Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: All That is Necessary by Jennie Coughlin (Exeter #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and a plot that draws you in
Cons: A couple minor things could be fleshed out more
The Bottom Line:
Past shapes the present
With plenty of new drama
You won't put it down

The Past Moves Back to Exeter

Being a reviewer can be tricky when a friend writes a book and then asks to send you a copy to review.  Fortunately, Jennie Coughlin completely understood when I said I would give her debut novel my unbiased review.  Even more fortunately, I loved All That Is Necessary.

The book takes place in the fictional small town of Exeter, Massachusetts.  While the long time residents all know each other, it does have a small college as well.  But even in a small town, there are secrets buried, and some of those are about to come to light.

In August of 1991, teenagers Dan and Evan discovered that the swamp in their local small town was being used by the mob to dump bodies.  In the resulting fallout, Rick’s father was arrested and Rick left town, ruining the friendship between Rick and Dan.

It’s been 20 years since that happened, and Rick has moved back to Exeter to accept the Athletic Director position at the local high school.  The very fact that he is in town makes Dan, Evan, and Rick reevaluate that long ago summer and all they thought they knew.  In a town this small, they are going to have to learn to face each other, but can they learn to live at peace with the past?

Despite the presence of the mob, this is not my typical mystery novel, and that does lead to my only real complaint about the book.  We get some flashback scenes to 1991 scattered throughout the book that help explain what the characters are doing in the present.  But these are presented out of order and don’t give us the full picture.  We get enough of a picture to understand what happened back then, but I wanted just one or two more scenes.  As I said, this was a minor complaint.

I couldn’t believe how quickly I was drawn into the story, and I blame it fully on the characters.  They were sharp from page one and never lost that pull.  Obviously that applies to Dan, Evan, and Rick, who most of the story revolves around, but that also includes Dan’s husband Chris, Evan’s wife Liz, and others who play a part in the story like Riordan and Becca.  These are real people we care about and want to see have a happy ending.

And that explains how I got so drawn into this story that I couldn’t put it down.  I read the second two thirds in one day, most of that in one sitting.  I needed to know what would happen next and how the characters would react.  There was always some confrontation or revelation coming.  And a couple of these characters really do go through the ringer before all is said and done.

One aspect of the plot seems to get wrapped up a bit too quickly in the end, but again it’s minor.  I certainly see the characters getting there eventually.  However, what happens serves the story well and creates a great final scene.  Just be prepared to be left wanting more.  I know I will need to revisit Exeter as soon as the next book comes out.

So if you are looking for a new author to try in 2013, I can’t recommend Jennie Coughlin enough.  You will finish All That Is Necessary way too soon and be waiting like me for your next trip to Exeter.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: Thrown Out - Stories from Exeter by Jennie Coughlin (Exeter 0.5)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Real, likable main characters
Cons: Antagonists not fully developed; abrupt ending of "End Run"
The Bottom Line:
Rich characters star
In four fun short stories.  You'll
Enjoy the visit

Welcome to the Town of Exeter

In the interest of full disclosure, author Jennie Coughlin is a friend.  When she asked me if I was interested in receiving a review copy of Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter, I immediately said yes, figuring that if I absolutely hated it, I would not review it.  Fortunately, that’s not the case.

This book is available in both electronic and traditional formats.  The paperback version is very thin since these four stories are 86 pages combined.  It makes for a quick read, but it is worth it.

Exeter is a fictitious small town in Massachusetts.  There’s a college in town, but the non-college part of the town is very small and most people have been there for years.  These stories don’t focus on any one character but give us glimpses of the people who live in the town.

“Bones of the Past” opens the collection, and it finds Riordan, a lawyer in town, telling Ellie, a newcomer, about the town’s past connections with the mob and how it all came to a head one summer.  While the story tells us what is to come in the first few pages, how the characters reacted to things is interested to watch.  I enjoyed this story very much.

“Thrown Out” focuses on Chris who has reached a crossroads in his relationship with Dan.  Can Chris overcome a very painful past to fully embrace Dan?  Again, the plot held few surprises for me, but the characters were brought to life from the very beginning, so the story was extremely powerful.  I could feel Chris’ pain on every page as he struggled with what he was going to do.

“End Run” was the weakest story in the book for me.  This one finds the owner of the general store, F.X. O’Leary, worried about his grandkids.  So he goes to Riordan to find a way he can learn more about what his kids are facing without upsetting his son.  This one ended so abruptly for me I honestly felt like it was half a story.  Again, the characters were well drawn and grabbed me from the first page.

Finally comes “Intricate Dance.”  This one flashes back to 1969 as a young Riordan takes on a high profile and political local divorce case at the same time he is trying to get serious with Becca, a young artist who he thinks is the love of his life.  This story held the most tension for me, but even then the characters were at the forefront.

While each story really does have a different focus as far as characters go, characters will pop up again in later stories.  Riordan is the closest thing to a main character, but he hardly appears in one story.

There is definitely enough plot to keep you engaged, but the stars are the characters.  The main ones are richly developed and feel very real after just a page or two.  The antagonists, of the stories, don’t fare nearly as well.  They are very flat and border on stereotypical, at least to me.  Granted, they aren’t the focus of the stories, and I’m sure if we were to see more of them, we’d understand them better.  Still, that was a disappointment.

So obviously I did have some small issues with the stories in Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter, but overall I enjoyed it.  It was a switch from my normal mystery dominated choices, and one I enjoyed.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book Review: Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal (Maggie Hope #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Always interesting book with great characters and period details
Cons: The mystery is very uneven
The Bottom Line:
A trip back in time
Kept me turning pages even if
Myst'rey slow to start

Uneven at times but Always Enjoyable

It’s just impossible to keep up with all the new books coming out.  But I heard enough references to Mr. Churchill's Secretary that it eventually made my to be read list.  After all, I enjoy World War II history, so a novel set in London during that time would be very interesting.  And it was.

Maggie Hope has come to London to sell her grandmother’s house.  While technically a British citizen, she has spent her life in America being raised by an aunt.  When the house doesn’t sell, she decides to stay and even gets a job as one of the secretaries to new Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

But 1940 London is a dangerous place to live.  There are almost daily raids from the Germans as they bomb the cities.  But the danger is about to get closer to home as Maggie unknowingly becomes involved in some plots.  And her family’s past is about to come to the surface as well.  Will Maggie survive the shocks to come?

Now the book is classified as a mystery (in fact, it was just nominated for an Edgar for best first mystery), but that is only half right.  While there is a murder in the prologue and some mysterious plot threads weaving their way through the early chapters of the book, the first part reads more like a straight novel.  There are hints of romance and glimpses of life during the time period.  Frankly, while the book was moving slowly, I really enjoyed it.  Anyone with an interest in that time period will enjoy seeing what life was like then.

About half way through, the mystery really picks up, and that’s when the book becomes impossible to turn down.  The hints of something sinister before very real and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  The plots twists are all logical and the multiple viewpoints just make it that much more thrilling.

The cast of characters is excellent.  Maggie is a wonderful lead character and most of the time our window to the world.  I really came to care for her and I certainly felt her frustration at the unequal treatment she was often given because she was a woman.  Her friends are an entertaining bunch as well, and I found them just as real as she was.  Even the villains came across as real and relatable.

While a debut novel, the writing is strong.  I got lost in the story and the pages just flew by.

That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of things that threw me out of the book.  There’s a discussion at one point that is essentially about gay rights as a couple characters discuss how they are treated during the time period.  At another point, Maggie makes a reference to America’s shameful history of slavery.  This one really bothered me since England had slaves as well, the only difference being they stop the horrid practice without a war.  Anyway, both times this did throw me out of the book, but they are minor issues.

While not the strongest mystery I’ve read, I really did enjoy Mr. Churchill's Secretary.  The sequel is already out, and I am finding a spot for it on my to be read list.

And if you are looking for more World War II intrigue, be sure to check out the rest of the Maggie Hope Mysteries in order.

Movie Review: VeggieTales - If I Sang a Silly Song

: 5 out of 5
Pros: Many very funny songs
Cons: I disagree with a few of the songs included here
The Bottom Line:
Silly, silly songs
That will make you smile and laugh
Sit back and enjoy

20 Classics and One New Silly Song Equal Over an Hour of Silliness

It had been a while since VeggieTales released a compilation of their silly songs.  But that’s just what they’ve done with If I Sang A Silly Song.  It collects what are considered the best silly songs as voted on by fans.  While there are many classics here, obviously my tastes don’t agree with the vast majority of fans.

The “plot,” and I use the term loosely, involves a telethon were people are voting in with suggestions for a brand new silly song.  While we wait for the results to be tallied, we are treated to the top 10 silly songs of the last decade.  Basically, they play back to back with a brief stop to check in with the phone banks about half way through.  We get such fun songs as “Pants,” “Goodnight, Junior,” “Monkey,” and “The Biscuit of Zazzamarandabo.”  And this is where my bias comes into play the most.  I’m not a fan of “Sport Utility Vehicle” or “Gated Community,” both of which make the list.  I can think of two or three that should have replaced them.  On the other hand, we do get the very funny “Sippy Cup.”

But when those initial 10 songs have played, the votes aren’t all in yet, so they run the top ten silly songs from the first decade.  There were fewer videos back then, so these are most of the songs we all know and love.  And they are true classics.  We’ve got songs like “The Hairbrush Song,” “His Cheeseburger,” “The Song of the Cebu,” and the very first silly song ever, “The Water Buffalo Song.”  There are really only two songs from that first decade I don’t care for, and one of them is missing.  The other makes it way too high up the list, but it’s not number one.  And speaking of which, the results this time are different from the initial time they let the fans rate the silly songs – 10 years ago.

Finally, all the calls have been totaled and tallied and we get a new silly song.  The subject?  Well, I’ll leave that for you to discover.  They really did have a fan poll on the internet to create this silly song, and it’s fun.  I’d actually heard some people reference it recently, so I was glad to be able to see it.

Most fans already have the majority of these songs in their collection from their initial DVD releases.  Still, for kids who love the music, it’s nice to have a place to just pop it in and see all the songs with very little else.  The video is 72 minutes long, and it’s mostly the songs.

Unlike other VeggieTales entries, this one doesn’t have a message or a moral.  It’s just silliness for silliness sake.

And they are plain fun.  I stuck this in to watch while my roommate was home.  He wound up watching all of them with me even though he intended to go do some stuff in the other room.  That’s just how much fun they are for adults.  Kids, the intended audience, love them just as much.

But watching songs done over 20 years makes one thing very obvious - man have computer graphics changed.  The modern songs look good and sharp.  It’s not quite Pixar quality, but it’s still very good.  However, when you get to the older songs, the rough edges and the jerky movement becomes very obvious – more obvious since they are side by side.  But considering that animation was done 20 years ago, it’s pretty understandable why they look that way, and kids won’t really notice.  They’ll be having too much fun.

And I will give the voice cast credit.  They can sing without breaking character.  In fact, at times their singing adds to the fun of the song.

So if you want a collection of silliness, be sure to check out If I Sang A Silly Song.  The silliness is infection, and that’s all of the fun.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton (Abigail Adams #1)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Great historical characters; suspensful climax
Cons: Obvious plot; writing more a distraction than a help
The Bottom Line:
Wish I liked this book
But the plot and the writing
Made it hard to do

Abigail Adams - Detective

I’m always thinking I need to read more historical mysteries.  I’ve long had the books of Barbara Hambly on my to be read list because I’ve heard so many raves about them.  So when I stumbled upon her series, written as Barbara Hamilton, set in Boston right before the American Revolution and starring Abigail Adams, I jumped on them.  The Ninth Daughter is the first in the series, and will most likely be my last.

Fall is turning into winter in 1773 Boston.  Tension is in the air thanks to the new tax on tea and the patriots who are now refusing to pay it or drink tea at all.

In the midst of this tension, Abigail Adams goes to see her friend Rebecca Malvern and discovers a dead woman on the floor of Mrs. Malvern’s house.  The woman is a stranger.  Who could she be?  Why was she killed here?  And where has Mrs. Malvern gone?  When Abigail’s husband John becomes the chief suspect, Abigail begins to hunt not only for her friend but the killer to clear her husband’s name.

Before we get into character and plot, let’s discuss the writing because that was actually a big stumbling block for me.  It attempted to capture the feel of the writing and speaking from the time period, which means it wasn’t the normal quick read I’m used to.  Usually when this happens, if I give it a few chapters, I get into the feel of the writing and the story and then I’m hooked, but that never happened here.

This is despite some great characters.  Abigail is a wonderful woman, and I wanted to enjoy spending time with her.  Likewise, her relationship with John is great, and seeing so many famous men flick in and out of the story was fun for this history lover.  However, between the real people and the fictional mystery suspects, there were a lot of people to remember, and I often found myself confusing characters even late in the story.  The suspects could have been better developed; too much emphasis was placed on the real people.

Then there’s the plot.  I was actually surprised when I was looking at reviews at Amazon to find some people complaining about how complex it was.  I had the majority of it figured out before I hit the half way point.  I did miss the motive, but honestly it was so painfully obvious when it was revealed that I should have seen that coming, too.

And don’t let the cover of the book fool you, this is not a cozy mystery.  The murder is very grisly and the book goes to some dark places before it is all over.

So why three stars?  To be honest, I was seriously considering two, but then I reached the climax which, while a bit over the top, was still so suspenseful I couldn’t put the book down.  I decided to be generous and round up.

There are three books in the Abigail Adams series, but The Ninth Daughter will probably be the only one I read.  It’s a shame because I really thought I’d found a series I’d enjoy.

TV Show Review: Babylon 5 - Legacies and Voice in the Wilderness Part 1

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great stories by themselves that set things up for later
Cons: The CGI is obviously early and dated
The Bottom Line:
While weird packaging
Modern releases make these
Episodes still good

Legacies of War and Half a Two Parter

You’ve got to love the limitations of VHS.  When TV dramas were sold two episodes to a tape, you sometimes wound up with some pretty strange breaks.  That’s certainly the case with the season one episodes of Babylon 5 collected here - Legacies and A Voice in the Wilderness Part 1.  Fortunately, with the advent to DVD, this becomes a non-issue.

Babylon 5 is a space station located in neutral territory and designed to be a port of trade as well as a UN of sorts to help create peace among the various races.  Of course, as we learned over the five year course of the story, that peace doesn’t come without conflict and a very high price.  The first season built the story slowly while mainly introducing us to the races and characters we’d spend the rest of the show with.  As such, the episodes can be hit or miss.  But these two are both good ones.

First, we have the stand alone episode “Legacies.”  As is often the case in the season one episodes, we have two storylines happening.  In the first, the body of one of the great Minbari military leaders is being paraded around the galaxy on its way to be buried on Minbar.  However, when it arrives on Babylon 5, it mysteriously vanishes.  With not only Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) but warrior Neroon (guest star John Vickery) demanding answer about this outrage, Commander Sinclair (Jeffery O’Hare) and Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) have to act fast to find answers before a second war between their species breaks out.

And in the second story, a young teen girl suddenly develops telepathic abilities.  Unfortunately, it happens while both Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and resident telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) are present, and the two immediately start fighting over the girl’s future.

While both stories in this episode stand on their own, they both fit very nicely into the overall story and universe building of the first season.  With the telepath story, we learn a bit more about how other species treat their telepaths.  And we see Talia and Ivanova again class over the PsiCorp.  Yet their relationship is softening, and it’s a subtle transition you can watch as the season progresses.

Meanwhile, the first Earth Minbari war ended 10 years ago, therefore 10 years before the series started, but much of why and how it ended is still shrouded in mystery.  This episode gives us a chance to see the conflict a bit more from the Minbari side of things.  Those hoping to find out why the Minbari suddenly surrendered won’t find that information here, but they will find some intriguing clues as to what really happened.  More revealing is the growing split on Minbar that resulted from the end of the war, something we hadn’t heard about before and would come into play in later seasons.

Which brings us to “A Voice in the Wilderness Part 1.”  This episode finds Delenn’s old mentor Draal (guest star Louis Turenne) coming for a visit just as the planet the station orbits starts to have earthquakes and radiate beacons from deep within the planet’s surface.  Considering this was thought to be a stable, uninhabited planet, that worries everyone.  If the planet goes, it will take the station with it.  Meanwhile, the tension on the Mars colony erupts into violence, and Garibaldi uses every means he can find to try to learn the fate of his former girlfriend.

This is a hard one to discuss without talking about part two.  As I said, in the day of DVD, this isn’t an issue because you can watch them back to back.  While this episode doesn’t stand on its own, it does a great job of keeping you entertained.  This was not a one episode story stretched into two hours but a story that needed two hours to be told well.  And considering it does set up several key plot points for later seasons, it is not to be missed.

The acting on both “Legacies” and “A Voice in the Wilderness Part 1” is good.  The actors have really settled into their characters and bring them to life well, whether it is some very serious stuff or moments of pure comedy.  There is a gag that has been set up all season that pays off here, and a hilarious scene involving Centari Ambassador Londo (Peter Jurasik) that are both laugh out loud funny.  Ivanova has some excellent lines as well.

The CGI is getting better, although you can still see how dated it is at times.  Remember, this was 1994, so I’m willing to give it a pass because of that.

Once again, I don’t recommend you track down this tape.  However, I do highly recommend both these episodes.  They start off disc 5 of the first season DVD set of Babylon 5.  That’s the way to watch them.

Book Review: The Stupids Take Off by Harry Allard

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Some of the jokes are funny for all ages
Cons: Just as many are...well...stupid
The Bottom Line:
Stupid relatives
Live up to the name but jokes
Aren't always funny

Stupid Family Vacation

As a kid, I remember adoring the Miss Nelson picture books by Harry Allard, and with my younger brother, I found his other picture book series - The Stupids.  In the library recently, I grabbed one at random hoping to find the silliness I remembered from when I read them before.  The Stupids Take Off, the fourth picture book about this family, didn't live up to my memories.

This series follows the misadventures of a family that, well, doesn't quite have everything figured out.  For example, in this book, Mrs. Stupid paints her nails.  And we're talking about the kind you use to build something, not the kind you have on your fingers.  I like that kind of humor, which is one reason I remember enjoying these books.

One morning, the Stupids wake up to the news that Uncle Carbuncle is coming for a visit.  In a panic, they decide to take their vacation early, so they load up the family plane and go visit some relatives.  And yes, their relatives are just as stupid as the Stupids are.  They attend a birthday party and marvel over a new high dive.  Just which relative will they visit next?

Now don't get me wrong - there are some fun gags here.  For example, that high dive is over a grassy field and not a pool.  And there are eight candles on the cake at the party because they didn't have six.  On the other hand, there's the relative that is trying to grow pencils.  Yeah, that's just stupid.  And not funny stupid, but stupid stupid.  As I said, I do remember finding these books funnier as a kid.  Maybe I didn't mind the jokes that fell flat as much.  Or maybe by the fourth in the series, the author had run out of ideas.

Harry Allard's long time artist James Marshall does the illustrations here as well.  They are a nice mix of cartoony exaggeration while still being realistic enough that we can always tell what is happening.  And some of the gags come from the pictures, so that's a very good thing.

I'm curious enough that next time I get a chance, I'll have to stop by the library and see if the others in the series are as good as I remembered or if they are all stupid.  Kids will probably still enjoy The Stupids Take Off, but their parents won't be quite as amused.

TV Show Review: Babylon 5 - Parliament of Dreams and Mind War

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Two universe building episodes that are also fun
Cons: Some acting in the second episode could be better
The Bottom Line:
Building universe
With culture, character, plot
In a fun manner

Major Universe Building in These Two Babylon 5 Episodes

Any fan of Babylon 5 will freely admit that the first season is about universe and character building.  And there’s really no better example of that than the two episodes here - The Parliament of Dreams and Mind War.  The best part is they are fun in the process.

For those who have missed this gem of a show, it is set on a space station deep in neutral territory.  Our main cast are the humans who run the station and the aliens sent there by their governments to help foster peace.  Of course, there is also lots of commerce on the station as well, which helps drives some of the plots.

Up first is “The Parliament of Dreams.”  This episode was the fifth to air, and actually remains one of my favorites from the first season to this day.  It introduces Lennier (Bill Mumy) as assistant to Mimbari Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan) as well as Na’Toth (Julie Caitlin Brown), the second assistant to show up for Narn Ambassador G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas).  Yes, this long into the season they are still introducing opening credits cast.  That’s the kind of show it was.

There are two stories happening simultaneously.  The first involves the various alien races on the space station showing off their dominant religious beliefs.  The second, and the more compelling of the two, involves a death threat that G’Kar has received.  Someone on the station is an assassin sent to kill him.  Who might it be?

You might not believe it from that description, but this episode is actually very funny.  Two scenes in particular stand out in my mind because I always laugh out loud at them.  Even outside of those scenes, there are lines that are laugh inducing as well.

Beyond that, showing us the dominate religious beliefs of the Mimbari, Centari, and Humans really gives us a feel for their cultures.  We could get that in a data dump, but this is a cleaner way to do it that still entertains.  And through G’Kar’s storyline, we learn a little something about his past and politics on his home world.

The acting here is outstanding.  This is the cast’s first real outing in comedy, and they all shine.  From reactions to line delivery, things are perfect.

The second episode is “Mind War,” and it takes things in a decidedly serious and science fiction bent.  It is also our first real introduction to the PsiCorp, an organization on Earth that controls all human telepaths.  The story begins when residentBabylon5 telepath Talia Winters’ (Andrea Thompson) former lover escapes and makes his way to the station.  He is a telepath as well, so PsiCop Bester (recurring guest star Walter Koenig) and his partner follow him to the station to track him down and bring him back.  He’s brash and arrogant, but will his methods work or will they put the station in more danger?

While there’s been discussion of the PsiCorp before, this is the first time that we really get a glimpse of the inner workings of the organization.  It’s an organization we’d come to know well by the time the series was done.  That can also be said of Bester, who would show up quite a bit more over the course of the show, most noticeably in season 4.  While he’s a one note antagonist here, his repeated appearances would make him a more well rounded villainous character.  He’s one of those people we love to hate.

Unfortunately, the acting isn’t quite as good here.  Andrea Thompson can be a bit over the top when she needs to be dramatic, and that’s the case here.  Likewise, guest star William Allen Young who plays her former boyfriend Jason Ironheart is also a bit over the top at times.  Still, everyone is watchable, which is all that really matters.

Special effects are a bigger part of this show.  They do show a bit of their age, early computer effects in 1993, but they still work for the most part.

Of course, I don’t recommend trying to track down this VHS tape to watch the episodes.  Instead, watch them on disc two of the complete first season DVD set.

And certainly watch The Parliament of Dreams and Mind War.  Both are entertaining and both will help you understand things that happen later in Babylon 5.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Mr. Monk Gets Even by Lee Goldberg (Monk #15)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great moments with the characters amid two very good mysteries
Cons: None for fans
Bottom Line:
Dale the Whale is back
Competing with accidents
For Monk's attention

Mr. Monk and the End of an Era

The fifteenth tie in novel to the TV show Monk represents a second ending for the detective.  No, the books aren’t coming to an end, but this is author Lee Goldberg’s last one, and he’s written all of them so far.  He goes out with a bang in Mr. Monk Gets Even.

To fully appreciate this book, you need a working basis of the TV show and to read at least the last 3 or 4 books in the series.  Monk, being the obsessive compulsive person he is, would recommend watching all the episodes and reading all the books in order, and I certainly won’t argue with that.  There are quite a few references to past events here, so it will help to have some context for them.

The very minimum you need to know?  Monk is a phobic, obsessive compulsive detective who is brilliant because those little things that drive him to distraction are also the little clues that help him solve cases.

This books opens six months after the last one ended, which means it’s been six months since Natalie, Monk’s former assistant, moved to Summit, New Jersey, and began her new life as a police officer. However, she is finding she misses her life in San Francisco and the excitement that Monk brought to it.  The biggest case she’s had involves stolen laundry detergent.

Meanwhile, Natalie’s daughter Julie has been working as Monk’s new assistant until he can find someone permanent.  But he’s got two cases to distract him right now.  First, there’s a series of accidents that Monk identifies as murder.  Who is the common connection?  Even more worrisome, Monk’s old nemesis Dale the Whale is out of prison to have an operation.  Might this be part of a larger plan to escape?

Both mysteries weave in and out of the story, and both kept me entertained.  While I can often guess where Mr. Goldberg is going with his plots, both had me baffled here.  Yet the solutions were certainly logical in the end.

But the real reason fans will want to read this book are the characters.  These books have always expanded on their relationships from the TV show, but since the series ended, we’ve begun to see some remarkable growth in them.  The last few books especially have started some arcs, and Mr. Goldberg brings them to a wonderful conclusion here.  I love how he left them.  That not only includes the main characters from the TV series but also some minor ones and even a few he’s invented.  I read the last few chapters with a smile on my face.

Of course, I was often smiling as I read the book since much of the humor from the series is still here.  If I wasn’t smiling, I was laughing out loud because things were that funny.

The series of Monk novels will continue with a new author (and former producer of the show) taking over.  And I’m planning to give them a read as well.  But wherever the characters go from here, Mr. Monk Gets Even is a great farewell from Lee Goldberg.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk is a Mess by Lee Goldberg (Monk #14)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Two puzzling mysteries and wonderful character development
Cons: None for anyone who loves Monk.
The Bottom Line:
Two great mysteries
To show off character growth
Best novel to date

Mr. Monk May be a Mess, but This Book Isn't

While I do still miss watching Monk's antics on TV, the novels based on the series have been a nice way to revisit these great characters.  But as the novels have continued post TV series finale, the characters have grown even stronger.  The journey they've been on continues in Mr. Monk is a Mess, which I think is my favorite to date.

For those who missed this wonderful TV show, Adrian Monk is a consultant to the San Francisco police department who suffers from extreme phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder.  But those issues also help him notice the little details that help him restore order to the universe by solving crime.  Helping him deal with the rest of humanity is his assistant, Natalie Teeger.

Monk and Natalie are finally returning to San Francisco from their month in Summit, New Jersey.  Natalie is especially looking forward to spending the night in her own bed.  But when she walks in the door of her house, she realizes that someone has been living in it while she was gone.  But that's nothing compared to finding a dead woman in her bathtub.

The next morning, she gets a frantic phone call from Monk's brother Ambrose.  His assistant/girlfriend Yuki is missing.  Monk is thrilled that the tattooed biker chick is out of Ambrose's life, but Natalie insists they investigate.  What has happened to her?  And who is the dead woman in Natalie's bathtub?

Like all the books in the series, the main plot is interrupted every so often by a smaller case that Monk solves in a chapter or two.  Between those and the two bigger cases they are investigating, there is never a dull moment in this plot.  It takes a couple of unexpected twists before the climax.  I was so proud of myself for picking up on one of the clues Monk did until it led me to the wrong suspect.

But the real star here is the characters.  In the books since the series ended, author Lee Goldberg has been letting them grow in some interesting new ways that still feel very true to the characters established in the series.  That continues here for all of them, and it is a great thing to watch.  Since they are the main characters, Natalie and Monk get the most development, but the supporting characters from the TV series still get their moments.  It will please any fan of the show, especially someone who's been reading the books all along.

The show certainly had many comedic moments, and I found plenty more to laugh about here.  In fact, it amazes me that after so many TV episodes and novels (this is the fourteenth novel), Monk continues to surprise and amuse me, but he does.

Those who have avoided the novels have done so at their own detriment.  They are so much fun and continue the series in a great way.  Mr. Monk is a Mess could be enjoyed on its own, but to really get it, you need to read the rest of the book series first.

So go back and start from the beginning.  You'll thank me later.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk on Patrol by Lee Goldberg (Monk #13)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great character development
Cons: Plot might slow down at one point for the character development
The Bottom Line: Strong mystery with
Great characterization
Make this a winner

Mr. Monk Helps Randy Disher

Since the TV show Monk ended a couple years back, that has left Lee Goldberg, the author of the novels based on the show, with some freedom to develop the characters and stories as he sees fit.  That’s really evident in Mr. Monk on Patrol, the thirteenth novel in the series, and the result it outstanding.

This book takes Monk out of his normal surroundings of San Francisco, where he is a consultant with the San Francisco police department.  Monk has a ton of phobias plus obsessive compulsive disorder.  As he would say, it’s a gift and a curse.  It makes daily life for him hard, but it allows him to notice things others wouldn’t, and those little things help him solve murders.  He has an assistant in Natalie, who basically runs interference between him and the rest of the world.

In the series finale of the show, Randy Disher moved to Summit, New Jerseyto become their chief of police and pursue a romance with Sharona.  Well, Randy has uncovered corruption in Summit, and now he’s found himself chief of police and acting mayor.  He needs help, and he turns to the one person he knows will be able to help – Monk.

When Monk and Natalie arrive in Summit, the city is being hit by a string of burglaries, and Randy asks Monk to look into them.  They’ve just been on the job one day when the stakes are raised.  Will Monk find the criminal or is he too distracted by a specific shop in town?

These books usually have a big case plus several smaller ones that Monk solves along the way, and this one is no exception.  That helps keep the action moving forward quickly, and I always had a hard time putting the book down.  At one point, the plot took a back seat to the characters, but that was a feature of the series as well.  Like the show, it’s never for long and it’s always entertaining.

And, honestly, what I loved most about this book was the characters.  Over the last few books, we’ve seen little changes in Monk.  Yes, he’s still basically the same, but he’s making some small improvements.  Actually, I felt he took a big step here, and I loved it.  It was great to see Randy and Sharona again, and I love what’s going on with their characters.

But the big character arc over the last few books has been Natalie.  This book pays off what Lee Goldberg has been doing with her character, and I love it.  It feels natural and real, so it is very rewarding.  I’m not sure if this is the end of an arc or not, but if it isn’t, I’m anxious to see where Natalie goes from here.

Speaking of going from here, the book ends with a bit of a cliffhanger.  Don’t worry, the main plot of the book is resolved, but it’s something in Monk’s life.  The last sentence actually has ellipses on it, so you can just picture the fade to black on a TV screen.  Since I was already going to buy the next book, I don’t mind that bit of a tease in the slightest.

Just in case you were wondering, yes this book still has plenty of the humor from the series.  I laughed multiple times while reading it.  And Monk doesn’t get all the laughs, either.  Some of the other characters have great one-liners.

So if you are missing the TV show Monk, be sure to check out these novels.  And if you are up to date, you’ll find that Mr. Monk on Patrol is a great next step for everyone and a fun read.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk on the Couch by Lee Goldberg (Monk #12)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: A new story with old friends
Cons: None for me
Bottom Line:
Monk still on the case
Using the strangest of clues
To solve the murders

Mr. Monk and the Strange Clue

Monk may have ended its successful run on the USA Network, but the characters live on in the tie in novels written by Lee Goldberg.  Mr. Monk on the Couch is the twelfth novel he's written with these characters and it's the second set after the series ended.  And for fans like me who still miss the show, it's a great fix.

The show was a light mystery that followed Adrian Monk.  He used to work for the San Francisco police as a homicide detective until his obsessive compulsive disorder grew to be too much.  Now, he consults with the police with the help of his assistant Natalie.

When Monk and Natalie are called to the scene of a death by natural causes, Monk isn't at all interested.  After all, there's no mystery to solve.  However, Natalie is intrigued by the picture he is holding and even more so when his ID turns out to be a fake.  Determined to solve the mystery of who the name was on her own, Natalie takes the few clues she has and begins digging.

Meanwhile, a series of brutal murders are happening not too far from Natalie's house.  Each one is obviously related but there is no evidence connecting them.  Then Monk makes a startling connection.  Is he correct?  Will that help them catch the killer?

In reality there are two different cases going on here, the one that Monk solves and one that Natalie is interested in solving.  It was interesting to see Natalie step up and take an active role in a case.  She's trying to prove something to herself, and it's a logical step for the character.  Both of these stories weave in and out of each other.  Neither takes over the book for very long, and I was intrigued to see how both of them would end.  The climaxes were satisfying.  I figured pits and pieces of the story out for myself, as I often do with these books, but there were still pieces I needed the characters to fill in for me.

But what I found most interesting here are the characters.  Monk is still Monk, and I doubt he will ever change that much.  But there are some changes to supporting characters that I found interesting and intriguing.  I have a feeling this will be played out in future books, and I can't wait to see where it goes.  I also enjoyed the new character of Lieutenant Devlin.  She was introduced in the last book as Randy Disher's replacement.  She doesn't appreciate Monk the way the other characters in the books do.  It adds an interesting dynamic that is quite fun.

As always, these books are very fast reads.  I breezed through it in a couple of days, and it left me anxious for the next one.

Mr. Monk on the Couch is the next best thing to a new season of Monk.  It's the characters we know in a new adventure that uses them well.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk on the Road by Lee Goldberg (Monk #11)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: The characters and their interactions
Cons: Weak mystery
Bottom Line:
Monk hits the road and
Entertains with characters
Over mystery

Mr. Monk Take a Road Trip

Mr. Monk on the Road may be the eleventh tie-in novel based on the popular TV show, but it represents a first because it is the first book set after the show's series finale.  Fortunately, Monk is still up to his obsessive compulsive fun.

Since he's finally solved Trudy's murder, Monk is almost content.  And he wants to share that with his brother Ambrose, so he hatches a scheme to kidnap him and take him on a road trip in a rented motorhome.  Ambrose is agoraphobic, but this way he can still experience some of the world even if it is through a window.  With Natalie along as the navigator, they set out to explore California.

But Monk being Monk, he can't go on vacation without a mystery or two.  Things start out simple enough when Monk explains the mystery behind the popular Mystery Spot on the central coast.  But can he deal with leaving a murder scene when Natalie insists they continue their trip?

The book keeps what the series finale established.  Disher isn't around anymore and a new character has been brought in to replace him.  This new character doesn't have a whole lot of time to be developed since most of the book takes place outside San Francisco, but I liked her.  Likewise, a character introduced in the finale puts in a cameo here, and I liked her scene.

But the focus of the book is Ambrose, Monk, Natalie, and their road trip.  I found traveling through my home state in the pages of this book very fun.  I knew most of the places where they stopped, but I found something different seeing them through the eyes of Ambrose.  It amazes me how author Lee Goldberg is able to create a personality for Ambrose that is distinct from Monk but close enough to have so many of the same quirks.  Monk and Natalie are still plenty of fun, and their characters are spot on from the TV show.

My disappointment with the book came from the mystery.  Monk was always a mystery show, although some episodes the mystery was almost irrelevant to the situation where Monk found himself.  Those were always disappointing episodes for me.  That's the case here since the mystery feels forced into the road trip.  Don't get me wrong, the entire thing does make sense, but it almost feels like an afterthought.  I'm not sure how you could construct a true road trip mystery that would satisfy me, but this wasn't it.

Just like the show, however, the characters were more than enough to keep me entertained from start to finish.  The pages flew by, and it was over all too soon.

Mr. Monk on the Road will appeal to fans of the show wanting more now that it is over.  While those who don't know the characters won't enjoy it as much, those familiar with the characters will love it.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out by Lee Goldberg (Monk #10)

Stars: 4 out of 5
ProsFast moving, fun book with plenty of laughs
ConsRecycled set up; some characters issues
Bottom Line:
Monk on a job hunt
Creates humor that supports
A good mystery

Mr. Monk and the Ponzi Scheme

Like all the fans of the Monk TV show, I was disappointed when the show went off the air this last December.  However, I wasn't completely heartbroken since I knew I'd have more adventures with the wonderful series of tie-in novels penned by Lee Goldberg.  Mr. Monk Is Cleaned Out is the tenth novel in the series, and it does a great job of keeping the fun alive.

This book is set before the series finale, so anyone who has seen the show can jump right in.  And if you haven't?  All you really need to know is that Adrian Monk is a brilliant detective who is hampered by his phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder.  He is aided in his daily life by his assistant Natalie.  He makes his living by consulting with the San Francisco Homicide Department, especially Captain Stottlemeyer and Lieutenant Disher.

Budget cuts are an on-going problem at the San Francisco Police Department, and unfortunately, Monk is the victim once again when his services are no longer affordable.  Then he gets the bad news that all of his life savings are gone.  Seems he had turned them over to Bob Sebes, a man now under house arrest for running a giant Ponzi scheme that has collapsed.

Then one of the key witnesses against Bob Sebes is murdered.  Monk immediately decides that Sebes must be the killer despite the fact that Sebes is wearing a GPS device at all times and his house is surrounded by the media.  Is Monk right?  Will he solve the case even though he is no longer a consultant?  And can Natalie find the two of them a job that they can both keep?

I was a bit put off at first because Monk being let go due to budget cuts was a major plot point of the eighth book in the series, just two books ago.  However, as soon as that was acknowledged, I let it go and began to enjoy this book for what it was.  Actually, quite a bit of time was devoted to the story of Monk and Natalie trying to find a new job, and I found those parts of the book extremely entertaining and funny.  I couldn't help but feel sorry for Natalie who felt responsible for making sure Monk had income even though it was costing her jobs as well.

At times the mystery takes a back seat of Monk's job woes, but when it is front and center, it is quite strong.  I was left wondering how things would end, and I thought the ending was great.  And no matter which plot line was front and center, the story was always moving forward and keeping me entertained.

Some of the characters were a bit off to me here.  Monk, Natalie, and Stottlemeyer were great.  I could definitely see the actors who played them as I read about them.  However, Disher seemed off to me.  Frankly, of the four main characters, he's always seemed like the hardest to get right.  He's a goofball it's hard to take seriously.  He'll often provide some comic relief, but he can easily go over the top and just be absurd.  That was the case here, although I could see his TV counterpart doing most of the stuff he did here.  Natalie's daughter Julie was more of a whiney teenager than I ever thought she was in the TV show, and since I loved that character on the show, the changes bothered me a little.

This book focuses quite a bit of time on Natalie and Monk, and it's hard to say very many other characters got enough page time to be fully developed.  However, I didn't feel they suffered from that lack of page time.  These were real people who just didn't have a lot of time in the story.

As always, Natalie's first person narration keeps the story moving forward at a brisk pace.  I flew through the book much faster than I really wanted.

If you have been missing Monk, there is indeed a cure.  Get Mr. Monk Is Cleaned Out and catch up with these old friends.  You'll thank me later.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk in Trouble by Lee Goldberg (Monk #9)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and plenty of laughs
Cons: Mystery a little light
Bottom Line:
Gold and the old west
Mr. Monk faces them both
Which means laughs for us

Mr. Monk Finds Trouble in a Tourist Town

For those like me mourning the loss of the television show Monk, there is a small bit of comfort.  The novels have proved to be popular enough that they are continuing for the time being.  And the ninth novel came out just as the series was ending.  Mr. Monk in Trouble finds our hero in the California gold country for an all new, funny case.

If you are new to the franchise, Adrian Monk is a former San Francisco homicide detective who was put on leave when his obsessive compulsive behavior and his phobias became too big a problem at work.  He and his assistant, Natalie, still do consulting work under the supervision of Monk's old partner, Captain Stottlemeyer.

And for fans of the show, do note that his book is set before the start of season eight.  A couple of references are now out of date as a result, but they are minor details only Monk would obsess over.

When Manny Feikema, a retired SFPD cop is murdered, Captain Stottlemeyer personally asks Monk to look into the case.  Manny had moved to the small town of Trouble.  While it had boomed during the gold rush, it was now mainly a tourist stop.  Manny was working as a night guard for the Gold Rush Museum, and that's where he was killed.

Monk has hardly arrived before he learns of an unsolved gold robbery from 50 years ago.  He's distracted by his case.  Natalie has her own distraction.  She's found the journal of Abigail Guthrie, assistant to a Mr. Artemis Monk.  This Mr. Monk was the town assessor and detective during the height of the gold rush.  And he behaves just like the modern Mr. Monk.  Could he be an ancestor?  And will the current Mr. Monk find the killer?  Or will he be too distracted by looking for the gold?

I've got to admit, I was a bit wary going into this book.  Would the old Artemis Monk stories be more a gimmick, or would they feel like an important part of the book.  I needn't have worried.  Author Lee Goldberg wove them into a story in a way that kept my interest and didn't slow the modern story down.

Taking Monk to a small town kept the way it used to be for tourists provided many opportunities for fresh laughs.  Plus through in the historic Mr. Monk and you've got a (pardon the pun) gold mine of jokes.  I often found myself laughing out loud or at least chuckling and smiling as I went through the book.

But it isn't all laughs.  Mr. Goldberg always does a great job with these characters, and he allows us several moments that are very touching and even enlightening about them.  They continue to be real people very recognizable to fans of the TV show.

Plus the new characters are interesting.  I wouldn't say they were around long enough to be fully developed, but they were developed enough to make me care about the outcome.

Frankly, the only weakness was the plot.  I figured out the big picture before Monk did, although I did need him to fill in many of the details for me.  That was sometimes an issue with the TV show as well.  And like the show, I was completely entertained while waiting to see if I was right or not.

I have enjoyed these books so much, I don't completely feel like I've lost Monk yet.  If you want more adventures with the obsessive compulsive detective, be sure to get Mr. Monk in Trouble.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop by Lee Goldberg (Monk #8)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, engaging story
Cons: None
Bottom Line:
Monk has a new job
But can't leave murder behind
Which is fun for us

Mr. Monk and the Budget Cuts

Mr. Monk must be in eighth heaven.  First, it's an even number.  Second, the TV series started the eighth (and final) season just a month after the eighth novel based on the series was released.  The good news for fans of the show is that Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop is another strong adventure for our favorite police consultant.

And police consulting is now Adrian Monk makes his living.  He used to be a detective for the San Francisco Police Department, but after his wife was murdered, his obsessive compulsive disorder and phobias took over his life.  He is still brought in when Captain Stottlemeyer and Lieutenant Disher face a case they can't solve.  Rounding out the main characters is Natalie, Monk's assistant, who helps him get through his every day life.

As this book opens, the city of San Francisco is hosting a conference for cops all across the country.  As part of that, Captain Stottlemeyer and Monk have been asked to speak about their unique working relationship.  But the panel is moderated by Paul Banning, a dirty cop that Stottlemeyer had forced out of the SFPD years before.

By the time the panel is over, Stottlemeyer looks like an idiot who relies on Monk for everything.  So Natalie assumes it is payback when Monk finds out the next day that his consulting services have been terminated even though the official explanation is budget cuts.  Monk is determined to continue helping out the department whether he gets paid or not.  Natalie, on the other hand, is concerned about money.  Will someone else hire Monk?  What about the string of murders occurring in San Francisco?

I'm being purposefully vague about the murders because they don't really start to come into play until late in the book.  Instead, the focus of the first part is the set up that pays off in the second half of the story.  Trust me, nothing is wasted and the pace is steady over the course of the entire novel.  When the mystery really kicks in, it becomes an extension of all that has come before.  And yes, the mystery is quite strong.  I suspected I knew where it was all leading yet was still surprised when it got there.

All four of the TV characters get their moment to shine here while staying true to their series selves.  Monk manages to maintain his oblivion to those around him while still letting a few moments of compassion to others shine through.  Natalie has quite an interesting character arc, and I loved how that played out.  Stottlemeyer and Disher both earn our sympathy as events unfold.  There are a couple scenes between those two that truly made me feel for both of them.  And yes, new psychiatrist Dr. Bell makes his first appearance in a novel here, although it is very brief.

This book has some strong supporting characters as well.  I'm not going to give anything away, but I did feel like they were real people.  There's even one I wouldn't mind seeing show up again.

Speaking of showing up again, author Lee Goldberg manages to work in a character from an episode of the TV series that he wrote.  I found that extra fun.

Of course, there are plenty of jokes along the way.  Watching Monk deal with the world is always funny.  Here, I just loved the sub-plot involving the Diaper Genie.

Fans of the TV series that have missed the novels have truly missed out on some fun.  If you aren't obsessive compulsive, Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop makes as good a place as any to start.  Whether you do that or start at the beginning, pick up one today.  You'll thank me later.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.

Book Review: Mr. Monk is Miserable by Lee Goldberg (Monk #7)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Hilarious moments in a good mystery...
Cons: ...that is slow to get started.
The Bottom Line
Stopping off in France
Proves yet again that Monk can't
Take a vacation 

Mr. Monk and the Skull in the Catacombs

Over it’s eight year run, the TV show Monk has picked up numerous fans.  And for those who want a little bit more of the defective detective, there are the Monk tie in novels.  Mr. Monk is Miserable is the seventh novel in the series.  And it continues to expand on the franchise in entertaining ways.

If you aren't familiar with the franchise, here's a quite introduction.  Monk is a former homicide detective for the San Francisco Police Department.  After his wife was murdered, his obsessive compulsive disorder took over his life.  But he still consults on some of their most difficult cases.  He is aided in daily life by Natalie, his assistant and our narrator for this adventure.

This book opens immediately after the last book, Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, ends.  While it isn't essential you read it first, it does help.  The more important thing to keep in mind is that this novel is still set in the midst of season six.  Obsessive fans will want to note that bit of chronology as they delve into the story.

Natalie is ready for a vacation.  Since she and Monk are already in Germany, she blackmails Monk into paying for them to visit Paris.  She is looking for a few days of relaxation, which means she wants no murder investigation.

When they arrive, Monk surprises her by asking to tour the sewer system.  Later that day, she insists they head to the catacombs.  That was her mistake.  See, in the middle of a pile of bones, Monk spots a skull that is only a few months old.  Worse yet, the person was murdered.  Despite Natalie's insistence that they are on vacation, Monk begins to work on the case.  Who was the victim?  Why was he buried in the catacombs?  And will Natalie ever get a real vacation?

The same complaint I had with the last book applies here as well.  The book starts pretty slowly.  In fact, there are a few chapters that are more travel log than anything else.  While Monk's problems were entertaining, they only went so far.

That doesn't last for long, and once Monk finds the skull things really took off.  Fortunately, I hadn't read the teaser on the book, because I think it gives away too much.  Since I hadn't read it, I enjoyed several surprising twists that kept me wondering how things were going to turn out.  The ending was, as always, perfectly logical but surprising at the same time.

Because there are more pages in a novel, author Lee Goldberg is able to explore the characters in greater depth.  In this book, he really shows us several different sides of Natalie.  There were times I was equally frustrated and sympathetic to her character.  Of course, all the characters from the TV show are true to themselves.  And we make some new friends as well.  There wasn't a weak moment as far as the characters were concerned.

Those familiar with the TV show know that it is as much comedy as mystery.  That holds true here as well.  I was laughing pretty hard at many things over the course of the book.  There is a sub-plot introduced in the second half that fans of the TV show will especially find hilarious.  It may have been my favorite part of the book, in fact.

As any fan of the TV series know, when Mr. Monk is Miserable, we benefit.  That's certainly the case here.

Interested in reading more?  Since this is Monk, you'll have to read the Monk Novels in order.