Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reading Challenge Wrap Up: New Release Challenge 2015

Here it is - my final reading challenge wrap up for 2015!  This one is the New Release Challenge, for books that were released, read, and reviewed during the year.  And you can see why my TBR pile of older books grows bigger and bigger every year since here are the new releases I read in 2015.

1. Feta Attraction by Susannah Hardy
2. For Whom the Bluebell Tolls by Beverly Allen
3. Ghost in the Guacamole by Sue Ann Jaffarian
4. Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant by Hy Conrad
5. A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder
6. License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes
7. Story Thieves by James Riley
8. The Edge of Dreams by Rhys Bowen
9. Double Fudge Brownie Murder by Joanne Fluke
10. Puzzled Indemnity by Parnell Hall
11. At the Drop of a Hat by Jenn McKinlay
12. The Icing on the Corpse by Liz Mugavero
13. Grave on Grand Avenue by Naomi Hirahara
14. The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco by Laura DiSilvero
15. A Sticky Situation by Jessie Crockett
16. Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith
17. Musseled Out by Barbara Ross
18. One Foot in the Grape by Carlene O'Neil
19. Evil Spy School by Stuart Gibbs
20. 14th Deadly Sin by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
21. Final Reveille by Amanda Flower
22. As Gouda as Dead by Avery Aames
23. Death by Coffee by Alex Erickson
24. Death of a Chocolate Cheater by Penny Pike
25. Truffled to Death by Kathy Aarons
26. Farmed and Dangerous by Edith Maxwell
27. The Longest Yard Sale by Sherry Harris
28. Peaches and Scream by Susan Furlong
29. Fatal Reservations by Lucy Burdette
30. Murder on the Bucket List by Elizabeth Perona
31. Time's Up by Janey Mack
32. A First Date with Death by Diana Orgain
33. Killer Jam by Karen MacInerney
34. Fudging the Books by Daryl Wood Gerber
35. Crushed Velvet by Diane Vallere
36. Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen
37. The Syndrome by Ridley Pearson
38. Death by Tiara by Laura Levine
39. Lord of the Wings by Donna Andrews
40. Cinderella Six Feet Under by Maia Chance
41. Trick or Deceit by Shelley Freydont
42. Stone Cold Dead by Catherine Dilts
43. The Scam by Lee Goldberg and Janet Evanovich
44. Move Your Blooming Corpse by D. E. Ireland
45. The Buccaneer's Code by Caroline Carlson
46. Dead with the Wind by Miranda James
47. Just Killing Time by Julianne Holmes
48. Floral Depravity by Beverly Allen
49. Pane and Suffering by Cheryl Hollon
50. Driving Heat by Richard Castle
51. Big Game by Stuart Gibbs
52. Flipped for Murder by Maddie Day
53. Olive and Let Die by Susannah Hardy
54. The Chocolate Falcon Fraud by JoAnna Carl
55. Neverseen by Shannon Messenger
56. A Body to Spare by Sue Ann Jaffarian
57. Fillet of Murder by Linda Reilly
58. Suspendered Sentence by Laura Bradley
59. Fry Another Day by J. J. Cook
60. The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary by Sue Ann Jaffarian
61. The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle by Laura DiSilverio
62. To Brew or Not to Brew by Joyce Tremel
63. Here Today, Gone Tamale by Rebecca Adler
64. Away in a Manger by Rhys Bowen
65. The Humbug Murders by L. J. Oliver
66. Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen by Vicki Delany
67. Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Reading Challenge Wrap Up: Audiobook 2015

I'm actually a little surprised at how many books I listened to this year for the Audiobook Challenge.  I decided I wanted to listen a bit more, but this was great.  You'll notice several repeated authors on this list.  I decided to listen to some authors I want to read but have never gotten around to reading.  And I'm so glad I took up audiobooks to do this.

1. The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
3. The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly
4. The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
5. 1984 by George Orwell
6. A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
7. Lullaby Town by Robert Crais
8. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
9. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
10. B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton
11. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
12. The Black Ice by Michael Connelly
13. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
14. Free Fall by Robert Crais
15. A Red Herring without Mustard by Alan Bradley

Reading Challenge Wrap Up: Read It Again, Sam

I have this long list of books I fully intend to reread for review.  Really, I do.  So it's a little sad that I only made it through 10 books for this year's Read It Again, Sam, challenge.  But here they are.

1. Great Smokies by Sandy Dengler
2. The Mystery of the Velvet Gown by Kathryn Kenny
3. Grand Canyon by Sandy Dengler
4. 1984 by George Orwell
5. The Mystery of the Midnight Marauder by Kathryn Kenny
6. Mrs. Pollifax Pursued by Dorothy Gilman
7. It's a Magical World by Bill Watterson
8. The Mystery at Maypenny's by Kathryn Kenny
9. The Mystery of the Whispering Witch by Kathryn Kenny
10. The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene

I'd like to think I will make it through more than that this year, but we shall see.

Reading Challenge Wrap Up: Mount TBR 2015

I have so many books from previous years that I intend to read, it kind of surprises me that I never do better on the Mount TBR challenge.  Of course, I did sign up for Pike's Peak, which was 12 books and I got 25 books read, which qualified me for the Mount Blanc.

Here are the books I read.

1. Zero-Degree Murder by M. L Rowland
2. The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan
3. Scene of the Climb by Kate Dyer-Seeley
4. Geared for the Grave by Duffy Brown
5. A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die by Edith Maxwell
6. Hearse and Buggy by Laura Bradford
7. Buttercream Bump Off by Jenn McKinlay
8. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
9. Death is Like  Box of Chocolates by Kathy Aarons
10. Buried in a Bog by Sheila Connolly
11. Wouldn't It Be Deadly by D. E. Ireland
12. The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward
13. Truth Be Told by Hank Phillippi Ryan
14. A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
15. Snow White Red-Handed by Maia Chance
16. Lullaby Town by Robert Crais
17. Bless Her Dead Little Heart by Miranda James
18. The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle by Christopher Healy
19. The Chocolate Clown Corpse by JoAnna Carl
20. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
21. Red Velvet Revenge by Jenn McKinlay
22. The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy
23. A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry
24. Going, Going Ganache by Jenn McKinlay
25. Sugar and Iced by Jenn McKinlay

Reading Challenge Wrap Up: Foodie Read 2015

It was another delicious year of reading with my culinary cozies in the Foodie Read 2015.  I signed up for the Sous-Chef level, which is 9-13 books.  I may have to rise to another level next year since I more than double that goal this year.

1. Feta Attraction by Susannah Hardy
2. License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes
3. A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die by Edith Maxwell
4. Buttercream Bump Off by Jenn McKinlay
5. Double Fudge Brownie Murder by Joanne Fluke
6. Death is Like a Box of Chocolates by Kathy Aarons
7. A Sticky Situation by Jessie Crockett
8. Musseled Out by Barbara Ross
9. One Foot in the Grape by Carlene O'Neil
10. Death by the Dozen by Jenn McKinlay
11. As Gouda as Dead by Avery Aames
12. Death of a Chocolate Cheater by Penny Pike
13. Truffled to Death by Kathy Aarons
14. Farmed and Dangerous by Edith Maxwell
15. The Diva Runs Out of Thyme by Krista Davis
16. Peaches and Scream by Susan Furlong
17. Fatal Reservations by Lucy Burdette
18. The Chocolate Clown Corpse by JoAnna Carl
19. Fudging the Books by Daryl Wood Gerber
20. Red Velvet Revenge by Jenn McKinlay
21. Flipped for Murder by Maddie Day
22. Olive and Let Die by Susannah Hardy
23. The Chocolate Clown Corpse by JoAnna Carl
24. Going, Going Ganache by Jenn McKinlay
25. Fillet of Murder by Linda Reilly
26. Fry Another Day by J. J. Cook
27. To Brew or Not to Brew by Joyce Tremel
28. Here Today, Gone Talame by Rebecca Adler
29. Sugar and Iced by Jenn McKinlay


Reading Challenge Wrap Up: Crusin' Though the Cozies 2015

It's time to wrap up some reading challenges, and I'm going to start with Crusin' Through the Cozies.  I had signed up for Level 4 which is 20+ cozies.  Naturally, I did finish with flying colors.  Here's what I read.

1. Feta Attraction by Susannah Hardy
2. For Whom the Bluebell Tolls by Beverly Allen
3. Scene of the Climb by Kate Dyer-Seeley
4. Ghost in the Guacamole by Sue Ann Jaffarian
5. Geared for the Grave by Duffy Brown
6. Mr. Monk and the New Lieutenant by Hy Conrad
7. License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes
8. Great Smokies by Sandy Dengler
9. A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die by Edith Maxwell
10. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
11. Hearse and Buggy by Laura Bradford
12. Buttercream Bump Off by Jenn McKinlay
13. Murder in the Mystery Suite by Ellery Adams
14. The Edge of Dreams by Rhys Bowen
15. Double Fudge Brownie Murder by Joanne Fluke
16. Death is Like a Box of Chocolates by Kathy Aarons
17. Puzzled Indemnity by Parnell Hall
18. Buried in a Bog by Sheila Connolly
19. Wouldn't It Be Deadly by D. E. Ireland
20. At the Drop of a Hat by Jenn McKinlay
21. The Icing on the Corpse by Liz Mugavero
22. Grave on Grand Avenue by Naomi Hirahara
23. The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco by Laura DiSilverio
24. A Sticky Situation by Jessie Crockett
25. Grand Canyon by Sandy Dengler
26. Truth Be Told by Hank Phillippi Ryan
27. Musseled Out by Barbara Ross
28. One Foot in the Grape by Carlene O'Neil
29. The Finale Reveille by Amanda Flower
30. Death by the Dozen by Jenn McKinlay
31. As Gouda as Dead by Avery Aames
32. Death by Coffee by Alex Erickson
33. Assaulted Pretzel by Laura Bradford
34. Death of a Chocolate Cheater by Penny Pike
35. Truffled to Death by Kathy Aarons
36. Farmed and Dangerous by Edith Maxwell
37. Snow White Red-Handed by Maia Chance
38. Bless Her Dead Little Heart by Miranda James
39. The Diva Runs Out of Thyme by Krista Davis
40. The Longest Yard Sale by Sherry Harris
41. Independence Slay by Shelley Freydont
42. Peaches and Scream by Susan Furlong
43. Fatal Reservations by Lucy Burdette
44. Murder on the Bucket List by Elizabeth Perona
45. Mrs. Pollifax Pursued by Dorothy Gilman
46. A First Date with Death by Diana Orgain
47. The Chocolate Clown Corpse by JoAnna Carl
48. Killer Jam by Karen MacInerney
49. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
50. Fudging the Books by Daryl Wood Gerber
51. Crushed Velvet by Diane Vallere
52. Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen
53. Shunned and Dangerous by Laura Bradford
54. Death by Tiara by Laura Levine
55. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
56. Lord of the Wings by Donna Andrews
57. Cinderella Six Feet Under by Maia Chance
58. Trick or Deceit by Shelley Freydont
59. Red Velvet Revenge by Jenn McKinlay
60. Stone Cold Case by Catherine Dilts
61. Move Your Blooming Corpse by D. E. Ireland
62. Snow Way Out by Christine Husom
63. Dead with the Wind by Miranda James
64. Just Killing Time by Julianne Holmes
65. Floral Depravity by Beverly Allen
66. Pane and Suffering by Cheryl Hollon
67. A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry
68. Flipped for Murder by Maddie Day
69. Olive and Let Die by Susannah Hardy
70. The Chocolate Falcon Fraud by JoAnna Carl
71. A Body to Spare by Sue Ann Jaffarian
72. Going, Going Ganache by Jenn McKinlay
73. Fillet of Murder by Linda Reilly
74. Suspendered Sentence by Laura Bradford
75. Fry Another Day by J. J. Cook
76. The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary by Sue Ann Jaffarian
77. The Readaholics and the Poirot Puzzle by Laura DiSilverio
78. To Brew or Not to Brew by Joyce Tremel
79. Here Today, Gone Tamale by Rebecca Adler
80. A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
81. Away in a Manger by Rhys Bowen
82. Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen by Vicki Delany
83. Sugar and Iced by Jenn McKinlay

And, of course, I will be back next year.  Looking forward to it!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal (Maggie Hope #5)

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Some interesting history brought to life
Cons: Extremely weak mystery, poor characters, political lectures
The Bottom Line:
Book stumbles leaving
Very little to enjoy
Series fans only

Maggie’s Return Home is a Disappointment

I enjoy World War II history, so I wasn’t surprised by how much I’ve loved the Maggie Hope series, which features a dual American/British citizen who has been working for Britain during the early days of World War II.  I knew that Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante would find Maggie returning to America in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and I’d been looking forward to seeing what kind of mischief she could get into here.  Unfortunately, the series’ flaws were so pronounced here that it ruined the book.

As the book opens, Maggie has rejoined the Prime Minister’s staff, ostensibly as his secretary, but with the idea that she can use her training as a spy if anything were to happen while Churchill and his entourage are in Washington DC for his meetings with new ally President Roosevelt and the two leaders work on a strategy to defeat the Axis.

And it’s a good thing that Maggie comes along, too.  The day they arrive, Mrs. Roosevelt’s personal secretary never arrives to work.  When Mrs. Roosevelt and Maggie go to her home, they find her lifeless body – an apparent suicide.  However, Maggie finds a clue that implicates the First Lady.  A scandal could disrupt the fledging alliance between the two countries and derail the war effort.  Can Maggie learn the truth?

These books have always been written in third person from multiple points of view.  At times, that has been used to help enhance the suspense as we know what the villain is up to even if Maggie is still unaware.  It has also been used to include some sub-plots that slow things down.  Sadly, that’s the case here big time.  While most of the action takes place in DC and the surrounding areas, we get a good chunk that takes place in England and even some in Germany.  Then, late in the book, a new location is introduced as well.  None of these add to the mystery at all.  They do cover some of the other historical things happening in the war effort at the time and advance a couple of supporting character’s story arcs, but they detract from the mystery.

Not that the mystery is that great either.  Between the other storylines and the scenes that are just bringing history to life, we can go pages at a time without Maggie (or us) even thinking about it.  The solution is rather abrupt as well.  I’m not saying we didn’t see it coming thanks to third person scenes from the villain’s point of view, but Maggie makes some pretty wild leaps.  Really, the mystery, the things we are supposed to be reading this book for, is a sub-plot at best behind watching history unfold.

In the last book, we got some major character development that really enhanced Maggie.  I loved watching that.  In this book?  All the characters were flat, although a few of them were annoying when they weren’t flat.  I was hoping that the awesome character growth would continue here, but it was not to be.

Finally, there are the lectures.  While there have been aspects in the past that were obviously aimed at advancing modern agendas, it was never as blatant as it was here.  The author never misses an opportunity to denounce the civil rights of the era (even saying Hitler took ideas on how to treat the Jews from segregation in the US), women’s rights, imperialism, and capital punishment.  There are a few scenes that are characters talking about these issues while other times it’s just a pointless dig here or there.  I don’t read fiction to be lectured to.  In fact, if I wanted to see pointless debates on these issues, I’d go on Facebook.  Worse yet is what these scenes do to a character I liked in previous books.  I’m not saying that things were great in America during this time period, but the blatant lectures in a book of fiction were a real turn off.

I think I’m so disappointed because I’d enjoyed the series so much and was looking forward to this new one.  Sadly, only the most diehard fans of the series need to consider reading Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante.

While I don't recommend this book, I did enjoy the earlier books in the Maggie Hope series.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: Adam Raccoon at Forever Falls by Glen Keane

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Entertaining parable about salvation
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Adam and Aren
Bring salvation truth to life
In fresh parable

Salvation Comes Alive at Forever Falls

Back in the late 80’s Glen Keane released a series of picture books starring Adam Raccoon.  These books were designed to be parables for kids illustrating Biblical truths.  While I was outside the target audience, my brother had them, and I enjoyed reading them to him.  Now that my niece and nephew are the right age, I’m finding out how well they hold up.  On a recent visit, I read them Adam Raccoon at Forever Falls, and we all enjoyed it.

If the name of the author sounds vaguely familiar to you, Glen is the son of cartoonist Bil Keane, the creator of the comic strip Family Circus.  Additionally, Glen had a career working at Disney during the animation renaissance as a supervising animator, responsible for Ariel, Beast, and Aladdin among other characters.

This book finds Adam Raccoon doing one of his favorite activities – swimming.  He would swim all day if he could.  However, King Aren, the ruler of the forest where Adam lives, has one law – no swimming in the pool above Forever Falls.  But Adam just can’t resist taking a quick swim there.  Will he be swept downstream?

The theme of this book is salvation, and it comes alive in a great way as we see the consequences of Adam’s actions and King Aren’s rescue of our hero.  This is a picture book, so things are simple, but the theology is sound for a parable.  We can’t save ourselves from the consequences of our sin, and Jesus paid the price for us.  We even get the resurrection.

As in a good parable, we aren’t preached at.  Instead, the book is filled with a good story and good characters.  Yes, it is fairly easy to see who these characters represent, and parents can use the book as a springboard to a more serious discussion about Jesus and what he did for us on the cross.  But their kids will want to read the book over and over again because it is fun.

And it is filled with wonderful full color pictures.  That shouldn’t be a surprise at all with Glen’s background.  The illustrations are a bit cartoony, but they fit the story perfectly, and there are a couple that are beautiful to look at.  It’s easy to see why Adam finds the forbidden pool so tempting.

Unfortunately, these books are out of print, so it will take a bit to track them down, but they are totally worth it.  Adam Raccoon at Forever Falls is just as great today as it was when it was first published.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

TV Special Review: Toy Story that Time Forgot

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Laughs and fun with favorite characters
Cons: A little dark at times; familiar themes for franchise
The Bottom Line:
Dangerous play date
Shows toys don’t always mix well
After Christmas laughs

“Have I Mentioned What a Fantastic Time I’m Having?”  “It’s as Plain as the Horn on Your Face.”

Disney and Pixar really aren’t ready to let the Toy Story gang go.  Since the “final” film came out a few years back, we’ve been several shorts with the gang and two TV specials (not to mention confirmation that they are making a fourth movie).  Not that I’m complaining since I love these characters myself.  Toy Story that Time Forgot is the second TV special, and fans of these characters will definitely want to watch it.

It’s after Christmas, and Bonnie (Emily Hahn) is going on a playdate to her friend Mason’s (R. C. Cope) house.  She’s grab a few of her toys to take along, including Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and her two dinosaurs Trixie (Kristen Schall) and Rex (Wallace Shawn).  Trixie is currently frustrated because she is never cast as a dinosaur in Bonnie’s play.  In fact, she is currently a baby reindeer while other toys get to be the dinosaurs.

Mason got a cool new video game for Christmas, and he and Bonnie quickly get absorbed.  However, the toys discover that Mason also got a BattleSaurs play set complete with many action figures.  Trixie and Rex are excited to be making so many new dinosaur friends.  But danger is lurking for Woody and Buzz.  Will they survive this play date?

I watched this special when it first aired last year, and my initial impression was that it was a little dark.  Rewatching it this year, I found more of the comedy, although a couple of scenes might be too much for extremely sensitive children.  It’s nothing worse than we’ve seen in the films, however.

We can pretty much guess where the plot is going early on, and it doesn’t really break any new ground for the franchise, but that’s okay because it’s plenty of fun.  There are laughs and memorable moments that fans of the series will enjoy.

It is a shame we don’t get to see more of the regular gang.  They do have cameos at the beginning and end, but that’s it.  However, this is just a half hour special.  There just wasn’t room for the rest of the toys, especially when you consider the many new toys that we meet along the way.

The voice cast does a remarkable job bringing the characters to life.  You can tell they love these characters as much as we do.  The new cast jumps right in and fits perfectly into the story.  And while this may be a TV special, the animation looks great.

Fans of the Toy Story characters (and really, who isn’t) will be glad they sat down to watch Toy Story that Time Forgot.  I think I will always enjoy checking in with these friends no matter what format the story takes.

December 26th's Weekly TV Thoughts

It's going to be slim pickings for the next couple of weeks for this feature on the blog.  In fact, if it weren't for one show, I'd have nothing.  But that's okay.  With as much as I'm going to be out of town, I wouldn't have time to keep up with anything anyway.  And Christmas is about spending time with friends and family.

The Librarians – I would really love to be in the writer’s room and find out exactly how they come up with their ideas.  Another wonderfully crafted and executed episode.  Those twists in the last scene were wonderful, and I can’t wait for the season finale next week.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Ornament Review: Merriest House in Town - 2015 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Delightful light and music show on fun ornament
Cons: I’m too merry to think up a con
The Bottom Line:
Super decked out house
Synched with perfection to song
Delight for your tree

It’s Easy to Be Merry with This House on Your Tree

Several years ago, Hallmark created a Magic Cord ornament that featured a house with crazy decorations linked to music.  In fact, they also created a table top piece based on that ornament.  They’ve revisited the idea this year with Merriest House in Town.  It was a must get for me, and I love it.

Once again, we’ve got a house decorated to the max.  This time, the house is blue with a red roof.  And it is decked out in lights on the roof, around the windows, and on the sides.  It’s got Noel and stars in lights on the upper roof with a light up sign that says “Happy Holidays” on the very top of the roof.  A light up Santa is about to slide down the chimney.  And in the yard, there’s a light up polar bear and a penguin.  The one thing this doesn’t have is someone dangling from the side like on Deck the House!  But that’s okay, this ornament looks great the way it is.

Of course, what truly makes this special is when it is connected to a Magic Cord (sold separately).  That’s when the lights actually turn on, for example.  And when you press the button, you get a wonderful show.  The lights flash and dance to the music – this time part of “The Nutcracker.”  The synchronization is perfect, and watching it brings a smile to my face.  Of course, the ornament also controls the rest of the ornaments connected to that Magic Cord, and their timing is great as well.  All told, the show last just about 30 seconds.

Since this is a house with a bit of a yard, the ornament has a nice flat base, so if you wanted, you could set it out with any Magic Cord ornament display and enjoy that way.  I have mine hanging on my tree.  The loop for hanging it is on the peak of the roof, and the ornament does tip forward ever so slightly, but that is easy enough to disguise with the branches on your tree.

I briefly debated about getting this ornament since I had one that was so similar, but I didn’t debate long.  This one is different enough to make it worthwhile if you like the idea.  I love the idea, and I’ve really been enjoying my copy this season.

So go ahead and get Merriest House in Town.  It will bring lots of merry to your tree for many years to come.

Original Price: $29.95

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Amazing animation; funny and touching moments
Cons: Story a little slow overall
The Bottom Line:
Amazing backgrounds
Provide setting for story
That could be better

Good Addition to the Pixar Cannon

It always kills me when a movie I want to see comes out right at Thanksgiving.  It’s just too busy a time to rush to the theater.  That’s why I am just now seeing The Good Dinosaur, the newest movie from Pixar.  While it is not the best film the studio has released, it is still quite enjoyable.

The story is set in an alternative universe in which the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed Earth.  As a result, dinosaurs are the intelligent and dominant species on the planet.  Our story follows Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), the runt of his family.  Everyone works hard to run the family’s homestead, but Arlo can’t seem to get anything right.  Between his small size and being frightened of everything, Arlo is less than helpful.

And then Arlo winds up separated from his family homestead by miles of wilderness.  His only companion for getting home is the small human creature who has been stealing the family’s corn.  Will he be able to survive and find his way home?

Being a bit slow, it took me quite a bit into the film to realize that the movie was also playing with Western tropes.  I should have picked up on it sooner, but when I did, I enjoyed the sly way the movie used some of those ideas with their dinosaurs.  Yes, this movie has many of those creative touches you’d expect from the best of Pixar.  You know, those moments that you look at and think, “I never would have thought to do that, but of course it would be that way.”

And visually, this movie is absolutely stunning.  Many of the locations and sets look like they are real.  All of the characters are obviously animated, which is fine, but there were times I wondered if they were using the same technique Disney did back in 2000 with Dinosaurs, when the studio used real backgrounds behind their computer animated dinosaurs.  That’s not what was done here, but if you want to go see a movie for the visual treat, this is definitely the movie for you.

Sadly, the story could have been better.  It’s fine.  We essentially get a boy and dog survival story with Arlo being the boy and the human boy Arlo winds up naming Spot (voiced by Jack Bright) being the dog.  And they really do play that up in the movie.  Only the dinosaurs talk, which means that we get barks, grunts and howls from Spot.  And he mostly walks on all fours and behaves just like a dog.  It’s actually very fun and endearing.

But I was talking about the plot.  It’s a bit slow and predictable, and I’m not sure it will hold the interest of all the kids who would normally like a Pixar film.  Adults will find it fairly predictable.  Again, it’s not that the story is bad, it’s just not as great as the best of Pixar.  It’s also not as bad as the worst of Pixar.

As I mentioned, the relationship between Arlo and Spot is very endearing.  There are some true laughs in the piece, and they usually come from the two of them interacting.  And the finale of the movie is extremely touching because of their relationship.

There isn’t as much dialogue as you might expect in this movie, but the voice cast still shines.  In fact, they have to make us love their characters with fewer lines to work with, and they do a remarkable job at it.

So while The Good Dinosaur isn’t a movie to rush out and watch, it is definitely a film to see.  It’s a good story told with amazing animation you have to see to believe.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Review: Sugar and Iced by Jenn McKinlay (Cupcake Bakery Mysteries #6)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and plenty of fun
Cons: Mystery overshadowed by other stuff, ending veering toward soap opera
The Bottom Line:
Baking for pageant
Murder turns beauty ugly
And characters shine

Beauty Pageants, Romance, and Murder

At one point this year, I decided I was going to save three of Jenn McKinlay’s Cupcake Bakery mysteries for next year, but after I finished reading book 5, I had to move on to Sugar and Iced as soon as I could.  The cliffhanger from the last book worked, so I bumped the book up to the top of my TBR pile.  Not that I am complaining too loudly since it was another good read.

The 75th Annual Sweet Tiara Beauty Pageant is coming up, and Fairy Tale Cupcakes has gotten roped into participating, against Mel’s wishes.  Not only are they providing cupcakes for the lobby every day, but they will be baking the cupcakes the contestants create as one of the rounds.  And, with a college scholarship as the prize, Oz’s friend Lupe has decided to enter.

However, not everything is beautiful, and on the first day, Lupe and the rest of the gang get into a very public fight with Mariel Mars, the head judge of the competition.  Naturally, when Mariel is found dead under the cupcake table the next day, Lupe jumps to the top of the suspect list.  Now Mel has to dig beneath the beautiful surface to find other suspects and clear Lupe’s name.  Can she do that?

If you haven’t started the series, this is not the book to start with.  You see, that cliffhanger I mentioned?  It involved Mel’s love life (and to a lesser extent some other characters and their love lives).  And, while the threads of the mystery are being introduced, they are buried under updates on what is happening with those characters.  Normally, that might bother me, but that is exactly why I picked up this book so quickly, so I couldn’t complain.  The romantic sub-plots also provided some great humor over the course of the book, which I enjoyed.

Unfortunately, between romance (in addition to the other couples, there’s a new relationship budding here), and the beauty pageant itself, the mystery gets a little buried even late in the book.  Don’t get me wrong, I was always entertained and never wanted to put the book down, but the mystery was weaker than it could have been.  Things do come together for a strong climax; in fact, that climax was one of my favorite things in the book, and there was much I liked about the book.

Obviously, it was the characters that drew me to read this book so quickly, and they continue to be strong.  In fact, fans of the series will be thrilled with how some relationships evolve here.  Mel’s growth is the most obvious, but some of the other characters grow over the course of this story as well.  I kind of like where one relationship seems to be going, in fact.  Again, if you are new to the series, you won’t appreciate this growth as much, so start at the beginning.  The series is so much fun you won’t be complaining.

But I do have to circle back to the romance for a minute.  The final ending of this book takes one of the romances into soap opera territory.  I’m not saying this ending wasn’t set up earlier in the book, but I had to roll my eyes at the latest complication that couple faces.  Knowing the premise of the next book, I can see we will get a great payoff for it, so I think the payoff will be worth it, but I hope things smooth out for them soon.

Of course, you can’t have a culinary mystery without recipes.  We’ve actually got 4 cupcake recipes here, and they all sound delicious, so fire up the oven and enjoy.

It really is easy to see why these books are so popular.  The characters are as strong as ever in Sugar and Iced, and series fans who haven’t read this book yet will be delighted to spend time with them.  If you aren’t a fan yet, start at the beginning and you’ll be hooked before you know it.

And me?  I’m aiming to read book 7 in a couple of months so I can read the newest as soon as it comes out in April.  So much for my plan from earlier in the year to space out these books over all of 2015 and 2016.

And if you aren't yet addicted to the series, here are the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries in order.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Ornament Review: New Year's Snowman - Keepsake Cupcakes #6 - 2015 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute snowman ready to ring in the new year
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Ring in the New Year
With snowman cupcake who is
Ready to party

Wishing You a Snowman New Year

Being a California native and a Southern California resident all my adult life, I associate snow and snowmen with fantasies of Christmas.  It’s not something I see like ever!  That’s why I was surprised at the first when I saw the January cupcake in the Keepsake Cupcake series.  But I quickly realized that it makes perfect sense because a New Year's Snowman is actually something that can happen in the rest of the country.

Plus it’s a great cupcake.  We’ve got a vanilla cupcake in a tan cupcake foil.  Rising out of that is the snowman.  Naturally, he’s white, and the bottom circle is actually half made up of the cupcake and half frosting.  He’s wearing a pink scarf and a blue party hat blowing a purple party favor to ring in the new year.  There are some large pieces of glitter, on his body they could pass for sugar pretending to be fresh snow flakes and on his hat they look like the hat’s fringe.

Once again, we are looking at an incredibly cute ornament.  He definitely looks like he’s ready to party!  In fact, I’m now wondering if he is made from a fresh new snow.  Maybe we need a new legend about the power of a New Year’s snow to go with this cupcake.  Okay, I’m getting carried away now, aren’t I?  Let’s just agree he’s cute and move on.

Like the others in the series, he has a nice flat base.  He’s a cupcake after all.  You’ll also find the 6 in a Christmas tree on his base.  Can you believe we are half way through this series already?

If you want to hang him somewhere, you’ll find a loop in the hat on top of his head.  Slip a hook through that, and you’ll find that he hangs straight.

I’m more than happy living someplace with no snow, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a New Year's Snowman – at least the Keepsake Cupcake version.  And this ornament is cute enough you will, too.

(Of course, now that I think about it, the one time it did snow where I currently live was a day or two after New Year.  Maybe this ornament really is on to something.)

For a year of delicious decorations, you'll want to collect the rest of the Keepsake Cupcakes.

Original Price: $12.95

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book Review: Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fun story told with great rhymes and illustrations
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Elephant and egg
Fun premise, great picture book
Still great read today

“An Elephant’s Faithful One Hundred Percent”

Dr. Seuss created a few very memorable characters over the course of his many picture books, and Horton the elephant is certainly one of them.  He made his first appearance in Horton Hatches the Egg.  I loved this book as a kid, and I find it holds up just as well now.

One day Horton stumbles upon Mayzie, a bird trying to hatch an egg.  Mayzie is ready for a vacation, so Horton agrees to keep her egg warm.  However, Mayzie has no intention of coming back, but instead enjoy a permanent trip to sunnier realms.  Will Horton stay on the egg?  What will he face while he does?

It’s always nice to find a childhood favorite that stands the test of time, and this book does that splendidly.  Yes, as an adult, I did have to question just how long it took Horton to hatch the egg, but it just makes for a better story.  None of the complications last very long, this is a picture book after all, but there is some fun and imagination at work in the story.  Horton is a great characters, and it’s easy to like him.  Plus we get a great moral about sticking to your word, something that comes about naturally from the story.

Dr. Seuss was a marvelous illustrator as well.  This book is filled with his pen and ink illustrations.  Most have minimal color, but they are still great to look at.  They really capture the humor in an elephant sitting in a tree on a nest and a few of the other things that happen along the way.  And the pictures at the climax really sell the story.

And this story is told in classic Seuss rhyme.  The cadence is perfect for reading aloud, and the amount of words on a page isn’t overwhelming.  It should keep those with short attention spans entertained.

While this book isn’t usually classified as one of Seuss’s easy reader books, I’d argue it could be.  It’s not quite as simple as Green Eggs and Ham, but most of the words are easy enough.  This might not be a good book for very beginning readers, but I think a young reader who is ready for something slightly more challenging will do great at this book with an adult to help them read the very few harder words.

And so I recommend Horton Hatches the Egg.  It’s just as much fun now as it was when I read it as a child and when Dr. Seuss first wrote it 75 years ago.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun story, characters old and new, effects, laughs
Cons: Story not as fresh as it could have been
The Bottom Line:
Star Wars returns and
Fans will flock to return.  They’ll
Be happy they did

Fun if Not Perfect Return to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

I’m the right generation to have gone to see at least some of the original Star Wars movies when they were originally in the theater, but I actually came quite late to the franchise.  I might not be quite as obsessed with the movies as some people are, but I still got quite swept up into the excitement for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  So much so that I went to see it at one of the early shows on the Thursday night before the official release day.  I think fans are going to be quite happy with it.

If you want to go into this blind, I will be spoiler free, I promise.  In fact, I’m not going to say much beyond the opening scroll.

In order to do that, I’m going to be very light on plot teaser.  While the Empire may have been defeated, there is always a new threat.  This time, the threat come from the First Order.  Under leaders such as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), they are plotting to overthrow the Republic.  Only a small Resistance is truly able to fight against them, a resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fischer).

But to truly have a chance, they need a Jedi, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into hiding.  When the Resistance’s best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets his hands on a map for Luke’s location, the First Order is hot on his trail.  Very quickly, two more people, Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), are caught up in the fight.  Will anyone be able to find Luke?  Or will this map fall into the hands of the First Order?

And while I didn’t mention them above, yes, we do also see Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

In fact, like many in the theater, I was there more to connect with old friends than I was to see the story of the new characters.  I must say, the reveal of each new returning character was wonderful.  This is a great bridge between the old familiar (if older) faces and the new faces that will be taking over the franchise.  Like many other movies we’ve seen recently, this knows it is balance nostalgia with forwarding a franchise, and it walks that line well.

And it gets the tone absolutely right.  This looks and feels like a Star Wars film.  The aliens, the planets, the visuals, the tone….  In so many ways, this movie gets it right.  Star Wars fans will feel right at home in this universe.  New writer/producer/director J. J. Abrams has very lovingly crafted his new story to fit in the world we all love so much.

Unfortunately, I must say the story is the only real weakness.  No, it’s not a pacing issue because something new and exciting was always happening.  It just felt too familiar overall.  And that’s all I will say for fear of going into spoiler territory.

The acting was great.  The old cast is able to slip into their roles again with ease.  The new actors jump into the film and make these characters their own.  They will definitely be able to carry the franchise successfully as these movies move forward.  Plus watch for the cameo from J. J.’s friend Greg Grunberg.

Of course, the effects were great.  They were there to support the story and weren’t driving the story.  Having said that, there were a ton of them, but they were completely believable.

The movie also had plenty of laughs.  A few poked fun at the franchise itself, but most of them came from some truly fun dialog.

While I don’t think this quite reaches the level of the original movies, it is certainly many steps above the prequel trilogy.  (And maybe I’m looking at the originals with rose colored glasses when I try to compare.)

Of course, what I say or don’t say isn’t going to change your mind.  You’re going to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend anyway.  And truly, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed at all.

December 19th's Weekly TV Thoughts

We are winding down for Christmas.  Just four shows this week, not that I've had the time for some of the other things I thought I'd get done without so much TV to watch.  Where does all my free time go, anyway?

The Librarians – I really liked the character development they gave Ezekiel Jones.  Frankly, it was much needed.  I mean, the guy’s funny, but he is a bit reckless much of the time.  But then they erased it?  I wish they hadn’t done that.  Of course, he is the comic relief in a dramedy, so he couldn’t be serious all the time.  I’ve got to say, the whole concept of the show was great, especially when he figured out it was a video game.

Supergirl – So pretty much everyone knows, faster than on The Flash, even.  Yet I’m okay with Cat figuring it out since she is supposed to be a smart woman.  I just wonder how she will treat Kyra now that she knows.  That’s what I’m wondering about most right now, not the fight cliffhanger.  And I do hope some of Cat’s character development sticks around after the break.

Survivor – I was expecting nothing less than outstanding from this finale after the season, and they delivered.  I mean, that first tribal alone was awesome and worth watching the season for.  Jeremy getting all the votes was a tad anti-climatic, but still, that’s me being extremely picky for such a great season.  Oh, and I LOVED that Kelly revived the “pick a number” bit.  Didn’t chose the winner this time, but it still made me laugh so hard.

Big Bang Theory – I don’t know why I was at all concerned with how they’d handle the most talked about episode of the series in quite some time.  They was a lot of fun with great lines and very funny moments.  Plus the scenes in the movie theater were fantastic as well.  Definitely a strong, very strong episode.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review: Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen by Vicki Delany (Year-Round Christmas Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great characters, charming setting, plenty of Christmas spirit
Cons: Plot a bit slow near the beginning.
The Bottom Line:
Charming Christmas book
Murder and holiday warmth
Combine to give cheer

I Don’t Think Murder is in the Christmas Spirit

As you might have noticed, I love Christmas.  (And I think that’s in the running for understatement of the year.)  So when I saw Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen, the first in a new series about a town that draws in tourists by celebrating Christmas year round, I knew it was meant for me.  And I was right.

Years ago, the town of Rudolph, New York, decided to embrace their name and become a tourist destination for all things Christmas.  The streets all have Christmas names, the businesses are all centered around Christmas, and the town even hosts Christmas events to bring in the tourists.

Naturally, December is the biggest month in the year for businesses, and Merry Wilkinson is no exception.  The month kicks off with a Christmas parade and party, and this year a reporter from a huge travel magazine is coming to cover the event.  However, the night of the party, Merry finds his dead body in the park after the party.  The police quickly determine it was poison, and the poison was in a gingerbread cookie he ate.  Since Merry’s best friend Vicky provided the cookies, she shoots to the top of the suspect list.  But since the reporter was in town to provide publicity, who would want to kill him?  And what might this do to the tourist dollars?

If you are looking for a cozy mystery with Christmas spirit, this book is for you.  Merry’s father is the town Santa and Merry’s mother leads the strolling carolers in town.  Being December, there’s snow as well.  Merry’s shop, Mrs. Claus’s Treasures, sells decorations, and I think I could spend hours wandering around the shop (and tons of money there as well).  If it weren’t on the other side of the country, I’d stop by and visit in a heartbeat.

(Well, it would have to be a real place, too, but let’s not confuse me with the facts.)

And the village is populated with wonderful characters.  Merry is a great main character, and I enjoyed spending time with her.  Her parents are just as charming.  Yes, the book sets up a love triangle, and usually I quickly decide which love interest I am rooting for.  This time?  I am torn because I really like both guys.  And I could go on talking about all the people we meet in this book.  I really do like them.

Unfortunately, the plot suffered a bit in favor of the Christmas atmosphere and charming characters.  It seemed a bit slow in the beginning with Merry reacting to what was happening around her instead of investigating.  It definitely picked up as the book went along, however, and the climax was logical and perfectly executed.

You really can’t find a better Christmas cozy than this.  So plug in the tree, put on some carols, grab some cider or egg nog, and get lost in the world of Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen.

Stay in the Christmas spirit with the rest of the Year-Round Christmas Mysteries.

December 18th's Book Beginnings and Friday 56

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

We are a week before Christmas, and this week's book is Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen by Vicki Delany, the last of my Christmas reads this year.

This is also the first in a series set in Rudolph, New York, a town that has made themselves a tourist destination by celebrating Christmas all year long.

With that in mind, here's the opening:

The tips of the tall turquoise and green hats bobbed in the lightly falling snow as the elves weaved through crowds of painted dolls, toy soldiers, shepherds with their sheep, reindeer, poultry, clowns, sugarplums, gingerbread people, and candy canes.

I'm going to cheat a bit on the 56.  This quote is actually from page 57 because page 56 didn't have any good quotes on it.

Vicky was silent for a moment.  "He hadn't looked unwell at the party.  He seemed to be having a good time."
"I mean sick as in throwing up."
"I hadn't noticed him drinking, had you?"
"No, and I think that's the point, Vicky."
She said a very bad word.  Vicky never swore and that she did now showed me that she understood what I was saying.

Intrigued?  My review also went live today, so feel free to read it to learn more.