Friday, February 28, 2014

February 28th's Book Beginnings and Friday 56

Just home from a great ultimate Frisbee game.  Got to get the Book Beginnings and Friday 56 posted quickly since I should be going to bed.

The book this week is Murder Past Due by Miranda James.  I finished the book and really enjoyed it.

And here's how the book starts:

A hurricane slammed through my kitchen this morning, and his name was Justin.

And jumping ahead to page 56:

"Godfrey Priest came to see you," Willie said.  "Heard he got into a fight, too."  He smirked.

Interested in reading more?  (You know what's coming.)  Here my review.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: Murder Past Due by Miranda James (Cat in the Stacks Mysteries #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and a well plotted, twisty mystery
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Author comes home, dies
Leading to plot with great twists
Characters you’ll love

Librarian’s Quiet Life Shattered by Murder

Every so often, I pull a book of my shelves that’s been sitting and collecting dust for no good reason.  Murder Past Due is one such book.  I’ve heard nothing but great things about the series, and I bought the book when it first came out, yet I finally got around to reading the book.  The praise I’ve heard for the series is very well deserved.

The series stars Charlie Harris, a widow who has moved back to his home town of Athena, Mississippi and into the house he inherited from his aunt.  He works part time as the archivist at the local college’s library.  He’s also well known for his rescued Maine coon cat, Diesel; a cat that goes almost everywhere with him.

Of all the people from his past Charlie never wanted to see again, Godfrey Priest topped the list.  The guy was a complete jerk when they knew each other in high school and college, and his status as a best selling thriller author has done nothing to deflate his raging ego.  Yet Godfrey is back in town and appearing at the local college where Charlie works.

But with Godfrey’s return, secrets start coming out of the wood work.  Then, Charlie finds Godfrey dead in his hotel room.  With the investigation circling around Charlie’s boarder, the son of an old friend, Charlie starts poking around.  Still, it won’t be easy to find the killer of a guy no one seems to have liked.  Can Charlie do it?

Sometimes, I complain about a book where the plot didn’t feel like it was really moving forward.  That wasn’t the case here.  In fact, it felt like this book had more twists in the first 100 pages than some books do over the length of the entire story.  While the pace did settle down a little as the story progressed, there were still some good twists and reveals in the second half.  The clues were well planted, and I found myself marveling at how things fit together at the end.

While this may be the first book in the series, it is obviously not the author’s first novel.  (Miranda James is a pen name for Dean James, who has published books under his own name as well as a couple of pen names.)  I say that because the characters were strong.  While Godfrey didn’t have much page time, his appearances were memorable.  I felt for the rest of the cast as the story progressed.  These were real people, and I can’t wait to spend more time with them in the near future.

And yes, Diesel is more a part of things than I have mentioned so far.  Even though he’s a cat, he’s quite a character in his own right.  At times, I found his behavior a bit over the top, but that was a minor issue for me.  I did like him and look forward to reading more about him along with the human characters in future books.

Obviously, I was well past due to read Murder Past Due.  If you’ve been putting off starting this great series, stop making the same mistake I did.  You’ll enjoy every second with Charlie, Diesel, and the rest of their friends.

And you can bet I will be reading the rest of the Cat in the Stacks mysteries in order.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 26th's Waiting on Wednesday

Time for this week's Waiting on Wednesday.

This week's choice is Inherit the Word by Daryl Wood Gerber.  This is the second in her Cookbook Nook Mysteries.

The main character in this series runs a cookbook shop with her aunt in a small coastal California town.  This book revolves around a grilling competition that the cookbook shop is helping host.  When a contestant gets murdered, the main character jumps in to find the killer.

However, I'm looking forward to it for another reason.  The first book ended with a cliffhanger involving the main characters personal life.  I need to know what happens next with that.

Fortunately, I don't have too much longer to wait since the book comes out in just 6 days on March 4th.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

TV Recap: Castle 6-16 - Room 147

I suspected it was something like this when I heard the premise of the episode.  I mean, really, how else could we have multiple confessions to a murder.  But the way it played out was still great.

It starts simply enough with two maids finding a body in a hotel room.  The victim is an actor, and he’s found with a bottle of water next to him and a chair tipped over like he pulled it over as he fell.  Where it gets weird is that the actor had specifically requested room 147 and they found video of him texting from a flip phone when the phone they found was a smart phone that hadn’t been used for a few hours.

The usual investigation of his life turns up a woman that he had fought with outside a coffee shop.  Thanks to a loyalty program, they got her name and brought her in, and she confesses to the entire thing.  She even has the room number and the bottle of water and the chair on the ground.  There’s just one problem though, she was across town for the entire murder window.  Her alibi is iron clad.

What's on Your Nightstand - February 2014

Can you believe it is already the fourth Tuesday in February?  Me neither.  But it is, which means it is time for this month's What's on Your Nightstand?

I'm actually a couple of books behind on reviews.  Last week, I was reading City of Darkness and Light, the newest Molly Murphy book by Rhys Bowen.  It doesn't come out for a week, so I'm holding the review until then.  I loved it, which isn't a surprise since I've been a fan of the series for years.  So thankful I got to read an ARC of the book.

And I'm not feeling guilty for not having a review of this other book up either.  See, I just finished Murder Past Due by Miranda James today.  Like three hours ago.  And I just haven't had time to write the glowing review this book deserves either.

So what's next?  I've got two more ARCs coming up.  I got both of them this weekend, too.  Up first is The Chase by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg.  I read these books because I'm a fan of Lee Goldberg.  The con man and FBI agent premise may be similar to White Collar, but the world wide settings and romantic tension certainly aren't.  This is the second book in the series, and I'm quite curious to see how things go.

Then I'll be reading Dummy of a Ghost by Sue Ann Jaffarian, the second of her e-novellas in the Ghost of Granny Apples series.  I'm quite anxious to visit these characters again, and I'm even more excited that another new full length novels is coming out beginning of April.

So, while I haven't had a book review up in a week or so, as you can see it will be full steam ahead with new books and new book reviews over the next week.  Keep coming back to see what I thought.

Friday, February 21, 2014

February 21st's Book Beginnings and Friday 56

I can not tell you how happy it is Friday.  I need a weekend.  Of course, I'm going to Disneyland, which will be fun but not exactly relaxing.  Still, I think it will be what I need.

But that's not why we're here.  We're here for Book Beginnings and Friday 56.

This week's book is Mayhem at the Orient Express by Kylie Logan.

Here's how it starts:

If it weren't for Jerry Garcia peeing on the pansies, I never would have joined the League of Literary Ladies.

And from page 56, we get:

"Not something you'd expect here on the island."  I didn't realize I'd spoken out loud until I heard the sound of my own voice.  It was so small, it was nearly lost beneath the sounds of the crackling flames and the howling winds outside.

This really was a great book.  In fact, here's my review if you are interested in learning more.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ornament Review: Yummy Yule Log Cake - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Delicious cake with fun extras for a great display
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
French cake tradition
Festively recreated
And shrunk for your tree

A Delicious French Tradition Comes to American Ornaments

Collector that I am, I immediately knew I had to get Yummy Yule Log Cake.  This 2013 Hallmark limited edition ornament was advertised as a companion piece to the Season’s Treatings series.  I collect the series, so I have to get the ornament, right?  I didn’t know much about it, but it did look fun, so I wasn’t really complaining.

Then I did a little research.  The Yule Log cake is a traditional French treat made at Christmas.  It’s made by taking a cake, frosting it, and then rolling it up.  The end is sliced off and the outside is covered in frosting to make it look like a log.  While the cake and frosting can vary, the usual choices are a yellow cake and a chocolate frosting.  Sounds absolutely yummy to me.

And that’s what is depicted on this ornament.  You’ve got the log cake with both ends cut off and little off shoots as well.  And whoever made this cake did a great job because the outside looks very loggish to me.  They obvious spent some time sculpting the frosting.

Now if it were just the log cake, that would be fine, but this baker went above and beyond.  There are two clumps of mushrooms around the cake and a small snowman sitting in front with holly leaves in two spots on the log.  There’s still a frosting knife, a bowl of frosting, and a shaker of sugar (to add the sugar sitting on top of the log) in back of the cake.

Tying it all together is a baking tray.  It’s silver with a little lip and perfect for holding the entire display.  It's not a smooth surface, but feels and looks like an aluminum foil covered tray.

While I have no clue what the mushrooms and snowman are supposed to be made out of (are they edible or not?) the cake itself looks good enough to eat.  However, I’m glad it isn’t since the entire ornament is very cute and it looks perfect for displaying on your tree.

Speaking of which, the loop for hanging the ornament is located in the top back of the log cake.  It's a little hard to get the hook through the loop as a result, but you can get it done if you try.  Like the ornaments in the official Season’s Treatings series, the ornament hangs at a slopping angle so that you can easily see the food while it is hanging on your tree.  That creates an added bit of fun for the tree.

Since the cake is on a baking sheet, it does sit very flat.  This ornament is just 3D enough you might be able to get away with putting it out on display, but I'd recommend hanging it on your tree as first choice.  Since this is an unofficial companion piece, there is no series marker on the ornament.

Whether you have a food themed tree or just an eclectic one like me, this Yummy Yule Log Cake will be a great addition to it.

And check out the rest of the Season's Treatings series.

Original Price: $9.95

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TV Show Review: American Gladiators - The Battle Begins

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Real contests featuring fun athletic events
Cons: Repetitive with same games in every episode; how rewatchable is it?
The Bottom Line:
Extreme sports contest
Root for favorites to win
Strong Gladiators

Gladiator Fans, Ready?

I was never a die hard fan of the original American Gladiators, and I’m not completely sure why.  After all, I watched the remake regularly and it could be argued that American Ninja Warrior is a more extreme descendent of the show, and I love that.  Anyway, I do remember watching some episodes and enjoying them, so when I stumbled on American Gladiators - The Battle Begins for a cheap price, I grabbed it.

Right from the start, the name of the set is rather misleading.  It sounds like it has the very first episodes ever, but that’s not true.  The first season consisted of two 13 episode halves, and only the second half episodes are here.  The recap episode of the first half does start things off, so we get 14 hour long episodes in this three disc set.

Each episode finds four contestants, two men and two women, facing off in a series of challenges.  There’s The Wall (a rock wall climb), Joust, Assault (contestants shooting at a target while avoiding balls shot from a Gladiator), Breakthrough and Conquer (football followed by wrestling), Power Ball (dropping balls in containers while avoiding Gladiators), and Human Cannonball (swinging to knock a Gladiator off a platform).  The contestants can win points along the way, but ultimately it all comes down to the Eliminator, in which the contestants race head to head through an obstacle course.  The points earned earlier give one of the contestants a time advantage as they try to make it through to the next round.

Yes, this is an on going contest with preliminaries, quarter finals, semi-finals, and then the winner of the half season being crowned in the finals.  But wait, for the season finale, they bring back the winners from the first half of the season and pit them against the second half’s winners in a battle of champions.

That’s the only reason to watch the recap episode – to see who those two contestants are.  Well, and to laugh at how low budget that first half season was.  Want proof?  Just look at the assault set then versus the one we are used to seeing.  They also really changed the configuration for Power Ball for the better.

Of course, the show was still a product of the late 80’s with a very dated style set and hair on the Gladiators and contestants.  Why did anyone ever think that was cool?

What is fun is watching the contestants fighting these super fit gladiators.  I may be the oddball since I know the Gladiators had their fans, but I was always rooting for the contestant to score points and defeat the Gladiators they were facing.  It doesn’t usually happen, so maybe it’s my desire to root for the underdog coming through.

In later seasons, additional events were added and a rotation of games was instituted.  Boy did this show need it.  In the 13 full episodes here, we get the same games over and over again.  It might have helped if I’d spaced them out more, but I got tired of seeing the same things and longed for a little variety.  Not to say I didn’t enjoy some of them.  Joust is always fun (at least to watch) and Assault is a great game.  The rock climb is interesting, and the Eliminator is thrilling.  For pure mayhem, you can’t pass up Power Ball as five people are on the field with competing purposes.  It’s just fun to watch.

My other issue with the set is a question of just how rewatchable it is.  With a competition show, where’s the fun in watching it again?  I can’t see myself wanting to pull out these discs like I do others in my DVD collection.  Then again, in a year or two when the details are fuzzy, I might enjoy them again, just spread out more than I did this time around.  Really, I don’t recommend binge watching.

The episodes are presented in their native full frame and stereo sound.  They look and sound good considering how old they are and how they were recorded, but this isn’t anything that will blow your sound system away.  In the way of extras, there are commentaries on four of the episodes by gladiators Zap, Nitro, and Laser.  These are interesting at times, although they tend to ramble about their lives during the era the show was on and talk about what some of the other Gladiators are up to now.  Then again, how much can they really say about the action on the screen without being repetitive especially if they aren't the Gladiators on screen at the time?  You can certainly hear the camaraderie that formed between them when they were working on the show together.  And in an extra that makes little sense, there is a 10 minute interview with Billy Worth, an actor who was also a contestant on the show.  Why doesn’t it make sense?  Because he was in the first half of the season – the part that is only presented in the recap.  However, it does make me wonder what a commentary track by contestants or an interview with more of the contestants would have sounded like.  I would have really enjoyed that.  Finally, there’s a booklet with mini-biographies of all the Gladiators.

This set was certainly worth the $5 I paid for it, although I’m glad I didn’t pay more than that for it.  Even if I don’t wind up watching it again, I enjoyed my time spent with American Gladiators - The Battle Begins.  I just should have spaced them out more so I didn’t get so tired of the same elements.

February 18th's Waiting on Wednesday

Welcome to Wednesday and this week's Waiting on Wednesday.

This week, I'm taking a break from waiting for mysteries and instead and going to spotlight a YA fantasy story.  Let the Storm Break is the second book in a fantasy series by Shannon Messenger.  The main characters can control the wind, and their race is in a civil war with them being the focal point.  Naturally, all of humanity hangs in the balance.  There are secrets.  There is strong romance.  And there is lots of danger.

I read the first book last year and absolutely loved it.  I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.  Trust me, my description doesn't do the book justice.  You will get swept away (pun intended) in this story.

This book comes out March 4th, which still gives you plenty of time to read the first book, Let the Sky Fall.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TV Recap: Castle 6-15 - Smells Like Teen Spirit

I love the fact that Castle can take a scary subject (or a potential one) and make it light and fun.  Also, was it me or was Castle more a part of the episode than he has been in recent weeks?  No sub-plots might have helped give that impression since the last few weeks he’s been mostly off on his own and not really fully involved in the investigation.

The episode starts with two girls in a cab who get a Face Time call from a friend.  She’s calling to tell them she’s running late.  But then she hears a noise and something strange starts to happen.  Next thing we know, she’s pulled up and out of the frame and then her body drops to the floor.

No, that’s not strange enough.  When Castle and Beckett arrive at the scene, the victim’s bedroom, they learn that her blood is smeared on the ceiling of the room.

Music Review: Blessings by Laura Story

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: "Blessings," good songs of worship
Cons: The songs blend together and are just average
The Bottom Line:
The title track shines
Rest of disc is average
But title track great

I Wish This Entire Disc Were as Much a Blessing as the Title Track

My first introduction to Laura Story was the title track from this CD.  I feel in love and had to get the disc, especially when I found it on sale.  However, the rest of it has never grabbed me.  I've listened to Blessings off and on for over a year, and I still find the majority of the CD only average.

Part of the problem with this CD is the genre.  Laura is very focused on worship music, and that's what this disc mostly is.  I tend to find that genre rather weak and repetitive.  I like the songs in small doses, but if I listen to an entire disc of them, I get bored.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with the lyrics to any of the songs here.  "This is the Day" celebrates the changes salvation brings to our lives.  "Friend of Sinners" marvels at Jesus' sacrifice for us.  "Remember" is a great song for communion.  And "Faithful God" praises Him for keeping His promises no matter what we do.  Even "Prodigal Song" offers a touching look at the father as he waits for his son to return home.

Like with the lyrics, the music is fine but nothing impressive.  It is mostly piano based with a few guitar oriented songs.  However, it is also very repetitive and on the slower mid-tempo side.

This is one of those discs that tends to all blend together.  Individually, I do like the songs, but when I listen to it as a whole, I get tired of it quickly.

Then there's the title track.  "Blessings" is a reminder and prayer that God is using the trials to bring us to Him.  "What if your blessings some through raindrops/What if your healing comes through tears/What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near."  The powerful lyrics are coupled with moving piano ballad backing.  It's the slowest track here and the only one that stands out from the others.  I absolutely love it.

This was the first of Laura's releases I bought, and I had written her off.  However, after catching her in concert with Steven Curtis Chapman and Jason Gray, I was persuaded to give her another chance, and I've liked her other CD's better.

So it looks like Laura Story fell victim to the sophomore slump.  I highly recommend the title track from Blessings, but the rest of the disc is just average.

CD Length: 40:28
1. This is the Day
2. Friend of Sinners
3. You are Love
4. What a Savior
5. Blessings
6. Your Name Will be Praised
7. One Life to Lose
8. Prodigal Song
9. Remember
10. Faithful God

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ornament Review: Season's Treatings #5 - Plate of Goodies - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Delicious looking Christmas treats on a festive tray
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Treat variety
Small; mouth watering details
Winner for your tree

This Season, the Treatings are a Plate of Goodies

Christmas means many things – the birth of Jesus, presents, decorations, music, and home made goodies.  While the earlier entries in Hallmark’s Season's Treatings ornament series have celebrated individual goodies, the 2013 entry celebrates a variety.

The goodies on the plate truly are varied.  There are pieces of fudge, there are nut clusters, and there are cookies.  Heck, there’s even a candy canes.  While my tree nut allergy would have me steering clear of the clusters, I would absolutely enjoy the fudge.  In fact, that fudge is mine – hands off!  (Well, it looks like there are nuts in the fudge, but we'll pretend there aren't, okay?)  I’ll take the candy canes, too.

As you can see, the treats certainly look great.  If they were edible, I’d have chowed down on them and ruined how great the ornament looks.  Maybe it’s a good thing they are plastic.  And even though the treats are small, they have enough detail that you can tell what they are.

Holding all these treats together is a serving platter, and not just any platter.  This one is very festive with a red plate and a decorative Santa head at the top.  If you look closely, you can even see Santa's belt underneath some of the goodies.  It’s just the kind of thing you’d choose to use to give gifts to your friends or to put out threats around your home when friends come to visit.

This series is designed to be hung.  You’ll find the ring in Santa’s hat.  Since that’s off to the side, it’s no surprise to find that the ornament hangs at an angle, but like with the other ornaments in the series, it’s a fun angle that looks just great; any and all tip is definitely on purpose.  Santa's face is upright, but the 2013 written on the bottom of the plate is definitely not.

Since the tray has a flat surface, you could lay the ornament out, but it really doesn’t look like much.  You can’t see any of the treats unless you are looking down at them.  As a result, I certainly recommend hanging this one.  Naturally, you can find the 5 in a Christmas tree on the back of the ornament since this is the fifth in the popular series.

Many people loved this ornament, and it’s easy to see why.  The variety and traditional nature of the treats on the tray make 2013's Season's Treatings an obvious choice for those who love Christmas treats.

And check out the rest of the Season's Treatings series.

Original Price: $9.95

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski (Whatever After #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun twist on a familiar story
Cons: Only for the Evil Queen
The Bottom Line:
Snow White gets twisted
By two kids trying to help
Happy ending still?

The Importance of Eating Poisoned Apples

Fracturing fairy tales seems to be a popular sub-genre these days with many book series dedicated to twisting and mashing these familiar stories.  And, of course, there are a couple TV series based on that idea right now, too.  Still, I can’t seem to get enough of the genre, which brings us to Fairest of All.  This book starts an early chapter book series, and I’m enchanted.

Abby is not adjusting well to the recent move her family has made from Chicago to Smithville.  Everyone does things differently, and she hates change.  But then her brother, Jonah, wakes her up because the mirror in the basement is acting funny.  Yes, you read that right.

And Jonah is right because the next thing Abby knows, the two of them are in a forest.  They stumble upon Snow White just in time to keep her from eating the poison apple.  But now that they’ve changed the story, will Snow get her happy ending?  And how can Abby and Jonah return home?

This book is about 170 pages, with larger print and short chapter.  Translation – I read it in roughly two hours.  Of course, I’m not the target audience; it’s those just graduating to longer chapter books, and I think for them it would be a perfect length.  The chapters are short enough they’ll feel like they are getting somewhere and the book isn’t so long to discourage them.

The characters are developed enough for the audience.  While they aren’t super deep, there are some good character moments that really let them shine.  Plus their characteristics contribute something to the twists of the plot.  What more do you want in such a short book?

The plot is wonderful.  It takes a few interesting twists that caught me off guard.  And yes, one part of the climax did make me bark out a laugh, too.  It was perfect.  No, this isn’t the fairy tale you know and love, but that’s the point.  In fact, it is fun because it twists in ways you don’t expect.

There is a definite girl power theme to the story, but the book never turns preachy, and it just shows that women are capable of helping themselves.  No man hating here at all.  Frankly, considering Snow in the original version of the tale, I’m okay with her taking a more active role in her happy ending.  And the scene between her and the prince at the end of the book is a riot.

Yes, I found the humor in the book to be delightful.  It wraps the entire story in a fun shell that kept me turning pages, too.

I will be picking up the next in the series soon.  Fairest of All is a fun take on a story we all know that will please fairy tale fans of all ages.

NOTE: I won this book in a contest.  My opinion is my own.

This book is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Follow this link to read more entries.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

February 15th's Weekly TV Thoughts

Olympics, Olympics, Olympics!!!

Fortunately, I only had one new show on this week because I was busy watching the Olympics with every spare moment I could find.  Actually, I was able to watch most of the prime time coverage this week, which has been a lot of fun.  The human stories make this so much more interesting than normal sports, at least for me.  And honestly, I do wish they would show some of these events more than every four years.

But I did have one new show….

Melissa & Joey - Melissa and Joe are both fairy loud mouthed, so it was fun having that brought to the surface.  And I do like how they are working on their relationship.  But I'm most curious about Ryder.  Where are they going with the story of his new girlfriend having a baby?

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 14th's Book Beginnings and Friday 56

Last week, I lost internet and TV for two days, including Friday, so I missed Book Beginnings and Friday 56, but I'm back this week.  Plus it worked out well since I can now highlight the book I was reading last week.

And why is that appropriate?  Because in honor of Valentine's Day, I will be showcasing Killing Cupid by Laura Levine.  This her the latest in her comedic mystery series, and it was another winner.

And here's how it begins:

There it was, waiting for me on my bedspread.  An early Valentine's gift from my Significant Other.
Gingerly I picked it up.
"A hairball.  How very thoughtful."
My cat, Prozac, looked up from where she was lolling on my pillow, beaming with pride.

And moving to page 56 we get:

Good Lord.  Did she actually think I was the kind of woman who'd pimp myself out and date a man I had absolutely no interest in for a few extra dollars?
If so, she knew me well.
Oh, don't go shaking year head like that.
Somebody had to pay to keep Prozac up to her furry little neck in Hearty Halibut Guts.  And I don't see you opening your wallet, do I?

As you can see, this is a very fun book.  If you want to hear more about it, here's my review.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book Review: Mayhem at the Orient Express by Kylie Logan (League of Literary Ladies #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters and humor
Cons: Plot pacing a little uneven but still good
The Bottom Line:
Classic mystery
Parallels to modern plot
Plenty of fun here

Loving Homage to Christie is a Fun Series Debut

At some point in my life, I need to go back and read the Golden Age mystery writers.  Yes, I have a passing familiarity with Agatha Christie and her two most famous sleuths.  However, there are many of her books I’ve never read.  One of them gets the homage treatment in Mayhem at the Orient Express.  Despite my lack of knowledge about the original, I still enjoyed this debut.

Bea has left her life in New York to open a bed and breakfast on South Bass, an island on Lake Eire.  Unfortunately, her new life isn’t off to a great start since she already has running feuds with her two neighbors, Chandra and Kate.  When their latest squabble lands them in court yet again, the judge sentences them to one year as a weekly book club.

Their first choice is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, but all their first disastrous meeting does is make them hungry for orange/peanut chicken from Orient Express - the new Chinese restaurant in town.  When they arrive for a late dinner, they find Peter, the owner, dead behind the counter.  With events that remind them of the book, will they be able to work together to find the killer?

Any similarities between the Christie classic and the story unfolding in this book are pointed out for the reader – something I was very thankful for.  Yes, the ending of the original is spoiled, but I did know that much going into this book.  Even so, all the discussion made me want to track down a copy and read Christie, which isn’t a bad thing.

Despite the allusions, the plot of this book is all original.  The pacing seemed uneven to me.  Part of that was because this book was setting up the series, the characters, and how the book club got started.  Even after they find Peter’s body, things could have picked up a little.  Still, there are some good clues and twists along the way before we reach a great conclusion.

And the characters?  I loved them.  While the main trio starts the book fighting, it is nice to see them slowly building a friendship.  They are very different women and their personalities are already strong with each contributing something to the story.  There is a large cast of supporting characters, and they were strong as well, making it harder to tell who really was the killer.

The book is filled with a nice dose of humor.  Sometimes, it’s in Bea’s first person narration as she comments on events.  And sometimes, it’s in the exchanges between the characters.  There are some clever turns of phrase that are also good for grins.  This added a delightful feel to a book I was already enjoying.

And make no mistake about it, I did enjoy Mayhem at the Orient Express.  I can’t wait to pick up the sequel and find out what kind of danger classic literature leads these ladies to next.

You'll definitely want to spend more time with the League of Literary Ladies in future books.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ornament Review: Under the Sea - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good sculpt and fun sound clip
Cons: Too big and tips forward when hung
The Bottom Line:
Yes, size matters here
Sebastian just looks too big
Still fun ornament

Is Sebastian in Search of a Greener Christmas Tree?

While I'm not a die hard fan of Disney's The Little Mermaid, I absolutely love the music from the film.  So how could I pass up Hallmark's 2013 ornament Under The Sea?

The ornament focuses on Sebastian the crab in a big way.  In fact, the ornament is pretty much just Sebastian.  He's standing on a closed oyster shell with his right hand sticking straight out and his left hand up in the air.  His mouth is open like he's singing, which makes sense since this is a magic ornament.

Yep, that's right.  Just add the two button batteries, and you get to hear Sebastian sing "Under the Sea."  It's about a 20 second clip from the first chorus of the song.  (And yes, I do know the song well enough to know that.  The laugh at the end was the final clue, but I suspected already.)  It's short as far as sound clips go, but anything longer would just lead to a weird cut off at the end.  And the battery hiding compartment?  In a fun twist, it's actually in the back under Sebastian's shell.

Despite the fact that Sebastian is sitting on a shell, this ornament does a pretty good job of sitting on any flat surface.  It's will rock a bit, and it wouldn't take much to knock him over, but if you set him on a shelf or other sturdy flat surface, he's not going anywhere.

Unfortunately, he tips forward quite a bit when you hang him.  There's a loop in the back of his head, and the tip you get when you hang him is noticeable.  Once he's at eye level, he looks okay, but if he's down near the bottom of your tree at all, you'll notice.

But I have a bigger problem with Sebastian himself - his size.  Don't get me wrong, this is a great sculpt of a great character, and the sound clip is very, very fun.  And ornament is about the same size as most Hallmark ornaments.  However, for just Sebastian by himself, he turns out to be too big.  I wouldn't want him as small as a Hallmark mini ornament, but somewhere between half his current size and three fourths of his current size would have been much, much better.

Yes, size matters, but I couldn't pass up this chance to own Sebastian in ornament form, especially with the added fun of the Under The Sea sound clip.  While not perfect, I really like this ornament.

Original Price: $17.95

Waiting on Wednesday for February 12th

It's Wednesday!  And, that means it is time for another Waiting on Wednesday.

This week, I'm highlighting The Chase by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg.

Now, I don't normally read Janet Evanovich (which is shocking since I like light comedic mysteries), but I've been a fan of Lee Goldberg for a while.  I realize that is backwards in how most people are coming to this series, but there you go.

Anyway, this series focuses on an FBI agent and a con man who team up to take down other criminals.  Yes, there is a huge element of White Collar to it, however the stage for these books takes them all over the world.  And, since the FBI agent is a woman and the con man is a man, we've got romantic sparks as well.

This time around, they are racing the clock to steal back a Chinese artifact stolen from the Smithsonian by a former White House Chief of Staff before the theft becomes public and an international incident ensues.  Sounds like lots of fun to me.

And we don't have long to wait since the book will be out on February 25th.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Game Review: Qwirkle

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Creative mix and match game for big score
Cons: Many colors are too similar except in bright lights
The Bottom Line:
Line up tiles by their
Colors and shapes scoring points
For addictive fun

Mix and Match Shapes and Colors and Score Big Points with Qwirkle

Qwirkle is the new popular game in my family.  I hadn’t even heard of it, but both my parents and my brother and sister-in-law asked for it for Christmas.  Over the time I was there for the holiday, we played it quite a bit because it is lots of fun.

The game consists of a bunch of blocks with colors and shapes on them.  There are six colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple) and six shapes (from circles to stars and diamonds).  There are three sets of all color and shape combinations, so there are 108 blocks in the game.  While the game comes in a box, it also includes a bag for drawing, which is very helpful.

The point of the game is to score big points.  You do this by matching color or shape to create lines.  There can only be one of each color or one of each shape per line.  You get points for how many your play creates in a line.  For example, if you play two pieces to create a line of four, you get four points.  You get extra points if your play can count for more than one line.  And if you complete a line of six (called a Qwirkle), you get a bonus.  Once you’ve played, draw the number of tiles you played from the bag.  Once the tiles run out and someone runs out of tiles in their hand, the game is over and the high score wins.

It sounds complicated, but it is actually very easy to pick up.  Once you’ve played a turn or two, you get the strategy and the ways you can play things.  The score starts to add up, too.  Don’t worry if you fall behind because things can change.

Part of that is strategy.  Do you block a potential Qwirkle and potentially hurt yourself later?  Do you hang on to a tile you can play in hopes of getting a Qwirkle later?  Do you play the other tiles in your hand here or there?

And that’s what makes the game fun.  We played multiple games over the course of three or four days, and no two tables were close to looking the same when we’d finished.  It obviously depends on which tiles are drawn when and then which are played.

The strategy also makes the game fun.  With every turn, I’m looking over the board and trying to play to get the most points without setting up my opponents to get bigger points.  Since this is an individual game, it helps that you don’t have to try to second guess what your teammate has.  You are only playing for yourself.

The box recommends the game for ages 8 and up.  While younger kids could certainly match the colors and shapes, they might miss out on the subtle strategy involved.  Obviously, that age is a guideline, but it seems like it’s probably about right.

Likewise, they recommend the game for 2-4 players.  The first time I played, we played with 5 people.  I don’t see where it makes too big a difference, although too many people playing would make the game to hard to win.  I think six might be the max that would make the game fun.

The one problem with the game is the colored tiles.  They are too similar to each other unless you are in bright lights.  Green is about the only color that doesn’t look like its neighbors in the rainbow.  It’s something to watch out for, although it’s not bad enough to ruin the game.

It amazes me how people keep coming up with fun games, but Qwirkle proves that there are still creative people out there creating new, fun games.  You’ll be hooked after your first game.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: Moriarty Returns a Letter by Michael Robertson (Baker Street Mysteries #4)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and an interesting plot
Cons: I couldn’t find any; I was too busy having fun
The Bottom Line:
Sherlock’s legacy
Finding others in danger
Mystery from past

Moriarty’s Past Revealed

While I am not a huge Sherlock Holmes fan (in fact, I’ve read very few of the stories at all), I do know just enough to appreciate books like Moriarty Returns a Letter.  It takes the Sherlock legacy and puts a different spin on things with plenty of nods to the original to please fans.

For those who haven’t read the first three books in the series, it follows Reggie Heath, a barrister who happens to be renting 221B Baker Street as his office space.  Part of his lease is dealing with the letters that people write to Sherlock Holmes, a task that keeps putting him in danger.  Obviously, these books are not directly connected to Holmes, but they are fun books that dabble in his legacy in our world today (or at least the late 90’s when they are set).

However, if you haven’t read the earlier books, don’t jump in here.  You have to read the second book in the series, The Brothers of Baker Street, first.  While this is book four in the series, it acts as a direct sequel to book two and spoils much of that book.  I was happy with the refresher since it's been a couple years since I read it, but still, you’ll want to read them in order.

All that Reggie Heath is focusing on is his upcoming engagement trip with Laura to her family estate to officially announce their upcoming marriage.  Unfortunately, the Sherlock letters rear their head again as he needs to help prepare a special display with many of the old ones before he can go.

However, one of the old letters he unearths contains a secret connected to Moriarty, and events begin to unfold that might bring the secret to light.  By the time it all settles, who will be left standing?

I’m being a vague as possible in my description of the book because the fun is watching how the plot unravels.  We actually start in the past, so we know much of what is happening even if the characters don’t.  The question then becomes how will they figure it out?  As a result, this isn’t the traditional one dead body plus five suspects kind of a mystery, but the plot works well.  I always had a hard time putting the book down because I wanted to see if the characters would figure it out.

Plus the characters are great.  While Reggie still isn’t a huge fan of the letters, he has softened a lot since book one.  Much of that is due to Laura, who really does bring out the best in him.  Reggie’s brother Nigel shows up again as well, although I wish he had a bigger part.  The rest of the returning characters are good and the new ones are great.  They feel like real people and are a joy to be around.

So for something different, pick up Moriarty Returns a Letter.  This is a fun book that anyone can enjoy no matter how much you know about the Holmes legacy.

Need to read in order?  Here's Baker Street Mysteries in order.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ornament Review: Big Box of 64! - 2013 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Colorful representation of a childhood favorite art supply
Cons: Few minor ones but none worth dwelling on
The Bottom Line:
Relive coloring
With fresh new box of crayons
Nostalgic on tree

Relive the Joys of a Colorful Childhood

One of the simple joys of childhood is coloring.  I can remember many happy hours of coloring in my coloring books or even making picture on my own.  (Trust me, I was much better coloring in books.)  That joy is recalled in Big Box of 64!, a delightful and popular 2013 Hallmark ornament.

When the lid on this ornament is closed, it honestly don’t look like much.  It’s a plastic box.  But it is painted to look like the outside of a box of Crayola Crayons.  The painting looks right to me – just like the boxes I had as a kid or at least how I remember them.  There’s even a hole in the back to represent the crayon sharpener they used to have in some of the boxes.  I remember it being on the side and this one doesn’t have anything to actually sharpen with, but I’m nitpicking.  It’s a nice detail that I love.

The lid of the ornament is hinged, and when you open it, you can see a full box of new crayons waiting to be used.  And as the title of the ornament suggests, there are 64 different colored crayons represented there.  If you look very closely at the crayons, you’ll see that they are only half of a cylinder, but most of the time you’re eye sees it as fully round.  I know once I discovered that fact, I didn’t truly see that again unless I was looking for it.

Obviously, you’ll want to keep the lid open so you can see the crayons.  With the lid closed, this ornament is just okay, but when you are looking at the crayons themselves, it becomes quite fun.

And that’s why the brass ring for hanging the ornament is actually located on the front of the lid.  You have to have the lid open to hang it on your tree.  The ornament actually tips forward quite noticeably, but with the branches on my tree, I didn't notice at all last year. Those branches made up the different and it look straight to me.

Since the base of the ornament is the base of a box of crayons, it should not be a surprise that you can display it on any flat surface as well.  It's a little back heavy, but as long as you leave it alone, it will stand.  It would certainly work as a year round decoration reliving memories of childhood.

I couldn’t help but smile as I looked at it.  The hours of coloring came back quickly, and I loved the nostalgia this ornament brought.  Today’s kids would enjoy it, too, because they are enjoying coloring right now.  As a result, this is definitely an ornament all ages could love.

And all ages must have loved it because Big Box of 64! was a big seller last year with many Hallmark stores selling out early.  If you are interested, track it down quickly before it gets rarer.

Original Price: $17.95

Saturday, February 8, 2014

February 8th's Weekly TV Thoughts

This was an interesting week for TV watching.  My internet and TV router died Wednesday and I didn't get my new one until last night.  As a result, I had to catch up via On Demand, the internet, and a rerun, but I've caught everything.

USA Network also announced that this is the final season of psych.  It was pretty obvious to everyone it was coming for a while now, so I'm only surprised it took them this long to announce it.  I'll miss the show for sure, but I could tell the show was beginning to slide in quality, so I'd rather seem them go out while still near the top of their game.  I'll definitely enjoy these last few episodes, of course.

But on to program specific comments.

Arrow - Not that happy with Sara's story arc at the moment.  Just how many people is she going to kiss?  I absolutely get Laurel's reaction, although I think there is some mixed emotion below the surface.  I'll be interested to see where they take Laurel next.  And Oliver's reaction to his mother's secret was definitely over the top.

Melissa & Joey - All I can think is why haven't I gotten to try flaming cheese yet?  And is it a real thing.  And I wonder why Ryder really wasn't in the episode.

Psych - I always love it when shows twist the conventions of the series, and with Gus driving the plot this time around, it was a natural to do.  And it delivered.  Decent mystery, too.

The Big Bang Theory - Sheldon and Amy kissed!  And he seemed to like it.  That's probably the big relationship moment between the two of them this year, but it was such an unexpected and fun moment.  I really liked it.

The Crazy Ones - That was quite a funeral at the end.  And it was fun to see Woody from psych pop up somewhere else, although his character here was almost as out there as the one of psych.

Enlisted - Definitely a funny episode, and that video at the end was great.  The way the three brothers interact was just so perfect this week.  Still charming and funny.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Candy Review: Snickers

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Chocolate, caramel, peanuts - what else do you need to know?
Cons: Only if you are allergic to peanuts.
The Bottom Line:
Delicious tasting
Peanuts, caramel mix well
Chocolate covered

The Classic Taste of Snickers Still Satisfies

I've never specially thought about why I like Snickers, I just know I do.  But recently I've realized just how much this candy bar has in common with one of my favorites.  Not that it needed the extra boost because this is a great candy bar.

The Snickers bar has essentially four layers, nougat, caramel, and peanut wrapped in milk chocolate.  Really, those four are winners sure to make your taste buds happy.  Overall, the chocolate and peanut are the main flavors, but the caramel gives it an added kick that you don't find from Reese's.

However, that's not the comparison I had in mind.  These candy bars are very close to a favorite of mine - Milky Way.  In fact, the only difference is the inclusion of the peanuts.  While I do love the Milky Way, at times I really want the peanuts, too, so it's nice to have the option of having both.  But really, how can you go wrong with anything that includes chocolate and caramel.  I just love those two together.

The ingredients look about like you'd expect, chocolate, peanuts, milk, sugars, oils…. Pretty much things that are bad for you.  No wonder it tastes so good.  Obviously, if you have a peanut allergy, you'll want to steer clear of this one since peanuts are one of the main ingredients.

This is a candy bar, don't think about the nutritional information.  Just assume they aren't good for you.  How not good for you?  Two of the small fun size bars contain 160 calories, 70 of them from fat.  And there's no vitamins or minerals to speak of to justify the calories.

Which is why Snickers should be the occasional treat instead of a constant part of your diet.  But every once in a while, it tastes so good.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: Killing Cupid by Laura Levine (Jaine Austen #12)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Laughs, fun, and a good mystery
Cons: Might be too wacky for some
The Bottom Line:
Matchmaker murdered
Filled with hilarity, clues
Light yet oh so fun

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Yourself Dead

When it comes to comedic mysteries, Los Angeles based freelance writer Jaine Austen tops my list of favorite sleuths.  Her adventures are always funny but the mysteries are always well done.  Killing Cupid is her 12th adventure, and it’s just as good as the others.

Always in need of a paycheck, Jaine jumps when she gets a referral to Dates of Joy, the premier matchmaking service in Beverly Hills.  Joy Amoroso, the owner, wants Jaine to write a new brochure and some copy for the website.

However, Joy is a bear to work for, scams her clients, and hordes her chocolate.  And those are her good points.  It’s hardly a surprise when Joy drops dead in the middle of her annual Valentine’s Day party.  In fact, the list of suspects includes everyone who ever met Joy.  Since Jaine is one of the suspects, she decides to jump in and find the real killer while dodging her new geriatric suitor, a man who is dating Jaine to get close to her cat, Prozac.  But who actually killed Joy?

Author Laura Levine is a former sitcom writer, and it shows in these books.  Each book stands alone, so you can jump in with any book that catches your interest.  The humor comes from wacky characters and Jaine’s asides in the breezy narration.  Plus she gets into some pretty funny situations as well.  The squirrel scene is especially good in this book.  I was laughing and smiling from start to finish.

As a result, the characters can be a bit thin at times.  I do come to care for most of them, but they don’t have quite the depth of the characters in many of the novels I read.  Still, they work for this series where the emphasis is on just having fun.

The mystery is strong here.  There is some set up of suspects before the murder takes place, so we already know who might have done it when Joy drops dead.  I suspected who the killer might be early on, but I wasn’t sure until Jaine figured it out.

As always, there is a sub-plot involving Jaine’s parents.  They live in a retirement community in Florida, and their story unfolds in a series of hilarious e-mails.  It doesn’t tie in to the main mystery, but it is fun just the same.  This time, Jaine’s Dad thinks someone is trying to woo her Mom, and it just snowballs from there.  This may be my favorite of the sub-plots yet.

So when you are ready for something light and fun, pick up Killing Cupid.  You’ll be laughing before you know it as you wait to see just who Jaine will actually catch at the killer.

While you don't need to read this series in order, if you want to do so, here's The Jaine Austen Mysteries in order.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

TV Recap: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1-13 - T.R.A.C.K.S.

Last night’s episode used an unique storytelling devise – filling us in on the action from various viewpoints until we got the full picture.  It can be a risky viewpoint, but it was executed perfectly for this episode.  I loved it!

We start with our team on the plane getting their assignment.  Quinn, the billionaire from the last episode (and an earlier one), has bought some device and is using a train in Italy to transport it to wherever he is hiding.  The team is going to sneak onto the train under cover and tag whatever it is so they can track it to Quinn.

Everyone seems to get into place, and it seems to be going well.  Simmons’s antics to spill the tracking powder in the passenger car was a particular highlight.  (It also provided Stan Lee the chance for his cameo.  Pointless to the episode but so much fun.)

But then things go wrong.  The earpieces go out just as they’ve found the package.  Coulson heads out to the location to find no one there.  Then Ward comes rushing in followed by several bad buys.  One of them has a grenade.  Ward and Coulson jump off the train, which promptly vanishes after the grenade is thrown.


February 5th's Waiting on Wednesday

Since it is Wednesday, it is time once again for Waiting on Wednesday.

This week, I'm spotlighting Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke.

This is the latest in the Hannah Swensen mystery series.  That means that the murder victim will be found next to one of Hannah's newest creations - in this case a blackberry pie.  There will be tons of recipes, some cookies since Hannah owns a cookie shop, definitely the blackberry pie, and probably a hot dish or other type of recipe.

Looking for more than that?  Hannah is the one in the cross hairs after she accidentally hits a stranger in a thunderstorm.  Who was he?  Would he have died before the accident?  And all this just as the local paper was announcing how long it had been since Hannah stumbled over the last dead body.  Plus Hannah is in charge as her mother gets remarried.  Plenty of fun to be had in the latest adventure to be sure.

And I won't have long to wait.  The book comes out at the end of this month on the 25th.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

TV Recap: Castle 6-14 - Dressed to Kill

During the first season of Survivor, every episode’s teaser involved some hint that the alliance of four might crack.  Of course, it was all about the editing and that alliance never came close to cracking at all until the end.

I bring this up because everyone seems to be trying to apply the same thing to Castle.  Not any of the official press releases I’ve read, but the clips that blogs are linking up to involve someone getting cold feet.  Please.  That’s not what they are writing toward.

But we are now writing towards a Spring wedding (now there’s a shocker).

Of course, there is a murder.  Two fashion designer wanna bes are digging through a dumpster when they suddenly find a dead body.  Turns out our victim was the assistant to the woman who runs one of the best fashion magazines in the country.

The surprise is that this woman knows Beckett.  Seems that Beckett had a past as a model, all 15 minutes of it, and actually turned this woman down to become a detective.  They do seem to be on friendly terms since she didn’t turn Kate away.  I was glad Castle didn’t remember this about Beckett.  Makes me feel better since I didn’t know it either.

Movie Review: Turbo

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Comedy, great story, wonderful characters
Cons: Story is predictable (but you’ll have so much fun you won’t care)
The Bottom Line:
Ordinary snail
With extraordinary speed
Laughs and fun for all

A Garden Snail with a Need for Speed

I didn’t get to the theater as much as usual in 2013, so I’m catching up via rentals now.  One of those I missed was Turbo, and it was well worth watching.

The story follows the adventures of a snail who dreams of racing.  And yes, we’re talking car racing.  Not only does Turbo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) stay up nights watching tapes of races; it interferes with his day job of corralling the rotten tomatoes his co-workers send down from the vines.

One day, an accident infuses him with the one thing he craves, speed.  Then he finds himself in the possession of a taco truck driver, Tito (Michael Pena), who thinks that Turbo just might be the way to get his brother’s taco stand notice.  Will it work?

Obviously, this animated delight has no basis in reality – especially in the final act when Turbo, as a snail, fulfills a dream of racing cars.  But you know what?  I didn’t care.

Why is that?  The film is filled with delightful characters from start to finish.  While Turbo and his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) have their disagreements, they do obviously still care for each other.  In fact, I loved how their relationship mirrored that of Tito and his brother Angelo (Luis Guzman).  The other owners of the shops in the strip mall where much of the action takes place are fun as are the other racing snails in the complex.  I truly loved all of them and enjoyed spending time with them.

The voice talent is wonderful.  Whether famous or not, the only voice I recognized was Samuel L. Jackson, but it fit the character so perfectly I didn’t find it a distraction at all.  The actors did what they needed to do, allow me to get lost in the story.

So how lost in the story did I get?  During the climax, I was so into it I found myself yelling at the screen.  Yes, I knew how the story would end (it is fairly predictable), but in that moment it didn’t matter.  Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t get to catch this one in the theaters after all.

And I can’t leave out the comedy.  While the premise may be crazy, the execution is perfect, and I couldn’t help but laugh the entire way through.  The scene where Turbo first discovers his changes is especially funny.

DreamWorks Animation is a mix of stylized and realistic.  This one ventured more toward the realistic side of things with several beautiful shots throughout the film that come close to rivaling Pixar at their best.  One key scene takes place in the Los Angeles River (don’t get me started on that drainage ditch), and I recognized it.  This was before I knew the setting was the LA suburbs, and I was pretty excited with my catch.

Turbo was delightful from start to finish and I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it sooner.  Don’t let this one race by without stopping to enjoy it yourself.