Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: The Hen of the Baskervilles by Donna Andrews (Meg Langslow #15)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great mystery and fun characters
Cons: Occasionally too much about the heritage breeds
The Bottom Line:
Visit the Un-fair
And tour all the exhibits
Watch for dead bodies

Un-Fair Murder

Living in California, I had not heard about the troubles that the Virginia State Fair had a year or two back.  But Donna Andrews was able to make them work for her when she created the plot of The Hen of the Baskervilles, the latest in her long running Meg Langslow series.

Meg is a blacksmith, although that very rarely plays a role in the plot of the story.  Instead, she finds herself involves in large, crazy groups with fanatics of one short of another.  In this book, she's gotten roped into helping with the Un-fair that her town of Caerphilly is hosting as the assistant director.  It’s got all the animals and exhibits you’d expect at a fair, including some rare ones.  These “heritage” breeds are specialties that farmers are hoping begin to make a come back.

But before the fair even opens, a series of thefts occurs, including some of the heritage hens that are supposed to be on display and in one of the competitions.  Then one of the wineries starts making waves in the Winery Pavilion.  Meg has her hands full trying to keep peace when a murder happens.  How is it all tied together?

I noticed something as I was reading through this book.  The family members who used to be such a huge part of these books are becoming more supporting characters.  They still make appearances and help things along, but they aren't the driving force behind the comedy.  In fact, some of the Shiffleys, a local extended family almost as big as Meg's, have a much larger role with every book.  Not that I'm complaining.  All the characters, returning or new, are great and full of life.  They helped draw me into the story.

But I have to give a shout out to Jamie and Josh, Meg's twin toddlers.  They absolutely stole the show in every scene they were in.  I loved them!

The plot was strong, too.  There were several good suspects, and I kept going back and forth over who I thought did it.  The ending was absolutely logical and very well executed.

While there were certainly some scenes that had me chuckling, this wasn't the funniest book in the series.  Then again, the ones I thought were funniest were ones that other people didn't like, so what do I know.  Even if I wasn't laughing, I found every page enjoyable reading.

Every so often, things slow down for a page or two so we can learn a bit more about these heritage breeds.  It felt a little bit like a passion of Donna's that she wanted to share with us.  Having said that, the story never truly lagged for long, and it made me curious enough to head to a fair and see some of these breeds in person.

Weaknesses aside, I really enjoyed The Hen of the Baskervilles.  It is always a delight to find Meg back in action, and any fan of the series will be thrilled with her latest case.

Not yet a fan?  Here's your guide to the Meg Langslow Mysteries in order.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ornament Review: All Set for School - Happiness is Peanuts All Year Long #2 - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Feels like September.
Cons: Doesn’t quite seem to capture Lucy; simple
The Bottom Line:
Lucy is simple
Makes you think of September
And early school days

Lucy’s Heading Back to School

September brings memories of crisp air and starting a new school year.  Okay, so all of that is long gone (we don’t cool down until November in Southern California and I’ve been out of school for years), but that is still what I think of when I think September.  And that’s what Hallmark has captured with the second in their Happiness Is Peanuts All Year Long series – All Set For School.

This ornament in the series stars Lucy.  It’s a rather simple ornament.  Lucy has an apple in her left hand and her right hand is holding the strap of her backpack.  She’s wearing her trademark blue dress.  And that’s pretty much it.

And it’s the simplicity that gets to me.  While some of the others in the series are simple, this one seems especially so.  It’s just too simple.  I’m not sure why this one stands out to me, but it does.  It’s quite possible that part of the problem is that Lucy’s backpack is hidden behind her.  Unless you really look at it, she looks like she is just standing there holding an apple.

Then again, it might be because of all the ornaments in this series, this is the only one where the character seems a bit off.  It looks like Lucy, yet it not quite right.

Plus she’s smiling.  What kid smiles on the first day of school?

As with the others in the series, this one has a background to fit in the Happiness Is red stand that Hallmark is also selling to compliment this series.  In this case, it’s a street scene with a sidewalk and grass showing.  On the right hand side is a Bus Stop sign.  And that’s pretty much it.  It’s simple, but it really captures the feel of the Peanuts comic strip, and I like it.

Lucy is standing on her feet, and she’s mostly steady.  You could certainly display her that way if you wanted to.  Because her feet as so small, the 2 in a Christmas tree series marker is elsewhere on the ornament.  I’ll let you have fun finding it, but it’s not too hard.

However, this is an ornament to hang.  Unlike most of the series, the brass ring on Lucy’s head is turns such that she hangs straight from the hook on the Happiness Is stand.  That’s a welcome sight and how I plan to display the ornament each year.  Whether you hang it that way or on your tree, you'll be happy to see that she does hang straight.

All Set For School is my least favorite in the series (while I don’t have them all, they are all on display at Hallmark stores).  But it’s still a good ornament.  Coupled with the colorful background that comes with the stand, and you’ll find you do still enjoy it.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Happiness is Peanuts All Year Long series.

Original Price: $12.95

Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie Review: Annie (1982)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Some good song and dance numbers
Cons: Most of the changes from the plot don't work.
The Bottom Line:
Some changes from play
A few work well but others
Really weaken film

Better Than I Remember, But Not That Great a Version of the Musical

It’s been over a decade since I last watched the original movie version of Annie.  I have never been that impressed with it, preferring the 1999 TV remake since it sticks closer to the play.  However, I recently sat down and watched it again.  It’s still not great, but it’s not horrible.

The plot follows the familiar story of Annie (Aileen Quinn), an orphan in 1930’s New York.  Certain her parents are out there, she has a habit of breaking out of the orphanage and running away from Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett), the woman who is supposed to be watching her and the other orphans.

Annie’s world turns around when she is invited to spend a week with Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire (Albert Finney).  Soon, Warbucks wants to adopt Annie.  But are her parents still out there somewhere?

One problem I’ve always had with the play and the remake, as much as I love them both, is the idea that the orphanage is so small.  Oh, I get cast constraints and what not.  Here, there are plenty more orphans, which make the time spent there seem more real.  And it also means that “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” gets a better dance sequence.  I like it.

I also like the song and dance number “We Got Annie” that the staff sings when they learn Warbucks intends to adopt Annie.  (In an interesting bit of trivia, this is a re-working of a song originally intended for an early version of the play.)

The Asp and Punjab both make appearances.  As a fan of the comic strip in my childhood days, I enjoyed seeing them.

One of my favorite scenes from the play has always been the scene with Annie and Warbucks at the radio station during “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”  I loved getting to see it here.

And for the most part the movie is fun.  But when it goes wrong, does it ever go wrong.

First of all, there’s Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan.  Here, she’s a drunk and a mean one.  Not only do I not find her funny (which I’m sure was part of the goal), I just find her cringe worthy.  What a waste of talent.  And don’t get me started on the song she sings with Warbucks when Warbucks arrives to get the adoption papers signed.

Then there’s the song “Let’s Go to the Movies.”  It replaces “NYC” from the play, and I find the original a better song story wise.  Then there’s the part where they show up clips of the movie.  Sorry, but that does nothing but slow down the story.  Just move on already.

Annie’s dog Sandy gets a larger part in the movie, something I love since again it’s a nod to the comic strip.  However, there are two songs sung about him, and I don’t particularly like either of them.

Then there’s the climax.  It’s so over the top it’s stupid.  I know it was designed to build suspense, but the climax of the play where the villains are out smarted is so much better.

Plus there’s the way they treat the show’s signature song.  We get Annie singing “Tomorrow” during the opening credits.  Then she leads the reprise in the second act.  Um, hello.  There’s a reason that song is so well known.  It is the heart and soul of the character at the beginning, and the movie really does lose something for leaving it out.  And when it shows up later, it doesn’t have the same amount of fun.

The acting is fine.  Rounding out the cast are the likes of Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters as Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis.  They are a blast.  Many of the adults are slightly broad in their performances, but it’s not so over the top as to be annoying and it actually does work.

But really, the flaws will always keep this movie from being a favorite.  If this is the only version of Annie you’ve seen, you’ll probably enjoy it.  But those who love the play will be disappointed with the changes made.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

VeggieTales Review: MacLarry & the Stinky Cheese Battle

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun and funny while teaching a good lesson
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Travel to Scotland
For a fun adventure and
A good lesson, too.

"Tighten Your Kilt Belts."  "Kilt Belts?"

Don't ask me why, but I was less than thrilled when I saw that the summer VeggieTales release would be MacLarry & the Stinky Cheese Battle.  I just didn't think it would that that good.  But, fan that I am, I bought it anyway.  And I must say I enjoyed it.

In answer to a letter the VeggieTales gang has received from a kid whose interests are different than his friends, Scooter steps up to tell a story.  That's right, Scooter the Scottish Carrot.  So is it any wonder that the story takes us back to ancient Scotland?

Well, okay, as they freely admit, it's an alternative universe Scotland where The Barber-barians are just a gorge away from the Romans.  While the two areas used to be friends, harmless pranks got out of hand and now the two sides feud.

Into this world comes MacLarry (Larry the Cucumber as voiced by Mike Nawrocki).  His father is Chog Norrius (voiced by Henry Haggard), the leader of their clan.  But all MacLarry seems to do during his initiations is mess things up.  That's because he's not a good barber or prankster or definitely not a good prankster barber.  Instead, he wants to be an inventor.  But even his inventions don't seem to work right.  Discouraged, he sets out to find his hero, Archimedes.  Will he find him or will he cause an even bigger crisis in this war?

There was nothing especially noteworthy about the story.  It pretty much followed the plot points I was expecting.  But what made it fun was the return of the trademark Veggie humor.  There were site gags and puns aplenty.  Several of them were throw away lines I just loved.  And some of them would even go right over the heads of the kids but be caught by their parents.

The official theme according to the front of the box is "A lesson in getting along with others."  I can see that, but it is rather broad.  Instead, I think the lesson is more about accepting others for who they are.  The lesson comes through in the course of the story without preaching, always a plus in this series.  And the Bible verses they share at the end talk about how God has given us each gifts.  Very true.  And learning to accept others as compliments to us is always a good thing no matter what age in life we are.

Yes, there is a silly song.  It's even appropriately themed.  "Kilts & Stilts" finds Larry singing in a Scottish accent from atop a pair of stilts.  I didn't think it was that great, but then they kept changing the style Larry was singing in.  All this upsets poor Scooter, which was a real hoot to watch.

The animation and voicework?  It continues to be good.  It's still not big budget, but it is good enough to pull us into the story and that's all it really needs to do.

Really, MacLarry & the Stinky Cheese Battle is just a fun story with a moral we can all learn from.  I'm definitely glad I went ahead and bough it.

Ornament Review: Reading is "Snow" Much Fun - Making Memories #6 - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament with another warm memory
Cons: Ties to Christmas are iffy
The Bottom Line:
Read up a snow storm
Creating warm memories
With a well loved book

Snowman Warm Memories of Reading Together

As soon as I saw this year's Making Memories ornament, I knew I'd love it.  This series from Hallmark is always cute, but this year's is special to me because it is about reading.  Seriously, how could I not love Reading is "Snow" Much Fun?

All the ornaments in this series feature a snowman adult and a snowman child in some memory making activity.  This time, the adult is sitting with the child on its lap.  The kitten they got in last year's ornament is on the right side of the adult.  The adult has a green hat with a red ball on its head, and the child is reading a blue cap with green ball.

And the book they are reading together?  There's Snow Stopping Us Now!  And this isn't just a book that sounds good for snowmen to be reading but an actual book.  It was released last year as part of a series of picture books that Hallmark releases every year.  I've missed these books, but now I will need to watch for them just to see what they are all about.  And if you turn the book around and look over the shoulders of the snowpeople, you can see what I assume is an actual page from the book.

One of my favorite things to do when I visit is read books to my niece, and I'm looking forward to doing it with my nephew when he gets a little older.  So this ornament brings with it warm memories as I just look at it.  Of course, my parents and other relatives read to me when I was young, and we always enjoyed that as well.  Plus it is cute.  All the ornaments in the series are really darling, but with my love of reading and enjoying times with my niece, this might be my favorite in the series.

As always, the snowpeople are sitting on a base that is cut out to look like a snowflake.  I love that touch as well as the fact that is makes a nice base if you wanted to display them some place other than your tree.  On the bottom of the base, you'll find the 6 in a Christmas tree showing that this is the sixth in the series.

The hook for hanging the ornament is located on the centerside of the adult snowman's hat.  With it sticking out at an angle, I wasn't sure how it would hang, but it hangs straight.

My only complaint about the series is the glitter.  Yes, it looks wonderful as it catches the light on a Christmas tree, but it also sticks to my fingers whenever I come close to touching it.  That's happened right now as I was looking at it to review it.  It's a minor issue and probably proves I'm a grump, but there you go.

Of course, it could be argued that this ornament doesn't really tie into Christmas.  The rest of the series has, but if it weren't for the title of the book they are reading, this one could be out year round.  And you know what?  I don't care.  Books are fun no matter what time of the year it is.

So I love Reading is "Snow" Much Fun.  I have a feeling every time I see it, I will be a goofy grin on my face as I think of reading to the kids in my life.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Making Memories series.

Original Price: $14.95

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Max and the other characters
Cons: Clichéd plot, language (for me)
The Bottom Line:
Bank robber gone good
With son brutally murdered
Not as good as hoped

Don’t Set Any Speed Records to Read This Book

While I keep putting off going back to Robert Crais’ series of mysteries, his stand alones keep calling to me.  Heck, I almost bought The Two Minute Rule when it came out a few years ago.  I finally got around to reading it, and I’m glad I didn’t rush to read it.

 Max Holman is just finishing up a 10 year Federal sentence for bank robbery.  This time around, he has truly reformed, and part of that reformation includes his desire to make amends to his estranged girlfriend and now grown son.

However, on the day he goes on supervised release, he learns that his son, a police officer, was murdered along with three other officers.  Shocked, he tries to learn more, only to find that the official investigation doesn’t make sense.  Can he find out what really happened to his son?

The good?  Definitely the characters.  Holman is immediately sympathetic, and you can’t help but feel for him as he learns this terrible news and then tries to make sense of it.  His search for truth and justice pulled me through the story.  There are some other memorable characters here, even the ones who are only on page for a few scenes.

However, the plot quickly devolved into a cliché.  Yes, one twist did get me, but I still figured out the killer and the motive early on.  For someone known for his twists, that did disappoint me.

Then there was my personal issue – the amount of bad language.  I know, I know, what was I expecting when the main character is a criminal.  Still, it seemed over done and drove me crazy.  Some people won’t be bothered by it, but I certainly was.  To me, this is a case where a little bit would have been much more effective in establishing characters and setting.

I’m glad I’ve finally read the book, but in the end I just found The Two Minute Rule just worth 3 stars.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ornament Review: Fun at the Beach - Happiness Is Peanuts All Year Long #1 - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun beach ornament to start a new series.
Cons: Issues with stand; slight tip
The Bottom Line:
Build a sand castle
And enjoy day at the beach
Pigpen starts series

Pigpen’s Having Fun at the Beach

For 2013 and 2014, Hallmark is trying something new – an ornament series that starts and ends in twelve months.  No, it isn’t the 12 Day of Christmas series (and believe me, there are people who are upset about that).  They are releasing a different Peanuts character for each month of the year.  And first up is Fun At The Beach starring Pigpen.

This is the August ornament in the series and features Pigpen on the sand.  To his right (our left) is a sand castle – you know, one of those detailed ones that you can never build in real life because it takes more artistic skill then you really have.  (Or is that just me.)  There is a tower and windows and it looks really nice, especially for the size (it’s about half as big as Pigpen.)  In his right hand is a yellow shovel and off his left hand is a red bucket.  The bucket is filled full of sand, and in a nice detail, it is sitting in the sand at an angle and about to spill its contents.  You could say there is dirt in the sand around him, but really, this is Pigpen.  How can you tell?

Pigpen is smiling, and it’s hard not to smile as you think about a nice trip to the beach.  Heck, I’m ready to head to the beach right now just writing this review.  You don’t mind if I stop here and head out, do you?

Okay fine, I’ll continue.

This ornament is obviously much more than Pigpen himself with the castle and bucket and sand holding them all together.  As a result, the ornament has a nice wide base and sits flat, which is a very good thing.  (I’ll explain why in a moment.)

Since this is a series, there is a 1 in the series marker on the bottom.  I was curious if they would use a different marker since this is a year long series and not a Christmas series, but it is indeed a triangle designed to represent a Christmas tree.

Pigpen has a brass hook in his head, so you can hang him if you so desire.  He tips slightly to the right, but it’s not a bad tip at all.

But how would you display a year long series like this?  You could certainly put the ornaments on your Christmas tree.  However, Hallmark came up with an ingenious solution, or so I thought.  They also released a red stand that looks sort of like Snoopy’s doghouse on the top (sold separately, of course).  It has Happiness is… in white across the top.  There is a hook hanging down and six different double sided backdrops – one for each ornament.  The backdrop for Pigpen is sand, a beach umbrella, and a beach ball with a little hint of water behind him.  I thought this was perfect and couldn’t wait to get it.  Unfortunately, the angle of the hook on the stand and the hook on the ornament means that Pigpen is twisted sideways if you hang him from this stand.  Because of the wide base on the ornament, it’s no problem to set him on the front of the display, and he still looks nice with the background.  But I’m still disappointed that I can’t hang him.

I’ve gotten over the disappointing display and I’m looking forward to completing the series.  Now, please, can I go have my own Fun At The Beach?

Be sure to check out the rest of the Happiness is Peanuts All Year Long series.

Original Price: $12.95

Music Review: Morning Rises by Aaron Shust

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: "Mighty Fortress" and "Deliver Me"
Cons: Songs all blend together after a while
The Bottom Line:
More great worship songs
The style could be better
But still much to like

Morning Rises in Praise to Our God

Aaron Shust's last studio release was a musical declaration of our faith.  And how does he follow it up?  The only way he knows how - with praise to God.  The result is Morning Rises, and it is sure to lift your spirit in praise.

The interesting thing about this disc is that first song.  It's the title track, but it only lasts 32 seconds and is instrumental with a bit of vocals that introduce the next song.  I can't think of another case where a title track was the shortest track on the disc by quite a bit.

Once things get going, we find Aaron is back in great form.  He is the one artist in the modern worship roster of artists I regularly listen to and enjoy.

The first full song is "God of Brilliant Lights," and it's the call to praise God because of all He has done for us.  It's a good up tempo track to start things off and get your attention.  (And yes, the phrase "morning rises" is part of the chorus here.)

From there we get one of the two hymn revisions on the disc.  "Cornerstone" is a modern take on "Solid Rock" but with a new melody and a new chorus.  We've gone down to piano based mid-tempo here, but it fits the hymn.  Since I love the hymn, I really enjoy this song.

The other hymn redo here is the final track.  "Firm Foundation" borrows heavily from the hymn "How Firm a Foundation" although it's much more different from the hymn, this timing going to the more familiar lyrics after the first chorus.  This is a toe tapping number to end with as Aaron plays guitar on the track.

Surprisingly, "Mighty Fortress" isn't a modern take on a hymn but an all original track.  The electric guitar and the beat here push it toward the soft rock category.  The song is a reminder that God is our defender no matter what is happening in our lives.  In the notes for the disc, Aaron shares how God used this in his own life after the challenging birth of his third son.  It's a moving story.

On the other side of the spectrum is "Deliver Me."  A much slower and quieter song, this one asks for help in the circumstances of life, but the chorus still expresses faith in God to do just that.

Unfortunately, the disc does fall into the trap of the modern worship genre.  For me, that's the repetitive sound.  I'm not sure why since there is plenty of different tempos and Aaron switches between guitar and piano, but after a listen or two, the songs all start to blend together for me.  That's a shame because there is some great stuff here.  And the amount of scripture that Aaron includes with the lyrics in the notes just shows why the lyrics are so powerful.  We are singing and praising God with Scripture if not literally with words that do have a strong scriptural base.

Despite this flaw, I know I will enjoy the songs on Morning Rises.  It might not get quite as much play time as some of his other releases, but there is good stuff here I will enjoy as it encourages my heart and lifts it in praise.

CD Length: 45:19
1. Morning Rises
2. God of Brilliant Lights
3. Cornerstone
4. Rushing Waters
5. God is For Us
6. Great is the Chorus
7. No One Higher
8. Deliver Me
9. The One
10. Mighty Fortress
11. Satisfy
12. Firm Foundation

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Beginnings and Friday 56 for July 26th

It's Friday!  And that must mean it is time for Book Beginnings and Friday 56.

This week, my book is The Last Word by Lisa Lutz, the sixth book in the Spellman series.

And it starts like this:

To All Spellman Employees:
Pants are mandatory.
Footwear is encouraged.
The Management

And moving ahead to page 56, we find:

"Since Mr. and Mrs. Spellman own the property in which you do business, they would like a rental agreement in place.  I've looked at comparable spaces, with access to a kitchen, bathroom, television, and a view." 
"What view are you talking about?" 
"There's a window."

For those who know the series, this is another great read with plenty more laughs.  And if you haven't found the series yet?  Well, it features a dysfunctional family of PI's who spy on each other to learn about what is happening in their lives.  It's funny and touching at the same time.

I finished the book this afternoon, so if you want to read more, here's my review.

Book Review: The Last Word by Lisa Lutz (aka Spellman Six: The Next Generation) (Spellman Document #6)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Characters, laughs, and story
Cons: Too easy to lose track of time while reading
The Bottom Line:
Isabel as boss
More family wackiness
With serious heart

How to Make a Hostile Takeover Worse

When it comes to wacky, dysfunctional families, I’m not sure any top the Spellmans.  While they seem to be maturing a little (this is book six after all), there is still plenty of wacky and humor in the latest, The Last Word.

Need a crash course?  Our guide to this world is Isabel Spellman, the middle daughter in the family.  The family business is Spellman Investigations.  That’s right, this is a family of PI’s, yet they seem to want to keep as much secret from each other as possible.  As a result, the entire family is often off on one wacky misadventure after another.  Meanwhile, there are cases to be solve.  And somehow, the books always seem to end on a more serious note than you’d expect.

At the end of the last book, Isabel Spellman had just successfully conducted a hostile takeover of her family’s PI firm.  It’s been six months since we last saw them, and in that time, things have not gone smoothly.  Her parents have started coming to work (the front room of their house) in their PJ’s (if Isabel is lucky), that is if they decide to work at all.  Isabel is drowning in paperwork and struggling to understand the finances, something her mother always did.  Rae has expressed a little renewed interest in the family business, but only as a Conflict Resolution Specialist, whatever that means.

And what little business they have is confusing Isabel.  Her boss/benefactor Edward Slayter asks her to look into a business that seems almost too perfect.  Edward also seems to be the target of something at work, but he can’t determine what.  They are trying to free another wrongfully convicted inmate, but someone is trying to warn them off.  And employee Vivien wants help with a moving company that ripped her off.  Will anything be resolved?

If this seems like a lot of story, don’t worry.  As we flow from one plot line to another, it is all handled so smoothly you have no trouble keeping track of it at all.  That includes a few flashbacks to scenes that have happened in the six months between books.

While these are usually classified as mysteries (and the reason I started reading the first one), they are really more tales of a dysfunction family who just happens to be PI’s.  Yes, there are a few cases, but they aren’t handled in the traditional methods of the genre.  If you pick up the book looking for a traditional type mystery, you’ll be disappointed.

But I quickly got over that with the first book and have enjoyed each one since.  Why?  Because they are just plain fun.  The antics of the characters are wacky and provide many good laughs.  And the story is so interesting it pulls me into the book.  I get so lost in the pages the time just flies by – not a good thing when you are reading on your lunch hour.

The characters are deeply flawed, especially Isabel.  That makes me like them all the more.  Yes, they are likable enough to make you care about the outcome.  And the growth we see between books is pretty remarkable.

Which brings me to the whole reading them in order thing.  Yes, it’s best to read them that way.  But only one storyline from book one is truly spoiled, although there are references to other events along the way.  However, you miss out on character interactions and growth that are a real joy by this point in the series.

And yes, the footnotes continue.  Think of them as asides in the narration – and pretty funny ones at that.  They are often the best laughs in a chapter.

As usual, things do get more serious in the final third of the book, and the endings always leave me in a serious mood for a few hours.  It’s a good novel hangover.

If you are worried about the title – don’t be.  At the book signing I went to, author Lisa Lutz started by stating there will be more Spellman novels.  But the title makes sense as you work your way through the book.  And that’s all I will say.

So if you are looking for a comedy with some kick at the end, pick up The Last Word.  It is another completely entertaining visit to the Spellmans.

NOTE: This book was published in paperback as Spellman Six: The Next Generation.

These books are best read in order, so be sure to read the Spellman Documents in order.

TV Show Review: Sabrina the Teenage Witch - Season 6

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Still entertaining if light
Cons: Formula more obvious, finale, set sound issues
The Bottom Line:
While still amusing
Not the best from this sitcom
Best for die hard fans

"I'm Going to Go Out on a Limb and Guess You're Under Some Kind of Spell."

Most shows begin to show their age at some point.  It doesn’t matter what kind of changes they make in front of the camera or behind the scenes, eventually they start to lose steam.  That’s the case with season six of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  Oh, the show can still entertain, but it’s not as good as it once was.

This season is pretty much Sabrina in college part two and picks up where season five left off.  That means that Sabrina Spellman (Melissa Joan Hart) and long time crush Josh (David Lascher) are finally together.  He’s just come back from a summer internship in Prague and is considering going back, but he finds a local job in Boston as a photo journalist.  In fact, Sabrina even gets a job as an intern at the same paper.

Meanwhile, Sabrina is still living near her college campus with roommates Roxy (Soleil Moon Frye), Morgan (Elisa Donovan), and Miles (Trevor Lissauer).  Over the course of the season, Roxy gets a radio show and Morgan gets cut off and has to find a job.  Miles?  He’s still a conspiracy nut who just wants to find a woman to date.

And Sabrina’s aunts?  They are still very much involved in the show.  Hilda (Caroline Rhea) runs the coffee house where Sabrina and eventually Morgan work.  And Zelda (Beth Broderick) is teaching at the college.

About the only big change this season is that Harvey (Nate Richert) is back on the scene dating Morgan.  Why, I have no idea, but it is fun to watch that relationship.

Over the course of the season, Miles hires a real vampire to star in his student movie, Zelda gets fired from her job when they check into her background, Sabrina starts talking like a cartoon character when she tries to tell Josh she loves him, and she gets a nasty virus from her evil twin that turns her into an air head.  And the cat Salem (voiced by Nick Bakay)?  He’s still causing trouble whenever and wherever he thinks he can get away with it.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  This show was always light.  In fact most people would say it was too light.  How can you tell the difference?  To me, it just feels like the writers are working harder and harder to come up with problems for Sabrina to face.  And the problems and solutions just don’t have the same creativity they used to.  The formula is more obvious this time around.

Not to say that it isn’t still fun.  The episodes can still make me laugh, and even my roommate had to grin at some of the witty lines.

The cast still does a great job of bringing their characters to life.  They really make the laughs come to life.  Look for Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jennie to show up twice as a new great-aunt.  Also recurring is George Wendt, aka Norm from Cheers, as the editor of the newspaper where Josh and Sabrina work.  There are two very brief before they were famous guest star spots from Simon Helberg of Big Bang Theory fame (working at a time travel web site) and Masi Oka from Heroes.

The special effects still amaze, too.  No, they aren’t block buster movie strong, but they work and it isn't too obvious what is going on.

I must admit I have never liked the season finale.  While it does feature a character getting married, it has the worst cliffhanger and just makes a mess of quite a bit of the show.

There were 22 episodes in the season, and all of these half hours are included in the three disc set with no extras.  The picture is full frame, the original form that was broadcast.  However, the sound is the problem.  It would randomly get louder and then quieter again on a regular random basis.  I was constantly having to adjust it, which was a royal pain.  Hopefully, I just got a bad batch and newer presses have been fixed.

The sound flaw takes another star from this set.  Overall, the best days were pasted by season six of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, but it will still entertain fans.

Season 6 Episodes:
1. Really Big Season Opener
2. Sabrina's Date with Destiny
3. What's News
4. Murder on the Halloween Express
5. The Gift of Gab
6. Thin Ice
7. Hex, Lies, and No Videotape
8. Humble Pie
9. Birthday Witch
10. Deliver Us from E-Mail
11. Could Ten
12. Sabrina and the Candidate
13. I Think I Love You
14. The Arrangement
15. Time After Time
16. Sabrina and the Kiss
17. The Competition
18. I, Busybody
19. Guilty
20. The Whole Ball of Wax
21. Driving Mr. Goodman
22. I Fall to Pieces

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat by Bill Watterson

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: "I Like Verbing Words.  Verbing Weirds Language."
Cons: "Some People Have Secret Admirers.  You Have a Secret Detractor!"
The Bottom Line:
A great comic strip
With timeless humor to make
You laugh as you read

"I Bet Some Kids Walk Around Corners Without Even Thinking About It."

I still miss Calvin and Hobbes.

And I’m sure every fan of the classic comic strip would echo that sentiment.  The strip was funny, creative, and always funny.  The characters had personality.  The punch lines were often surprising even when the set up was familiar.  And the way the strip managed to poke fun at our culture was brilliant.  Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat was a collection from late in the strips run and includes strips from 1992 and 1993.

The strip follows six-year-old Calvin and his best friend Hobbes.  Hobbes just happens to be a stuffed tiger who is real only to Calvin.  And he often seems to be the more intelligent of the two.  Rounding out the cast we have Calvin’s parents, neighbor Susie, and teacher Miss Wormwood.

This book covers nine months and seems to contain more stand alone strips than actual stories, although there are several recurring gags.  For example, we get lots of Calvin’s take on modern art as he creates snow sculptures.  In a strip that scarily is even more appropriate today than it was 20 years ago, Calvin’s lemonade stand fails because of the high prices he is charging.  Missing in this book is babysitter Rosalyn, and bully Mo only gets one appearance.

As far as multiple day story arcs go, Calvin starts getting mysterious letters in the mail.  Who is sending them?  What will the messages say?  Late in the book, we get another episode with Get Rid Of Slimy girlS (G.R.O.S.S.) as they plot to ensnare neighbor Susie in a fiendish trap to lure her behind the house to hit her with water balloons.    Calvin’s alter ego Stupendous Man makes an appearance to take a history test for Calvin.  Calvin makes a deal with Susie to eats worms for money.  And as Christmas approaches, Calvin tries to figure out just how good he has to be to get presents from Santa.

At times, the strip was just a funny look at the life of a six-year-old who struggles in school mainly because he isn’t interested in the subject matter.  But at times, it was also a brilliant look at our culture.  I already mentioned Calvin’s snow sculptures with are a biting look at modern art.  While there’s only one strip involving his magazine for gum chewers, Hobbes' comment about our quiz addicted society is still spot on.  In fact, it’s rather hard to believe these strips are 20 years old.  Many of the remarks and observations made are still spot on today, sadly.

Coupled with the great writing is the great art work.  And I do mean art work.  Especially in the Sunday strips (which are reproduced in full color here), we get some beautiful pictures.  Sometimes it is of the outdoors where Calvin and Hobbes play.  It might also be on distant worlds that Calvin is exploring in his imagination.  Okay, so maybe they aren’t fine art, but they are certainly better than much modern art and the best you’ll find on the comics pages.

And did I mention that these strips are still funny?  Because they certainly are.  I have some of these strips memorized and use them as punch lines in my own life.  And yet I will still laugh when I read them in this book.  Twenty years later, that’s great humor.

So I continue to recommend Calvin and Hobbes in any book form.  Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat is just one great example of a strip I wish had lasted longer.

Ornament Review: Three French Hens - 12 Days of Christmas #3 - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Beautiful looking Hen with the usual artistic flairs
Cons: Slight tip, much of the lyrics hidden
The Bottom Line:
A French Hen to hang
Many artistic touches
Make it beautiful

One Third of the Third Day's French Hens

Hallmark artist Edythe Kegrize announced when she started the current Twelve Days of Christmas series that for most of the days she would only have one of the item named.  Frankly, I'm glad of that because it would be very crowded by the last day.  She's already made good on her promise with Three French Hens, and the result is beautiful.

As I keep saying, the ornaments in this series are an acquired taste.  They aren't just strictly the item in question but the item as put together with an artistic flair.  Yes, this year's hen is mostly orange fading to yellow on her head, but the feathers, including the tail feathers, are green and blue.  The feathers are attached separately and have a little gold accent on top of them.  And the top layer of feathers?  It has musical notes on it.  I'm betting it's not the musical notes from this song but random notes.  There's also a little gold garland around the bird's neck.

There are some random gold lines on one side and the tail.  But on the front of the hen's body, you'll find Three French Hens written in calligraphy.  On the back in slightly less fancy writing are the words to this verse.  At least we have to assume all the words are there.  The wings cover up much of the writing, unfortunately.  Still, I think the only way to move them back so we could see more of the writing is if they were smaller.  It's a disappointing detail, but one I'm okay with.

Finally, there's the dangle element.  There is a gold colored egg dangling down from the hen with "Three 3" written on it again in calligraphy.

The result isn't a traditional hen at all.  But it is absolutely beautiful to look at.  When I first saw a picture, I was disappointed the hen was facing the same way as the partridge from the first ornament in the series, but I quickly got over that.  The way the tail flared and the cock of her head make this one stand out from the first.  Plus the color is different.

As I keep saying with this series, it is just beautiful.

Because of the dangling egg, there is no way to stand this ornament for display.  You have to hang it.  Also, since there is no flat surface, the 3 in a Christmas tree since this is the third in a series is hidden somewhere on the ornament.  I won't tell you where, but it was the first place I looked for it.

So you're going to have to hang this one through the hook in her back.  The ornament tips slightly to the left - the head side.  It's noticeable, but again it will only bother the most discerning of collectors.  By the time it is on your tree, you won't really be able to tell with the branches and the lights behind it.

Once again, Edythe Kegrize has done an outstanding job on Three French Hens.  This continues to be a series I look forward to every year.

Of course, you'll need to get all of the 12 Days of Christmas series.

Original Price: $12.95

Waiting on Wednesday for July 24th

Good morning.  I'm participating in Waiting on Wednesday, a weekly event hosted at Breaking the Spine where we talk about books we're currently waiting to get published.

Of course, a couple that would be on my list for the next few weeks I've read thanks to ARCs I've gotten.

Anyway, this week, I'm waiting for Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz.

The description at Amazon reads:

A series of anonymous threats intended for others puts a man—and everyone he loves—in the path of a relentless killer

Daniel Brasher has always been something of a disappointment to his old-money aristocratic San Francisco mother. Daniel left his high-paying job as a money manager to marry his community organizer wife and work at a job he loves, leading group counseling sessions with recently paroled ex-cons. Now he’s ready to move on and start a private practice.

But before he leaves, he finds an envelope in his department mailbox—one intended for someone else that was placed in his slot by accident. Inside it is an unsigned piece of paper, a note that says only “admit what you’ve done or you will bleed for it. you have 'til november 15 at midnite.” The deadline has already passed and the person to whom the envelope was addressed was brutally murdered. But this first warning is only the beginning.

Soon, Daniel finds more warnings in his office mail, to people that the police cannot track down, and to victims that cannot be saved. Daniel's efforts, however, have alerted the killer to his involvement and next he gets a threat of his own. Now, with the clock ticking, Daniel—with no clue what he’s supposed to have done or to what action he must confess—must somehow appease, or outwit, a seemingly unstoppable killer.

I'm not normally a thriller guy, but I do enjoy Gregg's books quite a bit.  Of course, I still haven't read his last one.  I like to read them when I know I'll have lots of time since I never want to put the book down.  That hasn't happened quite yet.

I also find it interesting that this book is set in San Francisco since most of his books are set in Los Angeles.

The book comes out August 20th.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Movie Review: Teen Beach Movie

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun songs and dance numbers, just plain funny
Cons: Cheesy cheesy cheese
The Bottom Line:
Healthy dose of cheese
Proves to still be lots of fun
If in the beach mood

Delightfully Cheesy Trip to the Beach

I don’t follow the Disney Channel as closely as I should.  As a result, I almost missed their recent original movie Teen Beach Movie.  But the chatter I heard made me curious enough I had to give it a try.  I’m glad I did since I wound up really enjoying it.

Mack (Maia Mitchell) and Brady (Ross Lynch) are enjoying a perfect summer living near the beach and surfing every day.  All that comes to a dramatic end when Mack’s aunt Annette shows up to take her to an exclusive boarding school for her final two years of high school.  With the schooling and connections she’ll make there, she’ll be set to move on to a top college and become a huge success in her adult life.  Brady, naturally, doesn’t like the fact that this pretty much means they’ll be breaking up.

The morning that Mack is supposed to leave has record setting surf, and she can’t resist catching the huge waves.  But the next thing she and Brady know, they are transported to…somewhere else.

Brady quickly recognizes it as the 60’s beach movie Wet Side Story, a story about surfers and bikers fighting over a hang out spot.  He’s delighted since it is his favorite movie, but Mack is less than thrilled.  When the two accidentally interrupt the plot of the movie, they realize they have three days to get the plot back on track so they can get home.  Will they be able to do it?

I’ve only ever seen one of the famous beach movies.  Frankly, I thought it was rather cheesy and over the top.  In fact, early on Mack makes a list of all that is wrong with the genre, and I was nodding my head in agreement.  Well, okay, except for the part about people breaking out into random songs since I do love musicals, and that is a feature of the genre.  Anyway, I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, which worried me a little going into an homage/spoof.

And the difference between the real world and the 60’s world of the movie is apparent early on.  The acting was good in the real world, good enough to make me feel sorry for Brady.  But when they arrived in the movie, it was over the top cheese.  Yes, I know it was on purpose and all the actors being it were perfect at capturing the style of acting from those films.  But it took me a little while to get into the film as a result.

But somewhere along the way, I began to enjoy it.  Yes, the movie is predictable.  Yes, the acting stayed cheesy.  But I found myself caring about the outcome of the characters from our world and the characters of the movie.  And since Brady and Mack know they are in the film, the self aware references cracked me up.  The songs and choreography are fun.  They feel like modern versions of the 60’s song styles of the films being spoofed.

When I was officially sold on the film was when it hit the song “Can't Stop Singing.”  It’s a duet between Brady and Mack that horrifies Mack since she is breaking out into random song for no reason.  I was dying.

The film has a few plot holes, like characters suddenly knowing plot points they have no way to have learned.  By the time it happened, I didn’t care.  I was having fun.  There is another hole as well, but it didn’t matter much.

Along the way, Mack is trying to educate the girls in the film that there is more to life than boys, girls can do anything they want, and to do things they enjoy.  The difference between our culture today and the culture of the movies they are spoofing is noticeable.  However, Mack realizes she needs the lesson herself by the end in a moment I loved.

Disney is hoping to recapture the magic in a bottle that was the High School Musical franchise.  I don’t know if they’ve quite done that, but they certainly have an entertaining movie with Teen Beach Movie.  It’s not great cinema, but if you watch it expecting something along the lines of the beach movies from the 60’s, you’ll be very entertained.

What's on Your Nightstand - July 2013

Can you believe we're on the fourth Tuesday of the month already?  I sure can't.  But that means it is time for What's on Your Nightstand, hosted over at 5 Minutes for Books.

Last week, I was reading The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan.  It's her second book about reporter Jane Ryland and Boston detective Jake Brogan.  This time around, Jane is helping a former co-worker find out if she was sent to the wrong woman while trying to track down her birth mother.  Meanwhile, she is also covering a murder that Jake is investigating.  A woman is found murdered.  Two kids under 3, both alive, are in the next room.  It looks like a simple domestic dispute expect the woman has no ID anywhere in the apartment.

I loved the book.  It started fast and never let me go until I reached the end.  Full disclosure, I got the book via Amazon Vine and it isn't out until September.  If you are interested in reading more, here's my full review.

But that's what I was reading.  What's currently on my nightstand?  I'm almost a third of the way through The Last Word, the latest in the Spellman series by Lisa Lutz.  This series is about a dysfunctional family of PI's.  While I don't consider them mysteries but more dysfunctional family comedies, I always enjoy them, and this one is no exception.  These books always fly by way too quickly.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Jane Ryland #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters in an intriguing fast paced story
Cons: I didn’t get to read it all in one sitting.
The Bottom Line:
Jane and Jake are back
With more heart pounding intrigue
You won’t put it down

The Wrong Girl is the Right Book

Last year, I read what I thought was a stand alone mystery by Hank Phillippi Ryan.  Instead, it turns out that it was the start of a new series.  The Wrong Girl is the second book in the series, and I found it stronger than the first.

On a Sunday afternoon in February, Jane Ryland’s former co-worker Tuck calls all upset.  She’s recently tried to get in touch with her birth mother, and is convinced the agency sent her to the wrong woman.  Since Jane is a reporter for a local paper in Boston, she smells a story, and Tuck feels Jane has the resources to help.

Meanwhile, Boston police detective Jake Brogan is called to the scene of a murder.  A young woman has been killed while two children under three-years-old are in the next room.  It appears to be a simple case of a domestic dispute gone bad except the woman has no identification in the apartment at all.  Who is this woman?  Why was she killed?  With Jane covering the murder for the paper, will she still be able to help Tuck?

The first book in the series felt like it had one too many sub-plots happening with part of Jane’s back story she was still facing.  This book doesn’t have that problem at all.  We are thrust into both of these stories from the beginning and it is hard to put the book down.  As I was reading, I kept thinking I’d stop as soon as the next revelation came, but when it did I found myself having to find the answers to the questions it raised.

It helps that we get the story from several different third person points of view.  There are four main ones that help fill us in on various elements of the story.  It’s used perfectly to ramp up the suspense.  And it also is handled perfectly, so we are never confused about whose head we are in on any given page.

Jane and Jake are great main characters who are very appealing all on their own.  I love spending time around them.  The cast of characters that surround them are intriguing and sympathetic, sometimes at the same time.  They all felt like real people long before the book was over, which made me care about the outcome.

 The book clocks in at 364 pages, but it is amazing what is crammed into the story.  Trust me, this book doesn’t feel long at all.  And the short chapters make things fly by that much faster.  Frankly, I didn’t mind at all because I had to know how things were going to end.

The suspense doesn’t let up until the very end, either.  I had to stop at one point with 20 pages left, and it bugged me until I could get back to get the final resolution.

So if you want an intriguing story that will pull you in and not let you go, I can’t recommend The Wrong Girl enough.  You’ll be caught up in the story before you know it.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book through Amazon’s Vine program.

And once you are hooked on this story, you'l want to read the rest of the Jane Ryland Mysteries in order.

Ornament Review: Pigpen Builds a Snowman - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament with a little used Peanuts character.
Cons: Slight tip, but a minor issue
The Bottom Line:
A dusty snowman
Must be the work of Pigpen
Peanuts fans will love

Raising a Cloud of Dust in a Snowstorm

When it comes to franchised pop culture ornaments, Hallmark has a few characters they always go to.  With a few exceptions, Peanuts fans get the same offerings in terms of characters every year.  One of those exceptions came this year with Pigpen Builds A Snowman.

The ornament is pretty much what you'd expect from the title.  It features Pigpen, the character in Peanuts who was always messy, just completely a snowman.  The snowman is three balls of snow with a red scarf, black eyes and mouth, and a carrot sticking out for a nose.  Pigpen himself is wearing all brown and has some smudges of dirt on his face.

And the dirt doesn't just apply to Pigpen.  The snowman seems to have gotten dirty, too, somehow.  He's got a bit of a tan coloring to him with lines all over the place.  You'd think Pigpen built him or something.  There are even dirt smudges on the ground around Pigpen and the snowman.

The one thing the ornament doesn't have is the cloud of dust that is often around Pigpen.  It could have been there, but I think it would have detracted from the ornament instead of making it better.  I prefer it the way it is.

The biggest thing that surprised me is how big the ornament is.  It's just shy of 3 inches high, but for some reason, I was expecting something about three quarters this size.  I'm not complaining because he looks nice this way.  And as a friend pointed out, he is in scale with earlier Peanuts ornaments.

The base of the ornament is nice and flat, which means you could display him year round if you wanted.

But if you want to hang him on your Christmas tree, you'll find the brass hook in the top of the snowman.  Despite the hook being slightly off center, the ornament does tip slightly toward Pigpen.  It's only noticeable when you first pick the ornament up from a table, so by the time you get it in the tree, you'll never know.

Peanuts fan that I am, it's nice to have another character to add to my tree.  The fact that Pigpen Builds A Snowman is so much fun is a wonderful bonus.  And fan of the strip will be happy to add him to their tree.

Original Price: $14.95

TV Show Review: Hey Dude! - Season 4

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun antics of the characters
Cons: Late 80's cheese
The Bottom Line:
More teen staff antics
Are still amusing today
If you're in the mood

More Fun on the Bar None

The last season of Nickelodeon’s comedy Hey Dude! included some cast changes as one of the cast members left and two more were written in to take his place.  While I never quite warm to the new characters the way I do the original, I was surprised to find just how fun season 4 is.

The action takes place on the Bar None, a dude ranch in Arizona.  The ranch is owned by Benjamin Ernst, aka Mr. E. (David Brisbin).  The only other regular adult on the show is Lucy (Debrah Kalman) who is in charge of the stables.  The rest of the cast are the teenagers who are on staff.  There’s Danny the Native American (Joe Torres), Jake who just happens to be Mr. E’s nephew (Jonathan Galkin), Kyle (Geoffrey Coy), Brad who is an expert at horses (Kelly Brown), and Melody the lifeguard (Christine Taylor).  Rounding out the cast is Buddy (Josh Tygiel), Mr. E’s son who is just a little younger than the rest of the cast but is treated as an equal most of the time.

So what is the cast up to in these thirteen episodes?  Brad finds her heart softening when she visits a neighboring ranch that caters to those with disabilities.  Kyle and Brad lead some young kids into the desert for an over night but wind up lost instead  Danny creates a comic strip based on life at the Bar None, and his friends don’t take kindly to their characters.  We meet another neighboring ranch on a couple of different occasions when the Vlecks come to stay with disastrous results.  And Jake and Buddy try to track down the monster in the lake on the ranch.

Then there’s Ted (David Lascher).  He was written out in the middle of the last season when the actor got a part on a different show.  But the show was canceled so he winds up back for three of these episodes.  Of these, the best is easily the season finale with finds Ted and Melody returning from the local infirmary to find everyone on the ranch plotting to kill Mr. E.  What they don’t realize is it is part of a dinner theater.  The results are hilarious.

And, frankly, fun is the name of the game here.  The multi-camera no laugh track format predates the popular sitcoms of today.  The antics of the characters are always funny, and I can’t help but smile if not laugh the entire time I’m watching.  There is plenty of slapstick humor as well as witty lines as the characters tease each other.

All of this is served with a healthy dose of cheese.  These episodes premiered in 1990, but the late 80’s influence is still strong.  You’ve got to be in the right mood to enjoy the episodes, but if you are, you’ll enjoy them.

That also applies to the acting.  It’s a bit over the top and broad, but somehow it fits the show and audience perfectly.  I really can’t imagine this show acted in a more serious way and working as well.

Mr. E. has always been a bit of a goofy character.  If it weren’t for Lucy (who is only in about half the episodes), there would be no serious adult role models.  And yet, I found myself impressed here with several times where they went out of their way to show us that Mr. E. isn’t quite as stupid as he always appears.  He’s still a goof most of the time, but it may be more for show than anything else.

The seasons of this show were super short, so the set consists of thirteen half hour episodes spread out over two discs.  The picture quality and sound are fine.  Yes, it could be sharper and clearer, but it works to give us the show.  Only die hard home theater people will be complaining.  Like the last couple of seasons, there are no extras here.

This show is definitely an acquired taste, but I was just at the age to fall in love with it the few times I watched it with friends as a kid.  So I was very happy to travel back to the Bar None with Hey Dude - Season 4.

Season 4 Episodes:
1. They're Back
2. Ride, She Said
3. Magnum Ernest
4. Dudesbury
5. Fear
6. Secret Admirer
7. Lost in the Desert
8. Return of Ted
9. Do the Right Thing
10. Doghouse Blues
11. Some Like It Hot
12. Mr. Moneybags
13. Murder, He Wrote

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Short stories with logical solutions to make you think
Cons: Shows its age at times
The Bottom Line:
Solve these mysteries
With Encyclopedia
If you’re smart enough

Meeting Old Friends for the First Time

It was recently pointed out to me that Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, the first volume in the long running middle grade mystery series by Donald Sobol was celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  That inspired me to pull my copy out of the garage and give it a reread.  It’s still worth reading or rereading.

For those unfamiliar with the series, each book contains 10 short stories (here they are around 8 pages each).  Encyclopedia, a fifth grader, is presented with a crime or a crime in progress, and he must use his smarts (he gets his nickname since he knows as much as an encyclopedia) to catch the criminal in a lie.  In this book, he helps his dad, the chief of police, about as much as he helps the kids in the neighborhood deal with bullies.

So what kind of cases does Encyclopedia solve?  There’s a thief who was on a cross country road trip when the crime took place.  A bank robbery takes place in town, and Encyclopedia fingers the robbers.  And for the kids in the neighborhood, he proves who really owns a tent, determines if a sword is really from the Civil War, and steps in at an egg spinning contest.

The normal format is a story is presented with all the clues you need to solve it along with Encyclopedia.  He then makes a pronouncement but doesn’t reveal the clue.  For the solution, you have to flip to the back of the book and read it there.  That gives you a chance to solve the case yourself.

I read this book 25+ years ago, and a couple of the stories stuck with me.  In addition to that, I figured out a couple others I didn’t remember.  The rest?  I usually had some clue what was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then I felt stupid for missing the clue.  Yep, I’m still not smarter than a fifth grader.

This being the first book, it’s fun to watch Encyclopedia meet long time nemesis Bugs Meany, head of the neighborhood thugs the Tigers, as well as his partner Sally.  And the very first story is the only one I am aware of in the entire series where the solution is given right in the story and not in the back.  I guess that was to show us the kind of clues we should be looking for to solve the story along with Encyclopedia.  As an interesting note, Wilford Wiggins, who would be a regular antagonist in later books, doesn’t appear here.

Having said that, the characters are rather thin.  This is especially true for the friends Encyclopedia helps who are pretty much interchangeable.  That never bothered me as a kid, and it’s really worth noting only in passing now.

Being 50 years old, some references will definitely be dated, like rubbers or Encyclopedia charging 25 cents a day for his services.  And he opens a savings account when he gets a whopping $3.50.  Still, I don’t think that should matter too much since the heart of the stories is timeless, and the mysteries and clues are as relevant today as ever.

The writing is made up mostly of short sentences.  While I found it a little boring as an adult, it would make a great book for reluctant readers in the target age group.  Again, the writing style never bothered me as a kid.  As an adult, I flew through the book, polishing off the reread in about half an hour.

And I enjoyed revisiting these old friends.  I may still get frustrated for missing the obvious clues, but I have a blast trying to outwit Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.

This review is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Check out Shannon Messenger's blog for what others are talking about.