barbara Ross, I started with her Maine Clambake Mysteries, always intending to go back and some point and read The Death of an Ambitious Woman, her first mystery.  It’s taken longer than I intended, but I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

Unlike her series, this book is set in a small town in Massachusetts and focuses on interim Police Chief Ruth Murphy.  As the book opens, she’s been acting as the police chief for several months, and it is looking likely that she is about to officially get the promotion.

However, things in town are about to heat up with a car crash.  Tracey Kendall is discovered after she crashes into a wall along a road on the outskirts of town.  She was driving very fast, and the lack of skid marks make it obvious she didn’t try to stop at all.  Things get more interesting when the mechanic who serviced her car disappears.  The more Ruth and her detectives investigate, the more pressure she faces to drop the case.  Will pursuing the truth cost her the promotion?  What really happened?

I went into this book expecting an excellent mystery, and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.  There were plenty of complications both in the form of red herrings and in the form of local politics.  Yes, Ruth has made some enemies over the years, and those bad relationships also come into play as she searches for the truth.  Not that Ruth lets that stop her.  The climax is ultimately satisfying and wraps things up perfectly.

We get to know Ruth and a few members of her staff very well.  The key players in the mystery are also strong characters.  There are a number of smaller players that I must admit I had a hard time keeping straight, but when they show up again, we were given enough context to remember who they are and how they relate to the mystery.

The book does have a few four-letter words scattered throughout, and we get a few descriptions of violence that are slightly more detailed than you would find in a typical cozy.  Even though this is flirting with the edges of the cozy/traditional/soft boiled subgenres, I’m sure that most fans of Barbara’s work will still really enjoy it.

For now, this book is a standalone.  However, I think there are more stories to tell with Ruth, and if Barbara Ross ever did go back to the character, I’d definitely want to read more.

I’m glad to have finally reading The Death of an Ambitious Woman.  Any fan of well written mysteries will be glad to have picked up this excellent debut mystery.

This review is part of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Review: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Heart pounding action
Cons: Slow start; lectures
The Bottom Line:
Dinos on attack
Slowed down by set up, lectures
Still enjoyable

Knowing What Is Coming Hurts, but Book Holds Up Remarkably Well

Way back when I first started listening to audio books, I grab whatever my library had available, which is how I wound up listening to a truly horribly abridgment of Jurassic Park.  But that was over 20 years ago, and I decided it was time to listen to the unabridged version.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, this techno thriller from 1990 tells the story of a new amusement park that was being built on an island off the cost of Costa Rica.  It is a special park because the owner has cloned dinosaurs and the main attraction.  And the owner of the park has thought of every possible way to make sure the animals are kept away from the guests to the guests are kept safe.

Or have they?  When the owner, John Hammond, invites Drs. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm, to visit the park and determine whether it is safe or not, they begin to find that everything is not as it appears.  And that’s before the unthinkable happens.  Will anyone be safe?

With five successful movies now coming out over the last 25 years, it’s hard to pretend we don’t know what is coming.  Yet that is exactly what you need to do when you read the book.  But even so, the book starts very slowly.  Yes, I would agree that time is needed to explain the science behind the science fiction here and to start to show how unsafe everything is.  Yet the first half of the book just drags while we sit and get these lectures.  Some scenes on the mainland early on do help build the intrigue.

And then the mayhem starts, and it becomes a heart pounding race through the park.  I was fortunate to listen to much of this in one day as I was driving to visit family because it is incredibly hard to stop once the danger starts.  Fans of the movies will recognize some scenes from this book that were included in the second and third movie since there just wasn’t time for all the death and mayhem presented here in one film.

Which is why fans of the movies will still enjoy the book.  Yes, names are the same, but personalities and relationships are different, including the ages of the kids.  You’ll recognize some scenes from the movie, but there are plenty of scenes and plot points that got cut for time.  This was a 15 hour audio book after all.  That also includes a climax that is much better than the movie’s climax, and characters who have different fates in the two versions of the story.

The characters are just barely deep enough to make us care about them and the outcome, but they could be deeper.  The dinos are the real star of the book, just as they are the movies.  It doesn’t help that the background of the characters is established via clunky flashbacks in the first half, when we are waiting for things to get going.  Still, I did like most of the characters, although the seven-year-old girl got on my last nerve by the end.  Probably realistic for the age, but she was so obnoxious.

The book went further than I would have liked in the gruesome department.  And yes, I know exactly what this book is, so this is a personal complaint.  Just keep it in mind before you pick the book up yourself.

There are some interesting themes and ideas presented with the book.  Even though I completely disagree with the evolutionary basis behind them, I still found stuff to chew on.  Unfortunately, these are presented more as lectures, although the lectures are backed up by what we are seeing as the story unfolds.

As I already mentioned, I got an unabridged audio version this time, narrated by Scott Brick.  I believe this is a relatively new production.  Whether it is or not, Scott did a great job of bringing the story to life.

Overall, I enjoyed revisiting the book that started a franchise.  Despite the flaws, Jurassic Park is just as entertaining now as it was when it was first released almost 30 years ago.