Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book Beginnings and Friday 56 for March 1st

Yeah!  We made it to Friday.  Time for another edition of Book Beginnings and Friday 56.

This week, I'm reading Cana Rising by Dinah Swan.  I just passed the half way point at lunch time, so I'll be reviewing it at some point next week.

But here's the first sentence of the prologue:

"Sheree, you're a stooge and a druggie," Scott Bridges said.  "You can't just boogie.  You want to go to jail?"

And here's chapter one's first sentence:

Mary Alice Tate knew how to put on a party.

And now, turning to page 56, we find:

Mary Alice sipped her cognac.  "So you'd really get married to get elected governor?"

I am enjoying this book.  I'm just having a hard time finding reading time.

Book Review: In Like Flynn by Rhys Bowen (Molly Murphy #4)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Transports you to 1902 New York with a great plot and fun characters
Cons: Ending not as nice and neat as I normally like
The Bottom Line:
Trip out of city
Molly still finds mystery
And we're entertained

Kidnapping and Spiritualists

In Like Flynn is the fourth book in the Molly Murphy mystery series. Set in 1902 New York, it follows the adventures of Irish immigrant Molly Murphy. She is determined to become a private investigator, and gets involved in some interesting and historic situations along the way.

When police captain Daniel Sullivan says he has an assignment for her, Molly can hardly believe it. She's to go undercover to Senator Flynn's estate on the Hudson River. Posing as his cousin recently arrived from Ireland, she's to investigate the two spiritualists that the Senator's wife Theresa has hired to help her contact their son, who was killed in a kidnapping gone bad five years ago. When a woman falsely accused by reputation in the crime asks Molly to look into that, too, Molly agrees. But has she really learned enough about being an investigator to solve the two cases?

I made a discovery when I started this book. I truly love Molly and her friends. I started this series because of how much I love the author's other series, and I hadn't realized how much I'd come to love this series before this. Having said that, most of the action takes place outside of New York City, so we really get Molly interacting with an entire new set of characters and not the series regulars we've come to know.

The plot to this book in multi-layered, with two mysteries and several other sub-plots weaving nicely throughout. I found I had a hard time putting it down. I was disappointed that a couple key plot points on the mysteries seemed to happen by coincidence, but on the whole, it wasn't a major problem. My biggest problem is the ending, which leaves a few things hanging. The author's note does explain why, but it was a disappointment for me. As always, the historic detail is done very well. We are transported back in time without it slowing down the story a bit. And Molly's personal life has a couple of nice twists I can't wait to see followed up on in the next in the series.

Ms. Bowen has written yet another engaging mystery that will please her fans with In Like Flynn. And if you haven't discovered her wonderful books yet, but all means pick one up. Either series will entertain and bring you back for more.

And if you are interested in Molly, here's a list of the Molly Murphy Mysteries in order.

Book Review: For the Love of Mike by Rhys Bowen (Molly Murphy #3)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Expertly brings the world of 1901 New York City to life.
Cons: Mystery is a little weak in favor of historical drama.
The Bottom Line:
History takes over
But book is still engrossing
A trip to the past

Molly Take on Two Cases

Welcome to the world of New York City in 1901. Your tour guide is Molly Murphy. A recent Irish immigrant, Molly is trying to make a living for herself in a man's world. She has made up her mind to become a private investigator and will do anything she can to make that happen. In the last book, she apprenticed herself to investigator Paddy Riley, only to find him murdered.  Now, she finds herself in more danger in For the Love of Mike.

Molly is bravely trying to continue on with Riley's detective agency. But she finds divorce cases to be completely distasteful. Just as she's resolved to put them behind her, she gets an assignment to go undercover in the sweatshops to find out who is stealing designs from one man and selling them to his competitor. Then she is asked to find a young woman who ran away to America with her boyfriend. Molly is thrilled since finding missing relatives is exactly what she wanted to do all along. Now she just has to figure out how to balance the two since working in the sweatshops means working all day and the streets of 1901 New York City certainly aren't safe for a woman alone at night.

As if her life already weren't complicated enough, she still feels a responsibility to the O'Connor family for her opportunity to come to America in the first place. They are once again living with their cousins, and son Shamey is joining a gang. She feels she needs to figure out a way to get them into a better living environment. Her already complicated love life gets another wrinkle when she meets a Jewish boy who takes a fancy to her.

But most importantly, she can't help but sympathize with the girls she's working with in the garment factories. Even though she needs to keep quiet for her undercover assignment, she feels she must do something to help make their lives better. With a little bit of Irish luck, she just might be able to pull it all off and come out alive on the other end.

This is not a mystery novel with a murder and five suspects. As much time is spent on life in 1901 as on the cases themselves. But, as a result, Molly's world comes vividly to life. I learned so much about every day life during the time period. And the conditions in the sweatshops infuriated me a century later.

That's not to say the book is boring. There is so much going on you can't put the book down. Heck, I read it in little over a day myself. The pace never slackens, and there are quite a few tense scenes. The overall mystery is weak and the solution is a little rushed, but the drama is so real it more than makes up for it.

Molly has really grown on me as a character. Her Irish pride and stubbornness are fun to watch in action. They certainly get her into plenty of scrapes. Yet she is very resourceful. I loved seeing her friends and adopted family again, too. These secondary characters bring a real warmth to the book that is a stark contrast to the dangers Molly faces elsewhere.

Molly herself narrates these books, helping us get to know her better. The writing style is engrossing and pulls the reader through the story.

A word of warning. This book does talk about the ending of the last book, so it's best to read the series in order.

If you're looking for a traditional murder mystery, look elsewhere. If you want a historical mystery that will transport you to another time and place while entertaining you, For the Love of Mike is the book for you.

Book Review: Death of Riley by Rhys Bowen (Molly Murphy #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong plot with fun historical characters
Cons: Climax could make some roll their eyes.
The Bottom Line:
New boss is murdered
Molly catches history
Hang on for the ride

For Her Second Case, Molly Has to Solve the Murder of Her Boss

Death of Rileythe second entry in the Molly Murphy Mysteries, finds recent immigrant Molly up to her Irish neck in danger in 1901 New York.

It's been several months since Molly arrived in America, and she's still trying to find her niche in New York City. At policeman Daniel O'Sullivan's suggestion, she tries being a companion to a wealthy woman, but her strong will and sharp tongue get in the way of that.

She really has her heart set on becoming a PI and using that business to hunt lost relatives. After much persuasion, she starts to assist Paddy Riley with his PI business. But she hasn't been there too long before she walks into the office one day to find her new boss dead. Why was he murdered? Molly's determined to use the few skills she has to find out.

I enjoyed the second in this historical fiction series. The author has done her research, and it shows. The detail is fantastic, and I was drawn into the world of 100 years ago. Not only does this research help with the physical details of Molly's world, but the attitudes are well shown as well. It truly was hard for a single woman to do anything at this time in American history.

I felt the plot in the first story dragged, but this book erases that problem. The plot moves quickly here until it reaches the climax. While the climax is a little out there, I enjoyed it for the historical events it incorporated. There are several sub-plots as well, most of which deal with the struggles Molly is having as a single woman in a strange city. They add the right mix to the overall story and never take over from the main story for too long.

I must admit I also liked Molly better this go around. She's the right mix of stubbornness and the naivete that would come from her previous life in a small Irish village. Her narration is half the fun as we see the world through her eyes and truly get to know her.

This book introduces us to Sid and Gus, two new friends who have become important supporting characters. They and their circle are a hoot by themselves and add another layer to the historical setting of the story.

If you like historical fiction or mystery, you'll enjoy the seamless mix of the two offered by Death of Riley. And if you love both like I do, you'll quickly be hooked on this engrossing series.

And you'll want to read the Molly Murphy Mysteries in order.

Book Review: Murphy's Law by Rhys Bowen (Molly Murphy #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Molly and her world are brought to vivid life
Cons: Weak plot
The Bottom Line:
Molly's first murder
Immigrate to New York State
And solve it with her

Mysterious Trip Back in Time

This is the first book in author Rhys Bowen's second mystery series. When I read Murphy's Law, I was already hooked on her first series. This time, she sets the story in 1901 New York City.

Molly Murphy has just been given a get out of jail free card. After killing her landowner's son in self-defense, she flees Ireland for London where she meets Kathleen O'Conner. Kathleen is supposed to leave on the next boat for America with her two children but can't because she has tuberculosis. Molly is only too willing to take her place in exchange for watching Kathleen's kids.

Once on the ship, she encounters a rude man and has a very public fight with him. When that man is murdered when they reach Ellis Island, Molly finds herself and a new friend among the chief suspects. Frightened she might be sent back to face the hangman if her illegal status is discovered, she decides to find the real killer on her own. Of course, the problem with that plan is she doesn't know her way around New York City or who she can trust. Can she overcome the odds and clear her name?

Molly herself narrates the story, so we really get to know her. She's a head strong character who leaps first and considers the consequences later. It's fun watching her try to get herself out of several sticky situations. The O'Conner family is sympathetically portrayed. And we meet Daniel, a handsome police captain who seems willing help Molly. He comes across as a good guy in this book who actually cares about doing his job.

The writing is strong. The setting is brought to life, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about the time and place. We learn about the dangers facing a woman alone in New York City as well as daily life for the many poor immigrants of that era.

The problem with the book is the plot. The story starts very slowly since we actually leave Ireland and travel the entire way to America with Molly. Once the mystery does begin, coincidence plays a bigger role then I like. The ending is strong, but this isn't the author's tightest plot by any means.

I'll admit it took me a couple books to warm up to this series, but I am glad I did. Molly has really grown as a character and the historical background is fascination. This series will please historical fiction fans and mystery fans equally. And you really do want to start with Murphy's Law since events in later books are built from this beginning.

In fact, it really is best to read the Molly Murphy Mysteries in order.

Music Review: VeggieTales - Silly Songs with Larry

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun songs that all ages will laugh over
Cons: Being twelve years old makes it woefully out of date.
The Bottom Line:
Silly fun for all
But a dated collection
You'll love these classics

It's Always Time for Silly Songs with Larry

The Veggie Tales video series has a legion of fans, both adult and kid. These computer animated videos entertain with a liberal dose of humor. Naturally, these DVD's have also spawned a line of CD's collecting the songs from the shows.

A favorite segment in each video is Silly Songs With Larry, the part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song.

Here is the CD that Silly Song fans have been wanting. It includes all 10 of the official Silly Songs as of 2001 as featured on the Ultimate Silly Song Countdown Video in their original release order. It also contains four additional tracks, "Lost Puppies" (from Esther), "Oh Santa" (the Silly Song from the Christmas video), "Do the Moo Shoo" (from the Countdown video), and the "Silly Song Remix Medley" from the closing credits of the same video.

It's great to have these songs all on the same CD. I got it when I was a recent Veggie convert, and it allowed me to collect and learn all the silly songs without much effort, especially since the tunes are so catchy. True, the songs were originally created for video, but if you've seen the videos, they don't loose that much here since you can picture the funny visuals with the words you are hearing.

The best part of these songs is their randomness. They have an internal logic that is all their own. And they aren't any more then they pretend to be - fun.

Stylistically, they cover a wide range. "His Cheeseburger" sounds like a 70's rock ballad while "The Yodeling Veterinarian of the Alps" combines barbershop quartet with yodeling. Really! We even get a track with a classical music influence with "Larry's High Silk Hat." Since these are cartoon vegetables singing, the vocals are rather obviously adults doing silly voices. Still, considering the words, it matches perfectly.

This collection of silly songs is now over four years old. There have been a lot of great silly songs since then. While it's about time for a new collection of these songs on CD, this release is great for the early silliness.

1. The Water Buffalo Song
2. The Hairbrush Song
3. The Dance Of The Cucumber
4. I Love My Lips
5. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything
6. The Song Of The Cebu
7. His Cheeseburger
8. The Yodeling Veterinarian Of The Alps
9. Endangered Love
10. Larry's High Silk Hat
11. Lost Puppies
12. Oh Santa!
13. Do The Moo Shoo
14. Silly Song Remix Medley

Audio Review: A Christmas Carol Radio Drama by Focus on the Family

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Classic tale in full on drama mode
Cons: A few liberties and a production flaw
The Bottom Line:
Familiar story
Full of drama, well retold
Bah Humbug for none

The Christmas Classic Comes to Life

I was a young boy the first time my mom read Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol to my family. Over the years, it has become an established part of my Christmas traditions, with several versions potentially filling the bill for my consumption each year. This year, I decided to listen to this full cast radio drama version.

The story is the same old one we have grown to love. Scrooge is a miser in 1840's London. He has no use for Christmas or human emotion of any kind. The only thing he cares about is earning more money. One Christmas Eve, he is visited by the spirit of his dead business partner. Jacob Marley has come back to warn Scrooge about the dangers of continuing his miserly ways. To further help Scrooge, Marley promises the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future will visit him. But will this be enough to reform Scrooge?

I'll admit, it's been years since I actually read the book, so I can't offer a point by point analysis of how this 90 minute radio drama adaptation compares to the book. I will say that there were several scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Past I didn't remember hearing before, but I liked them as they helped us show the progression of Scrooge's character from the youth to the miser. My biggest problem story purity wise was with the Ghost of Christmas Future. They actually give him a voice. It was perfectly creepy and fit the character well. In addition, they give him as few lines as they possibly can. But since they had a narrator, I wish they had stuck with the voiceless Spirit of the original.

This isn't to say this version is bad. The actors do a great job making the characters come to life. The sound effects and original score further help tell the story. At times, in an attempt to show a character was in another room, the characters were a little hard to hear, however. This was only a problem in a few scenes. Overall, the spirit of the original is perfectly captured by this retelling.

One addition I really liked was David Suchet as the host. His parts surround the story and help put it in its proper historic context. I had forgotten just what was happening in England that prompted Dickens to write this story, and the reminder made me see it with fresh eyes.

While not perfect, this radio drama is still a great version of a classic Christmas tale. It will introduce kids to the story and hold the entire family's attention during any long holiday trip.

TV Show Review: Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends - Season 1

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Classic punny humor
Cons: Not everything listed in booklet, ghostly logo on screen
The Bottom Line:
Puns, puns, and more puns
Plenty of segments to watch
Did I mention puns?

Punny from the Start

I didn't really discover the animated show Rocky & Bullwinkle until I was in college. When I did, I spent every afternoon for a week watching the tape releases and laughing all the way through. I later bought the tapes and love re-watching them whenever I need a laugh. Naturally, I jumped on this set as soon as I could.

Presented here are all 26 episodes of the first season. It contains two stories for our heroes Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose, Jet Fuel Formula and Box Top Robbery. The first, running 40 segments, seems a bit long to me at times. Almost like they were looking for ways to extend the story. But for the most part, it flows along just fine. The story revolves around villains Boris and Natasha's attempts to steal Bullwinkle's secret jet fuel formula. Of course, it's so secret, the moose has no clue what it is either. Box Top Robbery is a short, sweet, and funny 12 "episodes." It tells what happens when the world's true money market, box tops, gets flooded. Probably one of my favorite parts of the show is the titles presented at each cliffhanger at the end of these segments. I've always been a sucker for a bad pun.

Also in each large episode are two other segments. "Fractured Fairy Tales" takes familiar stories and gives them a twisted spin while "Aesop and Son" tells some wild fables that I don't think make his most famous collections. "Dudley Do-Right," is a spoof of melodramas set at a camp of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and "Peabody's Improbable History" takes us back in time to meet various historical figures who need Mr. Peabody's help in making their contributions to history. The twist is, Mr. Peabody is a dog. Additionally, there are the brief "Bullwinkle's Corner" or "Mr. Know-it-All" segments. In the first, Bullwinkle reads a poem and tries to act it out. In the second, Bullwinkle tries to shows us how to accomplish some task. Naturally, he goes about it all wrong. Part of what makes this show great is the humor directed at adults, and these are some of the best examples. For example, "Wee Willie Winkie" is a rather stupid poem when you think about someone doing it. Frankly, I can't image trying to watch this show as a kid because so much of the humor would have gone right over my head then.

Being a low budget show from the 60's, the animation is far from perfect. However, the humor carries the day and makes the show highly addicting.

The DVDs themselves are a treat while not perfect. The picture shows its age, but I found it a little charming and made it feel like I was watching the old show I am. And it's better then my video collection. The sound is clear and well presented in simple Dolby, befitting the age of the show. The biggest complaint is the clear R&B logo that shows up every so often in the bottom right hand corner. I usually don't notice, but when I do it is annoying. Either way, it's pretty pointless.

The final disc includes extras. The two segments from season 2 are certainly appetite wetters. The clips of Boris and Natasha in their various outfits are ok, but certainly not worth watching more then once. However, the other three are fun. "Dear Bullwinkle" features a Bullwinkle puppet answering "letters" sent in by fans of the series. Think Mr. Know-It-All as an advice columnist. Also included several promos for the show from its initial airing And an extended promo for savings stamps features Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris, Natasha, and Sherman and Peabody.

I don't know enough to know if the title segments have been changed or not, but I've heard it has been as well as some of the music. My only real complaint is that the "Mr. Know-It-All" and "Bullwinkle's Corner" segments aren't listed in the booklet that comes with the set. They are listed on the chapter selection for each episode, however. Overall, this is a minor complaint. Fans of Rocky & Bullwinkle will love having this disc to relive the classic show.

Book Review: Crime de Cocoa by JoAnna Carl (Chocoholic Mysteries #1-3)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun stories with characters you enjoy spending time around
Cons: Get rid of the Chocolate Chats! Plots are weaker then they could be.
The Bottom Line:
Light, fun mysteries
The coziest of cozies
Chocolate reading

Three Delicious Mysteries

The Chocoholic Mystery is a light, cozy series focuses on Lee McKinney, who helps her aunt run a high-end chocolate shop in the resort town of Warner Pier, Michigan. From time to time, crime finds it way into the town, and Lee winds up right in the middle of the danger, sorting things out in the end. Crime de Cocoa collects the first three volumes in the series in one large soft cover book, along with the short story that first introduced the characters.

The book starts with "The Chocolate Kidnapping Clue," a short story that originally appeared in the book AND THE DYING IS EASY. In it, a teenage Lee spends the summer in Warner Pier while her parents go through a nasty divorce. She spends her afternoons working in her uncle and aunt's TenHuis Chocolade shop. Every afternoon, another teen girl comes in and gives Lee a hard time before buying some chocolates. But then the girl is kidnapped. Who would do such a thing in the small town?

The first official book of the series was THE CHOCOLATE CAT CAPER. A now grown Lee moves back to Warner Pier after her own divorce to help her recently widowed Aunt Nettie run TenHuis Chocolade. Lee's hardly been back in town when infamous defense lawyer Clementine Ripley is poisoned with a custom made chocolate from their shop. Not wanting to let their name be pulled through the mud, Lee decides to look into murder herself.

Next up is THE CHOCOLATE BEAR BURGLARY. When Lee's stepson shows up unannounced, Lee is hardly too pleased. But she and Aunt Nettie put him to work in the shop. After all, with the teddy bear promotion in town, they could use the extra help. But then antique chocolate molds are stolen from the shop and the antique dealer who lent them out is murdered. Even more unfortunately, Lee's stepson in the sheriff's top suspect and doesn't have an alibi for the crimes. Lee's going to have to work fast to clear him.

Finally comes THE CHOCOLATE FROG FRAME-UP. Everyone fights with town crank Hershel Perkins. But Lee's boyfriend Joe had the unfortunate distinction of doing so right before he disappears. While the evidence continues to mount, Lee searches for the truth so her flame does wind up behind bars.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a light series. The plots are strong but not as complex as they might be. I often figure them out before the end. What helps pull the series along is the characters. Lee, especially, is a strong woman who doesn't stop until she finds the answers she is looking for. She does have a speech impediment that causes her to mix up words when she's nervous. While this can get annoying, it is toned down the further into the series you go. The rest of the regulars in the small town are nice people I'd love to spend time with in real life. They, combined with the setting, make for a cozy small town feel that is fun to visit. There are plenty of chocolate descriptions in these pages. I might have drool on a few of mine.

The one curiosity is the "Chocolate Chat." Several times in each book, the author throws in some chocolate trivia. It doesn't tie into the mystery at all, but is there instead of the recipes like you might expect from a book like this. I enjoy them, although the author does seem to be running out of things to say about chocolate.

This series won't tax your brain, but it will entertain you. If that's what you want, Crime de Cocoa is the place to look. If you prefer your mysteries with more of an edge, keep moving. This series isn't for you.

But if this series is for you, you'll want to move on to the rest of the Chocoholic Mysteries in order.

Book Review: Unafraid by Francine Rivers (Lineage of Grace #5)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Powerful conclusion and a human look at Mary
Cons: Hard to get into because it covers too much ground.
The Bottom Line:
Covers lots of time
Which is hard for a novel
Still, powerful book

A Fresh Look at Mary

Unafraid is the final book a series of novellas looking at the women mentioned in Jesus' genealogy. This book tells the story of Mary, Jesus' mother.

Mary is a just engaged woman of fifteen when the angel appears and tells her she will bear the Messiah. Her life is immediately turned upside down as Joseph, her husband to be, almost refuses to marry her. A trip to Bethlehem follows their marriage, then a flight to Egypt to escape the murderous wrath of King Herod. Eventually, they return to Nazareth, but the warm welcome Mary expects doesn't come. Too many people still believe the whispers surrounding Jesus' birth. Surely they will believe once Jesus reveals himself as Messiah.

But as Jesus grows into a man, Mary continues to be frustrated by His inaction. Further frustrating Mary, her other children refuse to believe her stories about Jesus. Will her dreams for Jesus ever be fulfilled?

This is an interesting look at Mary. Several times, her insistence that Jesus behave the way she wanted made me uncomfortable. Joseph actually comes out much stronger in this book then Mary does as he recognizes Jesus' ultimate destiny early in the story. Still, I had never really looked at the events of the Bible from Mary's eyes before, and I found her attitudes believable. Being fiction, this is obviously one woman's perspective, but it is one that will make you stop and think about our own attitudes toward God.

The story suffers from trying to cover too much time. In 173 small pages, the author tries to tell Mary's story from birth to death. While most of the story does deal with Jesus' time on earth, some scenes that show potential are rushed, making the first half hard to get into. Part of this is the writing style, which seems a little distant from the action. The climax, however, is powerful, and I was crying so hard it was almost impossible to read. Most interesting is the last chapter, where the author issues a very harsh rebuke to those who worship Mary.

Unafraid needed a better focus to best explore the character of Mary. Even with the flaws, this book is worth reading and will make the reader look at the Biblical figure in a fresh new light.

TV Show Review: Danger Mouse - Seasons 1 and 2

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Some very punny moments
Cons: Overall a little dry
The Bottom Line:
Some pun and some fun
But not as I remembered
Lots of slower parts

"Wherever There is Danger, He'll Be There"

Danger Mouse is a television cartoon from the 1980's. Created in England, it was made famous on this side of the pond by Nickelodeon in its early years on the air. A low budget series with only passable animation, it features the adventures of the world's greatest secret agent, Danger Mouse. Assisted by Penfold (a hamster), they must continually save the world from the plots of Baron Silas Greenback (a toad) and his henchman Stilletto (a crow).

This set contains the cartoon from the first two seasons of the show. Season one had 11 episodes. Each episode is about seven and a half to eight minutes each. As such, the stories are a bit weak and decidedly short. Still, Danger Mouse faces a planet of machines, a dream cloud tuned to Penfold's worries, missing bagpipes, attack robots, elephants turning into sugar cubes, and some deadly laughing gas.

Season two changes the format significantly. There are only six storylines this time, but each episode is 25 minutes in length. Originally, these episodes were broken down into five-minute segments with cliffhangers and their own intros and closing credits. These breaks are preserved on this DVD, but fortunately, chapter breaks make skipping past the repetitive credits and intros easy. Season two finds Danger Mouse facing Greenback in a duel for the fate of the world, dealing with a lot of bad luck, and fighting washing machines programmed to kill him.

I never watched Danger Mouse much when it was on TV, but I remember liking what I had seen. Unfortunately, this set didn't live up to my memories. While I still enjoyed the bad puns and corny jokes, I found them to be too far between. Furthermore, the plots are just a little too silly for my taste, frequently finding Danger Mouse in space for no real reason. I realize that this is a tongue in cheek spoof of James Bond and Dr. Who, among others, but this show just seems to fall a little flat. More then anything it's probably because I have never completely gotten British humor.

Those who do remember the show with fondness from their childhood will like this set. The picture, while showing a few spots of dust and grain, is very good for being a low budget show from the 80's. Extras are limited to character descriptions and the unaired pilot episode. Basically, this is a longer version of the "Who Stole the Bagpipes?" episode from season 1. What I found most interesting was that the voices for some of the characters changed slightly when the show actually started production.

Danger Mouse is one part of my childhood that I didn't need to revisit. Others, with a bigger fondness for the show, just might enjoy it as an adult as well.

Season 1 Episodes:
Rogue Robots
Who Stole the Bagpipes?
Trouble with Ghosts
Chicken Run
The Martian Misfit
The Dream Machine
Lord of the Bungle
Die Laughing
The World of Machines
Ice Station Camel
A Plague of Pyramids

Season 2 Episodes:
Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind
The Duel
The Day of the Suds
The Bad Luck Eye of the Little Yellow God
The Four Tasks of Danger Mouse

TV Show Review: The Amazing Race - Season 7

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Heart stopping moments on a world tour
Cons: My favorite team didn't win
The Bottom Line:
Race around the world
With Survivors and others
Who will win this time?

Will Rob and Amber Survive the Amazing Race?

By the seventh season, The Amazing Race is becoming familiar. Eleven teams of two with some kind of relationship follow clues in a race around the world. Along the way, there are also tasks they must perform to get their next clue. These tasks provide looks at the culture of the area they are visiting. Those of us watching at home get a nice geography and culture lesson without ever leaving out living room. As each leg of the race ends, the last team is usually eliminated, narrowing the field each weak until the final three teams race for the finish.

The teams this season fall into the normal parameters. There's a gay couple, several couples who are dating or married, a pair of brothers, an older couple, and a mother/son team. Frankly, it feels a bit like they have a template these days and are looking to fill certain pre set rolls. Still, this season had the standouts. Brothers Brian and Greg were nice guys everyone was rooting for. Ray and Deena were this season's fight from day one couple. Meredith and Gretchen, despite their age, proved to be tough competitors. While they often irritated me, I couldn't help but root for them. Kelly and Ron were the all American beauty queen/Iraq war vet couple. I started out liking them, but by the end they made me cringe. Uchenna and Joyce where such a nice couple, you couldn't help but root for them. And then there was Rob and Amber.

Whether it was supposed to be or not, this season of The Amazing Race became all about Rob and Amber, still riding high off Amber's win in Survivor All-Star. Unlike the last time TAR tried a reality show crossover, Rob and Amber proved to have real staying power, using their fame to find help along the way. And, of course, Rob was able to use his power of persuasion to get several teams to support his plan when it came to skipping the nasty food challenge. I hated Rob in both seasons of Survivor he was on, but I will admit I found myself rooting for them this go around. I think I found Rob's antics to be a breath of fresh air on the show.

Of course, the locations where excellent as well. The fact that they haven't repeated anything yet amazes me. Personally, I loved their trip through Botswana since my parents have been there twice. It gave me a chance to see the country in something other then still shots. Other highlights included Peru, Argentina, Istanbul, and London.

This season also featured some amazingly close finishes. Several times the team eliminated was only eliminated by a few minutes. The ending was a real nail bitter as well. Of course, this is partially editing, but even without that, we seemed to have lots of close calls this season.

The Amazing Race is not as fresh as it used to be, with the casting falling into predictable patterns. But the show is still entertaining and slightly educational. This is the best reality program out there.

Office Supply Review: Paper Mate Write Bros. Pens

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Cheap, work
Cons: Cheaply made as a result
The Bottom Line:
Cheaply made and priced
Value for money is great
But still average

For the Price These Pens are Good.  But They Aren’t My Favorite

There are a wide variety of pens on the market, but Paper Mate seems to have cornered the market on the cheap pens.  Their Write Bros. Stick Medium Tip Ballpoint Pens are everywhere.  They do the job and are cheap, but they aren’t anything special.

The reason these are so popular is the price.  A box of 12 is under $4.  Seriously, how can you go wrong with that?  And they work.  I had one I was using for over four months before it ran out of ink.  For the price, less than a third of a dollar per pen, that’s a great deal.

The problem is, these pens are nothing fancy.  The outside is hard plastic the color of the ink.  These are black, but they also come in blue and red.  The problem with the hard plastic is that when you are writing something long (like a government form), the pen becomes uncomfortable quickly.

The pens have a cap held on by friction.  They stick hard to the side the actual pen is on, which is a good thing.  After all, you don’t want to accidentally get ink on things, right?  However, sometimes, the cap has gotten so stuck on the pen it’s almost impossible to get it off.  The cap will slip onto the other side when you are writing.  It drops into place securely, but not quite as firmly as on the writing side.

Another mark against these pens is the ink flow.  Once you get the ink flowing, the pens work fine.  But if you haven’t used them for an hour or to, it takes a squiggle or two to get them going again.

Since the sides are hard plastic, you can’t see how much ink is left in the pen.  As a result, a few times, I’ve had to make sure it was out of ink and not just a case of the ink not flowing any more.

Really, for the price, what do you expect?  You get what you pay for, and the value is certainly good.  But on the whole, I find Paper Mate's Write Bros. Pens to be average.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Video Review: What's in the Bible Vol. 10 - Jesus is the Good News!

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Entertaining overview of the Gospels and some theology
Cons: The songs don’t work for me
The Bottom Line:
Covering Gospels
And history before they start
Fun theology

What’s in the Bible? Gets to the Exciting Part as We Finally Hit the New Testament

For nine volumes, Phil Vischer and his puppet friends have lead us through all the books of the Old Testament, showing us how sinful we are and how holy God is.  With volume 10 of What’s in the Bible?, we’re finally entering the New Testament, and Jesus is the Good News! is a strong way to do so.

As always, there is lots of information crammed into these two half hour shows.  The first one is really background.  It covers the 450 year period between the two parts of the Bible and the theories on why God waited until the Roman Empire was established to send the Messiah.  We also get a glimpse of the authors of the Gospels and the major Jewish groups on the scene at the time.

With all that established, the second show delves into the contents of the Gospels.  It spends roughly half the time on the life and ministry of John the Baptist and then Jesus.  As has always been the case with these videos, very few of the familiar stories are retold.  The assumption is that everyone knows these stories from Sunday School.  Instead, the focus is on what the stories show and how they fit God’s redemption plan.

To that end, the episode talks about not only Jesus paying the penalty for our sin on the cross but also why we need to study both the Old and New Testaments what the kingdom of God looks like today.  Maybe because so much of my Bible training has focused on the New Testament, but this is the first volume where I felt Phil was skimming over the surface and not really covering the topics he brought up completely.  Of course, to really cover all the theology here, he’d have to spend hours, and he only had one.  I certainly don’t remember getting any of the information presented here at all in the target elementary school age range, so my hat is off to him for what he does teach.  There is some good theology here and kids will enjoy it.

So far, this is sounding kind of dry.  And the second half is certainly more serious than the first.  But rest assured that the cast of puppets do insert their jokes and interruptions throughout the entire thing.  Every is more serious when discussing Jesus, but the show is still entertaining.  And when you remember that Phil does all the puppets himself, the voice work is pretty amazing.

The real weakness here is the songs.  Once again, they’re okay, but nothing better.  Phil wrote them himself, and there are very few of them.  I could see kids enjoying them, and since that’s the target audience, they are all that truly matter.

So Jesus is the Good News! is a great introduction to the New Testament.  With only three more volumes to go, I’m looking forward to see how What’s in the Bible? wraps things up.

Book Review: As Dog is My Witness by Jeffrey Cohen (Aaron Tucker #3)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Funny story with a good plot
Cons: Murder plot get sidetracked by sub-plots at times.
The Bottom Line:
Doggone funny book
Great characters, good story
A pleasure to read

This Series has NOT Gone to the Dogs

Natural curiosity is not one of freelance writer Aaron Tucker's traits. So, even having solved two previous murders, it would take a lot to get him involved in a third. In this case, it takes a call from his friend Lori Shery, leader of the Asperger Syndrome (AS) support group he's part of. He owes Lori so many favors that he doesn't hesitate to look into a murder for her.

Michael Huston was shot one night while out walking his dog. The police already have a suspect in custody, Justin Fowler, a young adult with AS, a mild form of autism. And they have a good case against him, too. Justin has a fascination with guns bordering on the obsessive. The antique pistol used in the murder was found in his room. And he's confessed to the crime.

While Aaron agrees that the evidence is pretty bad, he also understands AS since his son Ethan has it. One thing he knows is that someone with the disorder would not shot a person without a very good reason. And since Justin never met Michael, there's no way he would have shot him on a whim.

Aaron starts investigating in the usual places. Michael's marriage was the model of perfection. He was well liked and had no enemies. So, who would want the man dead? Aaron's just started poking around when three goons from a legendary mobster tell him to stop. Is there a mob connection?

Meanwhile, Aaron's friend Mahoney needs Aaron's help tracking down the saboteur who is undermining him at work. The cars Mahoney has just repaired are broken again just a few minutes later. Plus, Aaron's brother-in-law and his family are coming to stay for a week. To say that Aaron doesn't get along with Howard is an understatement, and Aaron's wife Abby tries desperately to get along with Howard, sometimes turning her back on her own family in the process. Looks like it's going to be an interesting and busy week.

This is another great entry in the comedic mystery series. Once again, the first person narration is full of wry observations on the proceedings, usually filled with lots of sarcasm and one-liners. I was grinning and chuckling the entire way through.

The book tries to juggle three storylines. While it does a good job of entertaining with all of them, the story line with the visiting relatives seems to take over at times, slowing down the murder investigation. That's not to say the pace ever lagged. No matter how late I was reading, I had a hard time putting this book down. The murder case does have a couple of nice twists as well, and I never saw the ending coming.

Aaron's family has always been a draw in this series. Because of Howard's visit, they get more page time then in past books. Aaron's relationship with Abby has always been wonderful. Even with the problems they go through here, I still love this portrait of a happy marriage. Ethan's AS has always been present, but it is really developed in this book, and I finally began to understand the disorder.

This series is another winner for those who like their mysteries with a liberal dose of humor and As Dog Is My Witness will entertain them perfectly.

Book Review: A Farewell to Legs by Jeffrey Cohen (Aaron Tucker #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Another humorous tale with a good plot
Cons: No attention is paid to the passage of time. Writer's politics a little too obvious.
The Bottom Line:
A shifting timeline
Needless political swipes
Lower this story

Enjoyable but Needed Time for One Last Edit

Freelance writer Aaron Tucker is reuniting with people at his 25th high school reunion, including Stephanie, who can still make men drool with her drop dead gorgeous looks. But part way through the party, she gets a call that her husband, conservative political activist Louis Gibson, has been murdered in his current mistress's apartment. Stephanie insists that Aaron investigate, even getting him a lucrative article deal with a high profile magazine if he does so. Even though Aaron already solved one murder, he hardly knows where to start. Still, he can't turn down the money or the magazine, so he begins poking around.

Meanwhile, the principal of his kids' school has come to him for help. Someone has set off three stink bombs, and the parents are putting pressure on her to find the culprit. Only problem is, she has no clue where to start. As if that weren't enough, the Tuckers are also experiencing the joys of pet ownership. There's certainly never a dull moment in Aaron's life. But can he juggle it all and solve the mysteries?

There's certainly never a dull moment in the book either. Narrated first person with plenty of sarcasm and puns, I grinned, chuckled, and laughed my way through the entire book. You can't help but fall in love with the Tuckers. They are a wonderful, warm family who face life with a twinkle in their eye. The relationship between Aaron and his wife Abby is especially enjoyable. The plot starts a little slow, but gains speed the further you go in the book and has a few nice surprises before you reach the end. Being a conservative, I was a little put out by the "Liberal good, conservative bad" characterizations that popped up rather regularly, but I was able to shrug that off.

My real problem with the book was the timeline. Entire days seemed to drop off the face of the earth with no explanation. Characters agree to meet one day, then meet another and act like it's what the plans were all along. I kept flipping back in the book to make sure I hadn't missed something. It doesn't affect the plot, but, since following the timeline is something I work at hard in a book, I found it very annoying. A final edit for these things and a few paragraphs scattered throughout to fill in these missing days would have fix the problem.

Even with that issue in mind, A Farewell to Legs is still an enjoyable book anyone will love. I will certainly be spending more time with Aaron and his family and friends.

Book Review: For Whom the Minivan Rolls by Jeffrey Cohen (Aaron Tucker #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Good story with a well developed main character
Cons: A little slow at times and humor a tad over done.
The Bottom Line:
Pace is slightly off
But the story is still fun
Laughs are plentiful

It Rolls for Thee

Stay at home father and freelance writer Aaron Tucker is surprised when he's asked to find a missing housewife. Surely there's someone better qualified them he is. But when he's offered a thousand dollars, how can he refuse? But when he follows the few leads he has, he keeps hitting dead ends. And the supposedly distraught husband is not co-operating at all. What is really going on? This gets even more complicated when Aaron finds a dead body. Now he feels he must figure things out if he's to know he and his family are safe.

I really enjoyed this debut novel. I did have a couple complaints, however. First, while I mostly enjoyed Aaron's sarcastic narration, occasionally it was over done. Second, I was getting as frustrated as he was by his lack of progress for a while. But half way through, the plot really picked up and the twists kept coming. At that point, I had a hard time putting it down and stayed up late last night to finish. I liked Aaron and his family, and it was nice to see a basically happy man struggling with the day-to-day trials of life in addition to the mystery. It really developed his character and made him someone I could relate to, even if I'm single.

If you enjoy the lighter side of mystery, For Whom the Minivan Rolls is definitely a book to check out. I'm already looking forward to spending more time with Aaron and his family and friends.

Movie Review: Serenity

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good acting and engrossing story
Cons: Climax gets too apocalyptic, like much of most of Joss Whedon's work
The Bottom Line:
Concludes TV show
By continuing Firefly
Ending is too much

Satisfying Conclusion for Firefly Fans

Back in the fall of 2002, there was a little show on FOX called Firefly created by Joss Whedon. It never did well in the ratings and was pulled about half way through the season.

I'll admit I was a casual fan at best of the show, watching about two thirds of the episodes. Ironically, I really got into it after the cancellation news came out. My biggest disappointment was that several story arcs were left with big question marks. What exactly was going on? Thanks to exceptionally strong sales of the show on DVD, we finally got to find out with Serenity.

Set 400 years in the future and a few months after the TV series ends, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew aboard the Firefly class star ship Serenity are still outlaws. They make their living by conducting raids, sometimes for hire, and delivering black market merchandise to far parts of the galaxy.

Also on board the ship is River Tam (Summer Glau), a fugitive from the intergalactic Alliance. She was being programmed for something before she was rescued by her brother (Sean Maher). The process has left her a shell of her old self, often babbling for no apparent reason.

Her presence on the ship also makes the Serenity a much hotter item for the police of the Alliance government then it already was. This is even more true when one Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) begins a dedicated search to return River to the program. With the stakes raised, Malcolm makes it his mission to find the truth about River. What he learns will send shockwaves through the galaxy and potentially bring the Alliance government to its knees. That is, if the crew can get the truth out there for others to see.

As I said, I was only a casual fan of the show and hadn't seen it since it went off the air. Fortunately, the movie does a good job of reminding us about this particular science fiction universe before jumping into the new action. This recap is done in an entertaining enough way not to bore those who rewatched their DVD's in preparation for the movie and contains enough background to bring new comers up to speed.

Once the new information comes, the movie moves forward quickly. Action scenes in the beginning are followed by new information that ultimate leads us to a conclusion I didn't expect. The actors do a good job through all of this, making us care about the outcome.

The show had a couple trademarks, both of which are present in the film. While the show was a science fiction, there were western elements as well, from the planets to the old style weapons characters used. This allows for some beautiful scenery as the ship is flying over landscapes and through horses. Additionally, the characters had a very deadpan sense of humor that carries over well to the big screen.

My only disappointment with the film was with Joss Whedon's story choices. As with Buffy and Angel, he felt the need to end this franchise with an apocalyptic finale that all the characters don't pull through. While this is probably realistic, it's not why I go to the movies. Also, since both the shows mentioned ended that way, it had a been there, done that feel to it, not the original climax that he was probably hoping for.

I often complain when a show I like is canceled without a chance to tie up loose ends, so I'm glad Serenity was made. While it will appeal mainly to those who have seen Firefly, those not familiar with the TV show can enjoy it, too. When I was done watching it, I felt satisfied with the story, even if I didn't like all of it. While there are places the franchise could go from here, I am quite satisfied to let it rest in peace.

Book Review: Dating is Murder by Harley Jane Kozak (Wollie Shelley #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Sympathetic characters and a good plot once it gets going
Cons: The plot moves slowly in the first half
The Bottom Line:
Overcomes slow start
With the mysteries of dating
Crime complications

Wollie and the Missing Au Pair

Greeting card artist Wollie Shelley thought she finally had her life all figured out. But then her fiance left her to recover from a very broken heart.

In an attempt to get her out of her funk, Wollie's two friends get her a spot on BIOLOGICAL CLOCK, a Los Angeles based reality dating show where America will pick one couple to potentially have kids. Wollie is only interested in it for the medical benefits for the winner, however.

It's on the set that Wollie meets Annika, a German au pair who is a volunteer member of the show's crew. The two become friends, until one day when Annika disappears.

Annika's mom frantically calls Wollie asking for help, so what can Wollie do but try to find the young woman. She starts with Annika's host family and then begins branching out to other au pairs and friends Annika has made during her time in Southern California. No one has seen her and no one knows where she might be. And everyone seems to be giving Wollie different information about Annika. Was she really into drugs? Did she have a criminal past in Germany?

Wollie's hardly begun digging into the case when she picks up a tail. But the most disturbing thing about him is, Wollie finds him incredibly attractive.

After reading Harley Jane Kozak's debut novel, I couldn't wait to pick up her second book. While the first book started off with a bang, this one starts much slower. Last time I complained that I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight, which wasn't a problem this time around. However, the pace in the first half was a little slow. The plot does kick into high gear in the second half and it was hard to put down after that.

Fortunately, the characters are strong, and that helps keep the entire book interesting. Wollie is a very vulnerable character in this book, dealing with her break-up as well as her desire for a child before she no longer can have one. Yet she is strong in her search for Annika, plunging ahead even though there really isn't anything in it for her. Her friends support her and do always have her interests at heart even if Wollie doesn't think so at the moment. I actually liked them better then in the first book.

The book is also liberally laced with humor. The first person narration provides lots of laughs from Wollie's slightly sarcastic observations on the proceedings. And Wollie's Thanksgiving with her family provides lots of laughs as well.

While the first half drags at times, Dating is Murder is still an enjoyable second entry in what will hopefully be a long running series. I'm already planning on another date with Wollie.

And be sure to read the Wollie Shelley Mysteries in order.

Movie Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Everything
Cons: It ended
The Bottom Line:
High expectations
And this movie met them all
Narnia is real!

Confessions of a Narnia Fanatic

Ever since I first discovered Narnia in the third grade, I have loved this series of seven novels. While I have read through the series several times, this book remains my favorite and I have read it more then any other.

Naturally, when I first heard about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I was excited. I tried to keep a healthy skepticism about me since so very few movies live up to their books, but I couldn't help it. I was counting the days until I got to see this. And I was not disappointed in the least.

Sticking fairly closely to the book, the story follows four siblings. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are sent to the countryside to live with a professor while the Germans bomb London during World War II. While playing hide and seek one day, Lucy (Georgie Henley) hides in a wardrobe, only to find herself in a winter landscape. Exploring a little more, she meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy). After serving her tea, he confesses his desire to turn her over to the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton). The White Witch has turned his country of Narnia into a constant winter with no Christmas.

Naturally, her siblings don't believe a word Lucy says when she returns. A second trip with Edmund in tow doesn't help things. But when all four of them wind up in Narnia, they find themselves caught in an epic battle between good and evil where they are prophesied to free Narnia from the White Witch's reign with the help of the great lion Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson). But even if they can survive treachery in their own ranks, can four children really free Narnia?

The movie expertly captures the spirit of the book while making lots of changes. Those familiar with the original story will certainly notice a few changes already (hide and seek was the excuse the second time Lucy went, not the first), but these changes enhance the movie. This is especially true in the middle third. The trip from the Beaver's house to meet Aslan was much more harrowing in the movie and Edmund gets some extra scenes never dreamed of for the book. The changes were actually necessary to make the story work for the movie. Most of them help establish the changes the characters are going through, which is handled in the narration of the book. Obviously, that isn't an option for the movie.

As I said, these changes didn't bother me in the least. I was so caught up in the story I didn't care. The kids do an absolutely amazing job with the acting, especially since they are doing lots of acting to effects that won't be there until much later. Georgie Henley, the youngest as Lucy, especially does a good job, which is important since Lucy has to carry so much of the early story by herself. I was also quite satisfied with Aslan's voice. Liam Neeson brings the right mix of majesty with reality to the role. And Tilda Swinton's White Witch is equal parts creepy and evil without being over the top.

The effects were amazing as well. This movie could not have been made 5 years ago. While a few of the creatures might look a little fake to some, I want to know where they found the talking beasts. And the scenery, taken from locations all over the world but mostly New Zealand, was beautiful as well.

Even though the movie is rated PG, parents will want to take the rating seriously. There are several intense moments, especially the opening of London being bombed and the final battle. In keeping with the PG rating, the final battle is (thankfully) blood free, but it might be too intense for kids. Only you can judge for your family.

Every hope I had for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was met or exceeded. I hope they do all seven of the books. In the meantime, I can not wait to see this one again.