Saturday, August 31, 2013

TV Show Review: Hey Dude - The Fifth and Final Season

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Many good laughs and enjoyable moments
Cons: A few clunkers, but especially “Baby”
The Bottom Line:
Final Bar None laughs
Standard series weaknesses
Fans will still enjoy

"Are You Going to Help Me, or Are You Going to Drive Me Crazy?"  "I Hate Multiple Choice."

We’ve reached the final season of Hey Dude, the Nickelodeon comedy from 1989-1991 that centered on the teenage staff of a dude ranch over the course of a summer.  This is also the only season to include all the characters in the opening credits.  And while there are still plenty of laughs, the poor episodes are weaker this time around.

I must admit that not many of these shows were familiar to me, which was a bit of a surprise.  True, I was never a faithful watcher of the show, but I did catch quite a few reruns when it was airing on Nickelodeon.  All that meant was I got to enjoy some laughs for the first time.

And the characters are still fun.  There’s senior staff Ted (David Lascher), lifeguard Melody (Christine Taylor), riding instructor Brad (Kelly Brown), and ranch hands Danny (Joe Torres), Jake (Jonathan Galkin), and Kyle (Geoffrey Coy).  Rounding out the cast are ranch owner Benjamin Ernst (David Brisbin), his son Buddy (Josh Tygiel), and Lucy (Debrah Kalman), the adult in charge of the horses.

So what actually happens in these thirteen episodes?  The highlights include the teens inventing a new staff member named Jed and then having to keep the illusion going.  After one practical joke too many, the rest of the group decides to convince Ted that he’s shrinking.  A double date goes very wrong for four of the members of the gang.  When Brad’s father loses his job, she suddenly has to live on what she makes at the Bar None.  And in the series finale, the old staff and the new staff square off in a game of capture the flag to determine who gets to be senior staff next summer.

On the other hand, there are some episodes where the show just doesn’t work so well.  Mr. E. getting amnesia was one of those.  It was almost funny, but it was more painful than funny.  But the worst episode involved a mother leaving one of her twins behind at the ranch because she is so forgetful.  Yes, the characters interacting with the baby was fun, but I never could get past the premise.

The show is definitely a product of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  A couple of the guys sport mullets.  Their clothes scream the time period.  And one episode finds Ted trying to earn extra money so he can buy a tricked out tape and CD player.  I just had to laugh at that one, although the episode was good.

Now if I’m being honest, I’ll freely admit that none of these episodes break any new ground.  Even though I hadn’t seen them before, I could predict what was going to happen early on.  It’s a sitcom, unexpected plot twists just aren’t the genre’s specialty.

Likewise, the acting is still bad.  The main cast’s acting works, although it is a bit over the top.  But the guest stars can really be bad.  This is especially true in an episode that finds Jake having to fight a bully.  Wow was there some overacting there.

But if you grew up with the show, none of that will matter.  These characters are old friends, and I enjoyed getting to visit with them again.  This is a single camera comedy, which means no laugh track, but I still found myself laughing at their antics.  It’s still entertaining, and that’s all that matters.

Those who have bought the previous sets will know what to expect here.  We’ve got 13 episodes on two discs, just like always.  And just like always, the shows are in full frame, stereo, with no extras.  But if you want to watch this show again, you’ll snap it up.

And if you have fond memories of the show, you’ll enjoy catching the final adventures of the Bar None gang.  While there are a few clunkers, there is still fun to be had in Hey Dude Season Five.

Season 5 Episodes:
1. Miss Tucson
2. The Legend of Jed
3. Incredible Shrinking Ted
4. Rest in Pieces
5. Baby
6. Jealous Guy
7. Amnesia
8. Presumed Stupid
9. Crush
10. Low Budget Brad
11. Jake's Fight
12. Double Date
13. War

Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish by Dorothy Gilman (Mrs. Pollifax #9)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Mrs. Pollifax is back in top form
Cons: Some descriptive passages might slow things down, but never for very long
The Bottom Line:
Morocco danger
Mrs. P. back in top form
Fun on ev’ry page

Mrs. Pollifax Races Across Morocco

While I try my best to read a series in order, I go for the sampling approach when it comes to book on tape (now CD).  I’ll take whatever my library has available when I’m ready to take a trip.  So it was that, back in 1996, I made Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish my introduction to the series.  Did I like it?  Well, I read the first five books in the series that summer.

If you haven’t met Mrs. Pollifax, she’s a grandmother, widow, garden club member, and part time CIA agent.  As crazy as it sounds, she is very good at it, using her determination and resourcefulness to get herself and her companions out of some wild situations.

The series was written over the course of roughly 35 years.  While Mrs. Pollifax ages a year or two, every book is set in the world stage when it is set.  This book originally came out in 1990, and it finds the focus shifting to northern Africa and a post Cold War world.

It’s a gloomy January day, and Mrs. Pollifax is feeling depressed.  More than anything, she’s wishing for an assignment from Carstairs.  And just then, Bishop calls asking if she is available.  They have an agent all set to journey through Morocco visiting seven members of a spy chain they have making sure that none of them have been replaced by an imposter.  But something about the agent’s picture doesn’t sit right with Carstairs, so he wants Mrs. Pollifax to go along and help smooth any rough edges.

When Mrs. Pollifax arrives, she is not met at the airport and finds her co-agent most disagreeable.  They identify the first agent in the network, but he is dead within the hour.  Can Mrs. Pollifax trust her co-agent?  Will she get out alive?

The previous couple of books in the series are some of the weakest.  They grow a little dark and Mrs. Pollifax seems to lose some of her spunk.  But she’s back in top form here.  While there is plenty of danger and suspense, I found myself laughing at a few of her lines and observations as the book progressed.  And her resourcefulness is back, too.  Yes, she loses it occasionally, but who wouldn’t given all that takes place in the book.

Don’t let the 200 plus page size fool you – there is a lot packed into this book.  That means the story is always moving forward.  Plus we get a few twists along the way.  And we get some classic scenes back at CIA headquarters as Carstairs and Bishop have to react to half the story and try to help blindly from half way around the world.  I always enjoy those.

Along the way, we also get a look at the culture and the political situation at the time.  At least I assume it is accurate – I’ve never researched to see how much was fact and how much was fiction to help the story along.  Anyway, there are some descriptions of the countryside that Mrs. Pollifax is passing through and the towns and villages she visits.  It’s never enough to really slow things down and it gives us a real sense of place, something I have always loved about these books.

The downside of this series is that there are few recurring characters.  But author Dorothy Gilman always makes up for it with a new batch of charming friends and dastardly foes in every book.  This is no exception.  By the time you reach the end, you’ll love many of them.

So, do I recommend you jump in here like I did?  Actually, no.  While you certainly could (I did after all) there are more than the occasional vague reference to past adventures.  A character from the last book actually plays a part in this story, so it’s best read in order.  So travel back to the late 1960’s and The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax to find out how her adventures began.

If you do, you’ll fall under the spell of Mrs. Pollifax and be reading Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish before you know it.  I will always be thankful for this book since it introduced me to the delightful series.

Looking for even more adventures?  You'll find them in the Mrs. Pollifax Series in order.

This review is part of Friday's Forgotten Books.  Follow the link to see what else people are reading.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

August 30th Book Beginnings and Friday 56

We've made it through the week.  Time to celebrate with Book Beginnings and Friday 56!

This week, I'm reading A Spoonful of Murder by Connie Archer.  And here's the first sentence:

"I know you worry about me, Mom, but you don't have to."

Yes, that is the main character, not the murder victim saying that.

And, from page 56 we get:

Janie reached out and put her hand protectively over Meg's.  Meg was trying hard to regain control.

The book itself?  It's a bit slow overall, but I'm trying to keep an open mind about it.  I'm about 100 pages in, so we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

August 28th's Waiting on Wednesday

It's Wednesday, so that means it's time for Waiting on Wednesday as hosted by Breaking the Spine.

This week, I'm featuring Exile, the second Keeper of the Lost Cities novel by Shannon Messenger.

The first book found Sophie discovering her life wasn't real and she was really an elf.  In fact, there is a whole other world filled with magic hidden around the world we know, and she's part of it.  But she also has powers she will need to develop quickly because there is danger in her new realm, and she is a key to stopping it.

Yeah, the premise might sound familiar, but trust me, the series heads off in some new and exciting directions.  And the characters are absolutely wonderful.

But I'm reviewing the first book.  That's partially because I don't know much about the second.  I'm trying to stay as spoiler free as I can.  But trust me on this, as soon as I can get my hands on a copy of this book, I will dive back into Sophie's world.

Exile is aimed at a middle grade audience and is available October 1st

Monday, August 26, 2013

What's on My Nightstand - August 2013

August is winding down, so it is time once again for What's on Your Nightstand.

I've been going through books rather quickly this month.  I recently went through a couple of middle grade novels.  I loved Riley Mack Stirs Up More Trouble by Chris Grabenstein (link takes you to my review).  On the other hand, I was disappointed with my reread of Trixie Belden #23: The Mystery of the Queen's Necklace.  Granted, it was never one of the stronger books in the series, but it was even weaker than I remembered.

Last week, I spent most of the week on Final Sentence by Daryl Wood Gerber, the first in the Cookbook Nook Mysteries.  It's a typical cozy, this time featuring a cookbook book store, so you get food and books for the theme.  I enjoyed the book and am very much looking forward to reading the next in the series next year.  In the mean time, I can get caught up on the author's books written under the pen name Avery Ames.  I've read the first in that series.

Right now, I'm rereading Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, which part time CIA agent caught up in some serious danger and intrigue in Morocco.  This was my introduction to the character and the series, and I'm enjoying it just as much now as I did the first time through.  And this is definitely a favorite series of mine, as anyone who reads the series will quickly figure out.  (Hint, Carstairs comes from the series.)  My review for this one will be up on Friday as part of Friday's Forgotten Books.

I should finish this on my lunch hour today.  So what's next?  That's a good question.  I've got another couple cozy culinary mysteries I could read.  Those are A Spoonful of Murder or You Cannoli Die Once.  Other options would include Mayhem at the Orient Express and Dead Man's Switch.  Any recommendations from those four?

Book Review: Final Sentence by Daryl Wood Gerber (Cookbook Nook Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Plenty of twists and turns and likeable main characters
Cons: Some timing issues and a story element I didn’t quite buy
The Bottom Line:
Series starts cooking
With fun plot, great characters
Cozy fans rejoice

Cookbooks are Murder, Too

Just when you think they can’t find any new culinary theme for a cozy mystery series, along comes Final Sentence.  This is the first in the Cookbook Nook Mysteries, which is set in a cookbook store with an attached cafĂ©.  Yep, we’re combining two popular cozy themes, book and food.  The result was pleasing to my mystery palette.

Jenna Hart needs a change of pace, so she is leaving behind a successful advertising career in San Francisco to move home to Crystal Cove, on the central California coast.  She is helping her aunt Vera open up a bookstore focusing on cookbooks.  For their grand opening, they’ve got Desiree, Jenna’s college roommate and a popular host of a Food Network show.

Desiree is very high maintenance and pushy, usually getting her own way.  But Jenna doesn’t expect to discover Desiree murdered on the beach the morning after Desiree arrives in town.  With the local busy body ready to proclaim Jenna guilty to anyone who will listen, Jenna decides to find the killer herself to clear her name.  But who did Desiree irritate enough to kill her?

The first couple of chapters were establishing characters and setting.  They were certainly needed, but at the end of the second chapter, the first twist appeared, and the plot was off and running after that.  It never really slowed with plenty of more surprises before reaching a logical and suspenseful conclusion.

The main characters were appealing as well.  I liked them and enjoyed spending time with them.  There is a large cast, so they could be better developed, but I certainly look forward to getting to know them better as the series progresses.  The suspects were strong as well, which helped make me care about the outcome.

The book does have a few weaknesses.  Combined, they bothered me, but by themselves they wouldn’t have been that bad.  First, Jenna learns some family history in this book that is part of the events of the story.  I just found it hard to believe she didn’t already know this.  After all, Crystal Cove is supposed to be a small town.  I can’t believe this never came up while she was growing up.

Second, there are a couple of minor timing issues with the story.  We’re talking about clues that don’t quite seem to fit the timeline as has been explained to us before but everyone in the story takes it at face value.  The timing wasn't important to the plot, and someone who doesn’t obsess over time won’t even notice.  (And if I can ever figure out why time matters so much to me in a story, I’ll be happy.)

Finally, there’s Jenna’s dad who seems to be the weakest of the main characters.  I really hope he gets more development and a better part in the cast in future books.

As is usual in culinary themed books, there are a few recipes in the back to try.  We get 5, and they are mostly mouth watering cookie recipes.

And the book drops titles of both other culinary mysteries as well as cookbooks.  While I’m not familiar with the later, I had fun looking for other mysteries I’ve read or at least heard of before.

Despite the weaknesses I mentioned, I really did enjoy the book.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Jenna and cooks up next for Cookbook store.  Those looking for a new series will enjoy Final Sentence.

As a final note, for those who don’t know, Daryl Wood Gerber is the real name of author Avery Ames.  Under that name, she writes the Cheeseshop Mysteries.  Fans of that series will want to look for an Easter Egg on the cover of this novel.

Enjoy this book?  You'll want to read the rest of the Cookbook Nook Mysteries in order.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ornament Review: Cinderelly! Cinderelly! - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Good ornament made great by the song clip
Cons: A little plain, very slight tip
The Bottom Line:
Would have passed it by
With song took a second look
Really glad I did

We Can Do It, We Can Do It, We Can Make a Great Ornament

A couple years ago, Hallmark released an ornament I hoped would be the start of an unofficial series.  It was Cinderella with a scene from the movie on her dress; it even played a song.  I was hoping they would do similar things for other movies.  However, they have revisited the idea with 2013's Cinderelly! Cinderelly!  And it's proving to be a popular ornament this year.

This ornament is an actual scene from the movie.  As you might guess from the title, it's when the animals, mainly the mice, are working on Cinderella's dress - the first one that her step-sisters destroy.  This dress is mostly pink with some blue showing down at the bottom.  And we've got a mouse up at the top working on it.  One of the female mice.  I must admit it's been so long since I've seen the film that if they have names, I don't know what they are.  Anyway, this particular mouse is dressed all in blue and is standing where the head would be on the dress.  There's a blue bird on each shoulder, and they are holding a ribbon.  While most of the ornament is plastic, the ribbon is real ribbon.

And this is a magic ornament.  Hallmark uses that to denote ornaments with sound, light, motion, or some combination of the three.  In this case, the ornament has sound.  When you pressed the button the right hand side, you get just about 20 seconds of "The Work Song," the song the mice sing while sewing this dress.  It's a great clip, although it will get the song stuck in your head the rest of the day.  It's a catchy one.  The sound quality is good and the voices sure sound like the original to me, although I must admit it's been a few years since I watched it.

I normally praise the detail on ornaments I like, and in this case there isn't much to praise.  It's a dress.  There are some nice pleats at the bottom, but that's about it.  The animals at the top do look very nice, but they are small.  Still, I really do love this ornament, and it all has to do with the song.  I wouldn't have even touched it otherwise, but it brings a smile to my face and makes this a must get ornament for this DisNerd.

The speaker for the sound is on the bottom, so there are three small knobs down there to keep the bottom off the ground.  They also allow the ornament to stand on any flat surface.  Also on the bottom, you'll find the area to insert the batteries you need to get the song to work.  It takes two button batteries, and your first set comes with the ornament.

But what if you want to hang the ornament?  The ring is located behind the fake head of the dress dummy that the dress is hanging on.  With it back there, I was worried this ornament would really tip forward, but it doesn't.  It tips slightly, but it's not enough to be a problem.  Only the most picky will notice, especially when you have it mixed in with branches on your Christmas tree.

I'm not the only one who loved Cinderelly! Cinderelly!  This ornament sold out quickly during premier back in July and several of the stores around me are still waiting for reorders to come in.  If you love the movie and the ornament appeals to you, I suggest hunting down a copy sooner rather than later.  I think it's going to stay hot.

Original Price: $19.95

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cookie Review: Keebler Cheesecake Middles

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Sweet chocolate taste
Cons: Not quite cheesecake flavor

The Bottom Line:
Delicious cookies
Sweet cheesecake and chocolate
Delight for your tongue

Addicting Small Bites of Cheesecake Sweetness

Last year, I discovered Keebler's Cheesecake Middles cookies.  Being a fan of cheesecake, I had to give them a try.  Like I needed another cookie to be tempted to buy.

These cookies are small yet delicious.  They have a hard graham cracker base.  The bottom is covered in chocolate.  The middle of the cookie has an indentation, and it is filled with a cheesecake filling.  Finally, chocolate is drizzled on the top.

When I say they are small, we’re talking two inches in diameter.  It's not as big as I normally picture a cookies being.  But that just means there are more cookies per package, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It means you can have one or two as a treat and not have too many calories.

Well maybe.  A serving size is three cookies, or a tenth of a package.  That gives you 130 calories, almost half of them from fat.  And there are no nutrients to speak of, so there's no benefit with those calories you just consumed.

And that's hardly surprising when you look at the ingredients.  The first one is sugar.  Then you've got flour and vegetable oil and on down the list.  Lots of things I can't pronounced there, so they have to be bad for you.

But they are cookies.  Who cares about all that stuff?  The real question is how do they taste?  They taste wonderful.  They are a bit on the sweet side to truly be cheesecake, at least in my opinion.  But they do definitely have a cheesecake taste.  Pepperidge Farms take note – these cookies are much closer to a cheesecake taste than anything of yours I’ve tried.  And the chocolate is a nice touch.  Remember how I said you could just have one or two?  Fat chance.  I eat these cookies and quickly lose track of how many I’ve had.  They are just so delicious.

The chocolate runs fairly easily.  I always get it on my hands when I’m eating these.  And if it is warm out when I buy them, they stick together easily even before I open the package.  Just have a napkin or two at the ready when you eat them.

I’m still searching for a cookie that truly captures cheesecake, but in the meantime I will continue to enjoy Keebler's Cheesecake Middles cookies.  It’s hard to go wrong with these sweet chocolaty treats.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review: The Mystery of the Queen's Necklace by Kathryn Kenny (Trixie Belden #23)

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: A few scenes and some supporting characters in the second half
Cons: The rest of the book
The Bottom Line:
Merry ole England
Proves disappointing entry
Die hard fans only

Across the Pond for a Disappointing Trip

I belong to a couple of message boards for the Trixie Belden mystery series, and the general conscientious is that The Mystery of the Queen's Necklace is a disappointing book.  While never one of my favorites, I thought it was average for the series.  But a recent reread has made me realized just how flawed it is.

This is book twenty-three in the series that stars fourteen-year-old Trixie Belden, a detective in training, and her family and friends.  Most of them stay home this time, so it’s just her brother Mart, her best friend Honey Wheeler, Honey’s adopted brother Jim, and their chaperone Miss Trask who are around for this book.

Trixie is excited when Honey’s family extends an invitation to visit England Officially, they are going to track down Honey’s mother’s family tree with a possible connection to Shakespeare and also try to find out about a necklace that Honey just inherited from a great aunt.  But that should leave them with plenty of time for sight seeing, too.

And it’s the sight seeing that gets them into trouble.  While touring London, Trixie spots a pick pocket.  And then she starts seeing him everywhere he goes.  Meanwhile, Trixie doesn’t trust their new guide even though everyone else in the group loves him.  What is going on?

Okay, so one of the problems with the book is the topic.  Genealogy and a necklace as the genesis of a mystery aimed at middle graders?  This is an idea that should have been nipped in the bud long before it got written.  I mean, how exciting can it be to read about someone searching for old relatives in libraries.

Wisely, most of the research happens off page by Miss Trask.  But still, the book becomes a long travelogue.  The plot consists of Trixie saying something is mysterious and everyone else in the group telling her she is imagining things.  Rinse and repeat with the occasional other character thinking that maybe Trixie has a point.  The plot doesn’t really lead anywhere until we reach the climax, and then things are so rushed that a few major pieces of the story are not wrapped up completely.

But at least we’re spending time with Trixie and her friends, right?  In some cases, that might be enough to help us along, but here it doesn’t quite work either.  None of the main cast really feels like themselves, but poor Trixie is the worst.  When she is not busy complaining about the cold reception they are getting from the British, she is behaving like a clueless American tourist.  Really, it’s just embarrassing.  Fortunately, that dies down about half way through.

And don’t get me started on poor Miss Trask who has to endure a repeated sub-plot brought over from the last book.

Fortunately, there are a few scenes I really enjoy and in the second half we meet some new supporting characters I really like.  The climax is not to be missed, and Miss Trask plays a big part in it.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite scenes with this character in the series.

Unfortunately, those little bits aren’t enough to help ease the book up to average, which is how I originally thought of it as a kid.  Looking at it now as an adult, I find The Mystery of the Queen's Necklace to be pretty disappointing.

Definitely don't pick this book up until you've read earlier books from the Trixie Belden Mysteries in order.

This is an entry in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.  Come see what else people are reading.

August 23rd Book Beginnings and Friday 56

Welcome to this week's Book Beginnings and Friday 56.

I actually finished the book I'm featuring this week just about an hour and a half ago.  Final Sentence is the first in a new cozy mystery series.  The review will be coming up by Monday.

And it starts like this:

"Aunt Vera, stop twirling me," I yelled. 
But she didn't.  She continued to spin me in a circle.

And from page 56, we get:

"You and the masseur don't like each other," I said stating the obvious. 
"He's a jerk."

I enjoyed the book.  As I said, there will be a full review coming at some point in the next few days.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ornament Review: A Visit From Santa #5 - Squirrel - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Cute ornament
Cons: Scale not quite right for others in series, tips, squirrel faces away from us
The Bottom Line:
Squirrel and a nut
A very merry Christmas
For animal friend

You’d Be Nuts to Pass up Santa’s Visit with a Squirrel

Of the series Hallmark has going that involve a character with various animals, the only one I collect is A Visit From Santa.  Now in its fifth year, it continues to be a cute series.

For the fifth year, we get a squirrel.  The squirrel is sitting on Santa’s out stretched right arm, and Santa is holding a nut in his left hand.  This is the first time in the series that Santa has offered a treat to his animal friend, and I like that touch.

Santa himself is decked out in mostly red with some white fringes.  He looks a bit old school and certainly not like modern depictions, although his is slender.  There is some rose to his cheeks and a bit of a smile on his lips, however.  He is wearing a green belt and there is a green fringe to his overcoat, and it is accented by leaves this year.

The one serious issue I have with this ornament is that the squirrel is facing Santa.  That means his back is pretty much to us.  It's a shame since he has a cute fact, but you really have to turn the ornament around to see it.  Seems a shame we can't see all sides of this one.

Even with the tips of Santa’s feet sticking out at the bottom, this ornament still has a nice flat base.  As a result, it’s no surprise that is sits flat.  This has been a feature of the series.  You’ll also find a 5 in a Christmas tree on the bottom.

In the top of Santa’s hat is a loop for hanging the ornament.  As with some others in this series, Santa learns forward noticeably.  It's not horrible, but you can certainly see it even if you aren't looking for it.

Of course, we already knew that Santa was a magical man, but this series proves it.  He is the same size in every ornament in the series, but the squirrel is a bit bigger than he should be, especially compared to the polar bear that was the first in the series.  But that just means that Santa changes size for each of his animal friends, right?  It was the same with the snowy owl a couple years back.

But I’m just being nit picky again.  2013's entry in the Visit from Santa series is another winner fans of the series and animals in general will appreciate.

(And I hope you’re proud of me.  I made it completely through the review without one reference to the squirrel jokes in Pixar’s Up.)

Be sure to check out the rest of the Visits from Santa.

Original Price: $12.95

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Movie Review: Jonah - A Veggietales Movie

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Veggie fun and a good moral in this Biblical retelling
Cons: Animation could be better
The Bottom Line:
Bible story told
With humor and vegetables
Fun for everyone

Forgiveness, Mercy, Second Chances, and a Whale

It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since the computer animated vegetables of VeggieTales first made the leap from direct to home video to the big screen.  I caught Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie again recently, and it is still very fun.

While the focus of the movie is indeed the Biblical story of Jonah, there is a wrap around story as well.  My theory is they use it to incorporate more of the familiar characters in the story.  Anyway, the movie opens with Bob the Tomato (voiced by Phil Vischer) and Dad Asparagus (Dan Anderson), taking a group of kids to see Twippo, a huge kids’ singer.  Laura Carrot (Kristin Blegen) is rubbing in the fact that she has a special ticket she can use to meet him after the concert.  But when things go wrong, they wind up at an out of the way sea food restaurant run by the French Peas.

It’s there they run into the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.  When the trio of Larry the Cucumber (Mike Nawrocki), Pa Grape, and Mr. Lunt (both Phil Vischer) hear the bickering, they decide to tell them of the one time they actually did something.

And that’s how we are introduced to Jonah (Archibald Asparagus).  When God calls him to go preach repentance to the Ninevites, he can’t stand the thought.  Those heathens actually slap people with fishes!  So he tries to run away aboard the ship of the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.  But when a storm comes up, will his sin be discovered?

So, obviously, they’ve changed what the citizens of Nineveh did to upset God.  But how could they discuss the horrible sins that were committed in a video aimed at pre-schoolers?  It actually makes for some rather funny scenes, and I’m more than willing to forgive this change.

Especially since they get so much else right.  While still incorporating the trademark Veggie humor, they hit the rest of the notes right.  That includes the real ending of the book – where Jonah doesn’t really want God’s compassion and mercy to be extended to the citizens of Nineveh.

And the humor?  We’ll, they’ve got a pretty fun Jaws spoof at one point (that might frighten small kids for a few moments only) and this video also introduced Khalil, a caterpillar (well, that is only half true) that still makes very rare cameos in the VeggieTales library.

Most of the voices are done by two guys, and they do an amazing job.  You might guess if you didn’t know, but for the most part, these are distinct voices.  Plus, they let you get lost in the story, and that’s all that really matters.

Then there are the fun songs.  Okay, a couple of them are a bit cheesy, but the song that Anointed sings while Jonah is in the whale is so much fun.  And watch the credits because the two songs that play there are a blast as well.

So let’s talk about the weakness – the animation.  If you are expecting Pixar quality work, you’ll be disappointed.  The biggest weakness is the water, which never looks quite right to me.  While there are no beautiful money shots, the animation never gets in the way of the story but helps tell it expertly.

While they don’t have a Bible verse summary at the end, the moral of the story comes through loud and clear, especially in the song that they sing before the credit roll.  And it’s a good reminder no matter how old you are that we should pass on the second chances God has given us to those around us.

So no matter you age, you should watch Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.  You’ll find fun, adventure, and a lesson we all need to remember.

August 21st - Waiting on Wednesday

Welcome to Wednesday and Waiting on Wednesday.  This weekly event hosted by Breaking the Spine gives us a chance to highlight a book coming soon we're looking forward to reading.

And this week, I'm highlighting NERDS: Book Five: Attack of the BULLIES by Michael Buckley.

This is a middle grade fantasy spy comedy of sorts.  It is the final book about a group of kids who have been given upgrades that make their former weaknesses into special powers they can use to fight criminals all over the world.

I really can't say too much without giving away some twists from the last book, but let's just say there was a good cliffhanger and I'm wondering how he can wrap things up in one book.  Since he did it with The Sisters Grimm series, I'm sure he can do it here.

If you've missed this series, you're really missing out.  Read them all and pass them on to the kids in your life.  They'll enjoy them, too.  Here's my review of the first one, simply called NERDS.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ornament Review: Wicket and Teebo - Star Wars #17 - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great detail of two fun characters
Cons: Out of scale to rest of series; Wicket tips
The Bottom Line:
Wicket and Teebo
A duo of ornaments
So cute and deadly

Two Lovable Ewoks, I Mean Ornaments

I know there is a faction in Star Wars fandom that doesn't like the Ewoks.  I'm not part of that group.  In fact, I find these guys from Return of the Jedi to be very cute and a whole lot of fun.  They make what could be a retread scene for the climax actually fun.  So I was excited when I learned that, as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of Return of the Jedi, Hallmark would add Wicket And Teebo to their Star War ornament line.

Now, this isn't the first time that Hallmark has released Ewoks.  They released a trio of miniature Ewok ornaments back in 1998.  But I'm not a big fan of the miniature ornaments, so I never tracked that set down when I started collecting a few years back.  So as far as I am concerned, this was the first chance to get Ewoks.

The is actually a set of two ornaments, so each Ewok is a separate ornament.  Let's look at Wicket first.  He's the smaller of the two, but he's holding a spear straight up, so the two pieces around about the same height.  He's mostly tan and brown with a reddish brown wrap over his head and upper body.

Teebo is holding his spear sticking out, so he's actually the wider of the two ornaments.  He's black with gray stripes and has a rhinoish mask on his head.  He also has a pouch and a horn slung over his shoulders.

Okay, I must confess I'm not enough of a Star Wars geek to know who they are by name.  However, I immediately did recognize them as key Ewoks from the film.  The detail on these ornaments is nice as always.  And I really like the fact that these are two separate pieces instead of trying to create a scene where they are together.

Of course, since these are full sized ornaments, that does mean they are out of scale with the rest of the releases from the official Star Wars series.  They aren't as big as some of the other releases, but they are certainly bigger than they should be.  It doesn't bother me, but it might bother some purists.

This is the release in the official Star Wars Hallmark ornament series for 2013.  The biggest thing I was wondering was which ornament would get the honor of having the 17 in the Christmas tree to show they are part of the official line.  And the answer is…both of them.  The feet on both of the ornaments has the marking as well as the copyright information.

Speaking of feet, they will both stand on their own.  Teebo seems to lean a bit when you first set him down, but he is stable in that position.  And it gives him a look of being in action about to stab someone.  Wicket stands up straight with no problem.

The issue of balance goes the other way when you go to hang the ornaments.  Teebo hangs perfectly straight, but it's Wicket who tips slightly to the right.  It's noticeable, but it's not enough to ruin the ornaments for me.

This was the biggest gap in my Star Wars ornament collection, and I'm glad to have it filled.  Wicket And Teebo will have a place of honor for many years to come.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Star Wars ornament series

Original Price: $17.95

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Book Review: Riley Mack Stirs Up More Trouble by Chris Grabenstein (Riley Mack #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great story well woven together
Cons: Characters could be stronger, but it’s minor
The Bottom Line:
Two distinct stories
Brought together for great whole
Kids will love reading

Riley Mack Stirs Up More Trouble…For the Bad Guys

While I haven’t read many of author Chris Grabenstein’s books aimed at middle grader readers, I did enjoy his first book about Riley Mack last year.  Riley is a seventh grader who has a brain for schemes.  Fortunately, he uses that power for good when he sees a wrong that needs to be righted.  And he and his friends are back for a second adventure in Riley Mack Stirs Up More Trouble, which was a pure delight.

It’s the closing weeks of school, and Riley Mack’s middle school is part of a city wide talent show competition.  His friend Briana is a shoe in to win, however they also hear about a group of girls who are planning to sabotage another act.  Can they figure out a way to stop them?

While that caper doesn’t quite turn out how Riley envisioned, he and his friends soon have other fish to fry when they find a chain link fence blocking the path to their favorite swimming hole and a foul stench coming from the stream that feeds it.  Can they find the source?  Or will that only complicate matters?

Since Riley is leading his friends in some pretty wile schemes, this feels to me like a caper in some ways.  It might bother some parents that the kids are lying and breaking and entering, but honestly, they only do that to the bad guys, and it is a staple in kid’s books.  (Adult mystery novels, too, at least in the genres I normally read.)

But there is also a mystery to the plot when the characters encounter the fence and must figure out why it is there.  And that just leads them down a few more paths.  The talent show and stream mysteries are combined for a perfect climax.  In fact, the climax was so suspenseful my heart was racing, hoping Riley could pull the ultimate caper off in time to save the day.  And since it had turned personal for Riley by that point, I cared quite a bit about the outcome, too.

The weakness here is the characters.  There is some development to them, but not much.  However, in the last couple of years, I’ve realized just how flat some of the characters I grew up loving really are.  I think this is a case of an adult expecting too much from a middle grade novel.  I know as a kid, I would have eaten this book up.  I’m sure today’s kids will, too.

While one of the characters does like to use big, obscure words, kids should be able to figure out what they mean in context if they are not defined.  Other then that, I don’t see anything that will trip them up writing wise.  I know I read it quickly.

With a plot this fun and well done, it is a pleasure to recommend Riley Mack Stirs Up More Trouble.  Here’s hoping he finds even more trouble soon so I can witness his antics again.

This review is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Come see what else everyone else is recommending.

Friday, August 16, 2013

August 16th's Book Beginnings and Friday 56

I should be in bed right now, but instead I'm here to share Book Beginnings and Friday 56 with you.

This week's book is Riley Mack Stirs Up More Trouble, a middle grade book by Chris Grabenstein.  I should finish it at lunch time today, and I've really been enjoying it.  It's a mystery/caper that is lots of fun and really well done.  But I'll have my official review up on Monday as part of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Come back then and check it out.

Meanwhile, the book prologue starts like this:

Savannah Munholland sat staring at the extremely strange message her fellow fifth grader Jamal Wilson had handed her right before she stepped into the room to server her first ever detention:
If anyone asks, you wrote the letter.

And, because that's the kind of guy I am, here's Chapter 1:

Riley Mack's extraordinarily awesome talents weren't the kind he could showcase on TV or at a school talent show.  If he did, he might end up in detention hall.  For life.

And, skipping ahead of page 56, we get:

"Wow," said Tony Peroni.  "That was incredible!  I mean that.  Sincerely.  That's the act to beat, boys and girls!"

So there you go, three snippets.  Come back on Monday for a bit more about the book.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: Sprinkle with Murder by Jenn McKinlay (Cupcake Bakery Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good story and intriguing characters
Cons: Doesn’t quite live up to hype by others
The Bottom Line:
High expectations
Were not quite met by debut
Can see growth coming

Deadly Treat

While I wasn’t paying attention to food trends (like I ever do), gourmet cupcakes have become the newest fade.  I’ve actually visited two shops since the first of the year.  If only I liked frosting more, I might be in serious trouble.

What does that have to do with books?  I’m glad you asked.  Back in 2010, a cozy series started set in a gourmet cupcake bakery.  After hearing people rave about the series in the last few months, I finally read Sprinkle with Murder, the first in the series.

Mel’s dream has come true.  Along with one of her best friends, she has opened a cupcake bakery in the heart of Scottsdale, Arizona.  Business is taking off, so much so that the owner of a general bakery across town has taken to driving by multiple times a day to see how business is going.

The only dark cloud in Mel’s world is her other best friend Tate.  Tate is engaged to Christie, a horrid woman who is selfish and demanding, to be charitable.  So it’s hardly surprising when Mel arrives to an early morning meeting with Christie to find Christie dead.  But when the police rule it murder and quickly start looking at Mel as the killer, she must jump into action to clear her name and save her business.  Can she do it?

After the raves I’ve been hearing, I think my expectations were a tad too high.  To me this felt like a typical first in a cozy series.  We’re introduced to the characters and there’s a murder.  There was nothing wrong with the book and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the standout people were raving about.

The plot was certainly good.  It started quickly (in fact, I had two potential murder victims by the end of the first chapter since I hadn’t read the back of the book).  The killer wasn’t obvious, but the solution was logical and exciting.  The red herrings kept me delightfully confused along the way.

The characters were interesting.  All of them felt real, although a few could have been fleshed out better.  I liked the main characters, which definitely makes me want to find out more about them.

And all this was accomplished in just over 200 pages.  It’s actually quite impressive when you think about it since this is 100 fewer pages than most of the books I read.  For cupcake lovers, there are four recipes, including frosting, for cupcakes mentioned in the book.  Sadly, the one I most wanted the recipe for wasn’t back there.  Maybe in a future title in the series?

Which brings me back to my earlier thoughts.  In many ways, this feels like a pilot for a TV series.  We’re introduced to the characters and some on going stories are set in motion.  If the character development continues over the course of the series, I can certainly see why people rave about it now.  But it’s rare I fall for a TV series in the pilot, and that was the case here.  I’m certain intrigued enough to give it another go, and I’ve already bought book two.  I’ll definitely be back to visit Mel again.

In the meantime, I’ve been curious about the series for a while, so I am glad I read Sprinkle with Murder.  This is a good debut that certainly hints at a fun series to come.

If you need to read the series as well, here's the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries in order.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Review: The Survivor by Gregg Hurwitz

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful characters, strong plot, stronger writing
Cons: None for me
The Bottom Line:
A suspenseful plot
Characters are fully drawn
Makes for a great read

Foiled Bank Robbery Gone Horribly Wrong

I have learned when it comes to Gregg Hurwitz’s books that I need to allow lots of time.  They are pulse pounding books that I always want to read in as few sitting as possible.  That’s why I’ve been putting off The Survivor for eleven months, but a recent trip to Wisconsin for a friend’s wedding gave me the perfect opportunity to read it.

Convinced he has nothing left to live for, Nate Overbay has crawled out on the ledge of an eleven story building to jump to his death.  He’s outside of a bank, one billed as the safest in all of LA because the height gives it added security.

And yet, before Nate can jump, he finds the bank being robbed by some vicious men.  He can’t stand there, so he sneaks back inside and saves the day.  Unfortunately, that puts Nate and his family on the radar of some very evil men.  Can Nate get them what they want and keep his family safe?

I was a bit surprised to find this book wasn’t quite as pulse pounding as I was expecting.  While there was always danger, I didn’t find it quite as relentless as the last couple of his books I’ve read.

However, the characters always more than made up for it.  I started the book before I left on the trip, and I was bawling at some back story we got by page 75.  Since I was staying with the groom and his groomsmen at the wedding, I was worried how I would react in front of them.  Fortunately, they were gone when I read a scene near the end that also moved me to tears.  Obviously, I think the characters were great.  The villains were pure evil, maybe a little too evil?  But don’t tell them I said that.  I don’t want them coming after me.

As a result, this thriller is definitely not for the faint of heart.  It’s far a field from my normal cozies, but I enjoyed it for a change of pace.

Really, this book is the perfect marriage of a thriller plot with developed characters.  I know that characters often get sacrificed in favor of plot in a thriller, but that’s not the case here.  Even when you can predict character moments, they are still wonderfully done and make the plot that much more meaningful as it unfolds.  The stakes are certainly high in the story, and I did always want to keep reading to find out how Nate would handle the next twist to the plot.

All of this is held together by wonderfully descriptive writing.  I realized part way through that we were getting moments of description that used all five senses.  I was right there with Nate for every moment of the book.  It stood out for me from other books I normally read.

In my mind, things came together perfectly for The Survivor.  If you are looking for a suspenseful plot with strong characters, you’ll do no better than this book.

Monday, August 12, 2013

TV Show Review: Once Upon a Time - Season 2

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great storytelling and amazing acting
Cons: Special effects still occasionally don't work
The Bottom Line:
Magic continues
And I can't miss a second
Spellbinding series

"Ogres?  As in Fee Fi Fo Fum?"  "Those Would be Giants."

I was beginning to think the high concept serial drama was dying on TV.  I know if I found a show that interested me, it would be lucky to last one season.  All that changed with Once Upon a Time.  While some people got frustrated with season 2, I found it just as addicting as season 1.

If you missed the show, here’s the premise.  All the fairytale characters we know and love (and a few other miscellaneous characters) are trapped in the town of Storybrooke, Maine.  The curse is the result of Regina, aka Snow White’s evil step mother (Lana Parrilla).  As season 1 opened, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) arrived in town.  Some believed she could break the curse even though she's never been to the town before.  But first, she’d have to believe that the residents of the town are even under a curse and she has a connection to them.  Along the way, we get flashbacks to the character’s lives before the curse that tell us parts of their back story we never knew before while still fitting in with the fairytales we already know and love.

Now, before we go any further, let’s issue a massive season 1 spoiler alert.  There is no way we can discuss what happens here without spoiling season 1, especially how it ends.  If you don’t know and want to find out as you watch, I’ll give you the cliff notes version.  The show’s still great.  Now go watch season 1 already.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way….

This season picks up moments after season 1 ended.  Everyone’s thrill at remembering who they are now that the curse is broken is short lived with the arrival of magic thanks to Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) and the fact that they haven’t returned to Enchanted Forest, their old home.

But all that changes quickly as Mary Margaret/Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Emma get sucked through a portal to another world.  There, they have to team up with Aurora and Mulan (guest stars Sarah Bolger and Jamie Chung) in a quest to get home.  Unfortunately, Regina’s evil mother Cora and Captain Hook (guest stars Barbara Hershey and Colin O'Donoghue) are looking to get to Storybrooke for their own reasons.  Can Emma and Mary Margaret return home without these unwelcome passengers?

Meanwhile, the residents of Storybrooke are trying to figure out how to go home.  Mr. Gold, however, doesn’t want to return.  In fact, he has his own mission that requires him to leave the town limits – if he can.  And his feelings for Belle (Emilie de Ravin) are just going to complicate everything.

Quite obviously, there is a lot going on here.  The characters and stories set in motion by season 1 are followed up here as we get the next chapter in their lives.  You can tell that part way through, the writer’s changed the direction they intended to go for the season, but they actually still make it work.  In fact, I’m amazed at how they continue to set up and pay off plot points - sometimes weeks apart from each other.  I’m sure at some point they will slip up and contradict themselves, but so far I haven’t caught it.

The creators of this show were two of the writers on Lost, and you can certainly tell in how the stories are told each week, including the flashbacks.  However, they do something that Lost never did – pay us for our loyalty with answers.  We get some pretty amazing questions at times, and most of them are resolved again by the end of the season.  Oh, we’ve still got a few lingering ones from season 1, and they set us up with a big cliffhanger going into season 3, but for the most part we get a self-contained story in this season.  Since I felt we never got payoff to the big questions on Lost, I appreciate this approach to things much more.

And the acting?  Can this cast deliver!  These are complex characters, and the actors are put through their paces on a regular basis.  But they never miss a beat.  This is especially true of Lana Parrilla as Regina and Robert Carlyle as Gold who are given a much bigger change to shine as actors this season.  They were already the best characters, and it’s still true here.

Sadly, the special effects sometimes fall apart.  On the whole, they seem better than last season, but every one in a while, I’ll spot something that looks very fake.  But I have to remind myself that they are creating stunning visuals on a TV budget every week.  It happens.  Besides, the characters and story are always more than enough to make up for any weaknesses here.

The season is available on both Blu-ray and DVD.  For your money, you get 22 hour long episodes in wide screen and full surround.  If you've got the money, go for the Blu-ray.  This looks great in high definition.  Extras include the standard bloopers and deleted scenes.  There are also audio commentaries and three featurettes.  One is a genealogy for some of the characters.  There is also a look at Hook and a look at the female characters on the show.

So if you haven’t taken the plunge to season 2 yet, now’s the perfect time.  Season 3 doesn’t debut for several weeks yet, so buy this set and immerse yourself once again in Once Upon A Time.

Season 2 Episodes:
1. Broken
2. We Are Both
3. Lady of the Lake
4. The Crocodile
5. The Doctor
6. Tallahassee
7. Child of the Moon
8. Into the Deep
9. Queen of Hearts
10. The Cricket Game
11. The Outsider
12. In the Name of the Brother
13. Tiny
14. Manhattan
15. The Queen is Dead
16. The Miller's Daughter
17. Welcome to Storybrooke
18. Selfless, Brave, and True
19. Lacey
20. The Evil Queen
21. Second Star to the Right
22. And Straight on 'Til Morning

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ornament Review: It's Snowing Sweetness Register to Win Repaint - Christmas Cupcakes #4 - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Delicious chocolate and white frosting cupcake
Cons: Not quite as pretty as the original version
The Bottom Line:
Blizzard white cupcake
That looks good enough to eat
Wonderful repaint

It’s a Wintry Cupcake Remix

Hallmark loves to release repaints of ornaments – especially series ornaments.  During the July premier event, they released a repaint of the fourth Christmas Cupcake ornament.  But as a twist, you had to win the repaint of It's Snowing Sweetness!  I’m thrilled to say I won!

The basic cupcake idea remains the same.  You've got a cupcake, frosting, and a snowflake on top.  Of course, it should look basically the same since this is a repaint, not a new sculpt.

Naturally, it is the colors that are different.  The cupcake itself is chocolate and it is topped with white frosting.  The cupcake wrapper is silver.  The snowflake on the top of the cupcake stayed white, but that’s the only thing that stayed the same between the two.  Well, there are the large flakes of glitter, and they actually show up better on the chocolate than they do on the vanilla of the original.

I’m torn as to which I liked better.  The original looked amazing with its combination of white and light blue.  That mix certainly makes it seem like a winter storm.  This one doesn’t look quite as wintry even though the white could be snow.  However, I’m a bigger fan of chocolate with white frosting on my real life cupcakes, so this one looks more delicious to me.

How to decide, how to decide?

Because this one is more themed to winter than Christmas (not a complaint), you might want to leave it out all winter.  That should be easy to do since the base of the cupcake is nice and flat (just like a real cupcake).

But if you are looking to hang it on your tree, you’ll find the hook in the top of the snowflake.  This is the first time the series has featured a hook, but since the snowflake is plastic sticking out of the felt cupcake, it makes sense they can do it this time.  Anyway, the cupcake hangs straight.

I’ve heard that the repaints Hallmark does don’t always have the series markers on them, but so far I’ve managed to find it on all the ones I’ve gotten.  This one is no exception – the 4 in a Christmas tree is right there on the bottom since this is a repaint of the fourth in the series.

Completest that I am, I’m thrilled to have this cupcake.  I probably wouldn’t have worked too hard to track it down if I didn’t win it, but since I won it, I don’t have to decide.  Now I can enjoy switching off the look of the original for the It's Snowing Sweetness! Repaint as I feel like it.

Be sure to check out the rest of the Christmas Cupcakes series.

Original Price: Free for winning a drawing – Series price usually $9.95