Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge by Laura Levine (Jaine Austen Mysteries #16)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Funny Christmas mystery
Cons: Who do you think I am, Scrooge?
The Bottom Line:
Stingy man next door
Jaine finds a Christmas murder
Always delightful

Bah Humbug Murder

Normally, I read Laura Levine's books almost as soon as I get my hands on them.  However, I had to save Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge for my annual Christmas cozy readathon.  It was certainly worth the wait.

Christmas is coming, and Jaine Austen has landed a sweet housesitting gig thanks to her neighbor Lance.  The two of them are staying at a mansion in Bel Air, and Jaine is quickly loving the luxuries of the place.  And it's perfect since this is a slow season for Jaine's freelance writing work.

Thanks to Jaine's cat, Prozac, she winds up meeting the neighbors.  Scotty Parker in particular is a pain.  The man is a former child actor best known for his performance as Tiny Tim in a mostly forgotten remake of A Christmas Carol.  However, he seems to have taken on the attributes of Scrooge, pinching pennies and getting into fights with his neighbors.  He's even roped Jaine into helping him polish up his masterpiece, a bloated script called The Return of Tiny Tim: Vengeance Is Mine!.  Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

Christmas morning proves that someone has been very naughty when Jaine finds Scotty's dead body.  The police seem to think she makes a great suspect, so Jaine puts on her part time, semi-professional PI hat in order to clear herself of the crime.  But with so many suspects, will Jaine figure out who killed Scotty?

Those who are familiar with the series know exactly what to expect here.  If that's you, know you'll love this book as much as the others.

As usual, the murder takes place later in the action than some of the series I read, but the pages aren't waisted.  By the time Scotty dies, Jaine has already met several viable suspects with strong motives.  As she goes about trying to nail down alibis, she only gains more.  The ending makes perfect sense when Jaine does finally piece everything together.

Along the way, we get some fun sub-plots.  Lance has signed Jaine up for an on-line dating site, and we are treated to several dates.  Plus, Lance has a new crush of his own.  Meanwhile, Jaine's parents and several of their neighbors are taking a cruise.  We are treated to their misadventures thanks to a series of e-mails from Jaine’s parents.  Just from the initial e-mails from her parents, I knew we were in for a treat with that sub-plot, and I was highly rewarded.

Yes, this is a comedic mystery.  There are a few strong laughs, mostly coming from these sub-plots, and plenty of grins and snickers as Jaine works her way through the latest misadventure.

The characters are more caricatures in this series, and that holds true again here.  They are designed to give us laughs, but they totally fit into Jaine's world.  Trust me, you won't be complaining about that as you breeze through this book.

And the ending?  I'm very anxious to see exactly where that goes in the next book.

Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge is a delightfully fun Christmas mystery and another great addition to the Jaine Austen series.  Fans old and new will be left with a smile on their face as the pages fly by all too quickly.

Looking for more laughs and clues?  Here are the rest of the Jaine Austen Mysteries in order.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: If You Ever Want to Bring a Pirate to Meet Santa, DON'T! by Elise Parsley

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Delightfully absurd and funny story
Cons: Listing cons would put me next to the pirate on the naughty list
The Bottom Line:
Pirate meets Santa
Hilarious disaster
For holiday laughs

Matey, This Picture Book Will Give Ye a Christmas Laugh

I'm so glad I stumbled on the Magnolia Says DON’T series a few years ago.  These picture books are silly fun.  As soon as I saw that there was going to be a Christmas entry this year, I knew I had to read it.  After all, how could you miss with If You Ever Want to Bring a Pirate to Meet Santa, DON’T!

When your father tells you that you are going to meet a man with a beard and a sack of treasure, he means Santa, not the pirate by the mall fountain.  And even if you befriend the pirate, it might not be a good idea to ask him to join you in line.  After all, he is on the naughty list.  His ideas of songs might not be festive.  He might want to pillage anything you are offered in line.  Will he reform before you get to the front of the line?

Yes, these books are told in second person, but really, they are Magnolia using her own experience to tell you why it might be a bad idea.  Trust me, the storytelling works perfectly here.

And the book is funny.  As you go along, the situation gets funnier until you reach the climax.  It was enough to make me laugh out loud.  And you will NEVER want to bring a pirate to meet Santa after reading this book.

The pictures add to the fun.  They are on the cartoony side, and they perfectly capture the absurdity of the situation.

Like others in the series, this book isn't labeled as an easy reader, although I suspect that beginning readers will be able to read most of this book without help.  There might be a word or two they'd need an adult to help them sound out.

If You Ever Want to Bring a Pirate to Meet Santa, DON’T! is perfect for this time of year.  And it is so much fun, I suspect it might get slipped into the reading pile the rest of the year.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

December 8th's Weekly TV Thoughts

Take out two shows, and there is nothing to hide my Arrowverse addiction is there.  First four shows out there for all to see.

Supergirl – Clearly that is not the end of either of those character’s stories for the season.  The wife will obviously pick up the mantel of the anti-alien campaign.  And President Baker is turning out to be bad, just like I feared.  He’s not evil…yet…but he’s clearly not good.

Arrow – So Oliver is going to be working with the police now.  I didn’t see that coming, but I should have.  The Mayor is going to be a problem, but I think I’m going to like that.  But I’m worried about Oliver and Felicity.  I hope they work out something soon.  I think I’d be more into this season if it weren’t for the flash forwards.  Again, it makes me wonder what the point is of what we are watching now.  And I’m really worried for Oliver and Felicity.  They’d better not break up again.

Legends of Tomorrow – I was not expecting that cliffhanger.  Very interesting way to end things.  And it looks like next week is going to be a ton of fun!  Already can’t wait.  I feel sorry for Constantine now that we’ve gotten a bit of his recent backstory.  (And no, I never watched the show he starred in, I only know him from the shows currently airing.)

The Flash – A traitor inside team Flash.  What a shocking twist!  Okay, so I was a bit surprised, but they’ve played that card a time or three already.  I’m curious where they will go with it once they come back in the new year.  Overall, it was a fun 100th with a number of great stops at key moments.  Very nice nod to history of the show.

Survivor – Good thing Christian played his idol.  I’m surprised it was Gabby who wound up leaving, as she was obviously, since she apologized to Allison before her name came up.  Ironically, Christian was the only one who voted for Allison.  And yes, I’m still rooting for Christian.

Big Bang Theory – The was a sweet episode.  Oh, Howard’s storyline was pretty funny, but I liked the tape and how that all played out.  Even though I don’t watch Young Sheldon any more, I still enjoyed the cross over via the video tape.  But the burning question is, will we see that shower curtain again?

The Good Place – D’Arcy Carden was amazing!  Those were pretty good impressions of the rest of the cast, and it was pretty funny watching her do everything.  How hard of an episode must that have been for her.  And, I’m sure, a lot of fun.  But she was in every scene, sometimes multiple times.  Oh, yeah, story.  Something is definitely wrong with the points system.  And what will we find now that we are in the real good place.  I can’t wait to find out.

Friday, December 7, 2018

December 7th's Book Beginning and Friday 56

Well, it's been six weeks or show, but I'm back with another Book Beginning and Friday 56.

This week, I'm featuring Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge by Laura Levine.

Yes, it's a Christmas entry in the long running Jaine Austen comedic mystery series.  I saved it for December, and it was worth the wait!  This has long been a favorite series.

Here's how it begins:

I blame Connie Van Hooten for everything.  If she hadn't packed up her staff and gone yachting in the Mediterranean, I would've never spent that cursed Christmas as a murder suspect.

Page 56 features part of an e-mail from Jaine's father:

I've got to look at the bright side.  The clattering false teeth I ordered for Lydia Pinkus's Secret Santa gift are tucked away safe in my suitcase.

As a fan of the series, I was already laughing just imaging this since Jaine's dad has a one sided rivalry going with Lydia.

Honestly, the entire book was great.  I'll have my full review up on Monday, so I hope you'll come back then.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Book Review: Christmas Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke (Hannah Swensen #23)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fun seeing Hannah before the series starts
Cons: Light on mystery; pacing.
The Bottom Line:
A flashback story
Very light on mystery
Die hard fans might like

Hannah's First Brush with Murder

Just like last year, Joanne Fluke has treated us to a Christmas mystery featuring her sleuth Hannah Swensen.  And, just like last year, the book is a flashback story to a Christmas before the events in the most recent books take place.  In fact, in this case, Christmas Cake Murder takes place many, many years before.

This book is set at the first Christmas since Hannah's father has died.  Hannah has dropped out of her graduate program and is home trying to help her mother, Delores, deal with life after her loss, and Hannah is beginning to worry.  Fortunately, Grandma Knudson and Annie come up with the perfect project to get Delores's mind off her loss.  It seems Essie, a beloved member of the community, has fallen and broken her hip.  In an effort to cheer her up, Delores is asked to organize a Christmas ball, with Hannah recruited to bake the cakes for the events.

While all this is going on, Hannah begins to share her dreams of opening her own cookie and coffee shop.  And a novel that Essie was working on captivates Hannah, Delores, Michelle, and Lisa.

You'll notice I didn't talk about crime at all.  That's because the mystery really is more of a sub-plot in this book.  Instead, time is spent planning the Christmas ball and Hannah figuring out what is next for her.  The strands of the mystery are woven in early, so when it does begin, it does come to a logical conclusion, but this isn't a typical mystery at all.

As a result, I don't recommend that you pick up this book if you aren't already familiar with the series.  It's not at all a good example of why the series is so popular, and you will be bored.

Fans of the series will enjoy it more.  It's fun to see characters we already know and love before we met them.  Heck, Hannah's middle sister, Andre, is pregnant in this book.  And none of the current guys in Hannah's life are present, although we do hear about a recently failed romance long time readers will be familiar with.

Even so, I'll admit to struggling to get through this book at times.  While seeing Hannah getting her life arranged in the way we already know is fun to a certain extent, the book does drag at times.

And yes, there are plenty of recipes.  By my count, we get a total of 11 new ones this time, including three bunt cake recipes.

Christmas Cake Murder is a fairly quick read that will amuse die hard Hannah fans.  Anyone else can skip this entry in the long running series.

Need more delicious mysteries?  Here are the rest of the Hannah Swensen Mysteries.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Ornament Review: Partners - 2018 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Captures statues I love
Cons: Looks like plastic trying to be metal
The Bottom Line:
Disney and Mickey
Statues shrunk to ornaments
Not perfect, still good

A Piece of the Parks for Your Tree

Many Disney parks have a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.  The best known iteration is the Partners statue.  I love looking at the one at Disneyland, so when I saw that Hallmark was releasing a version of it, I had to buy it.

Since I know the statues are slightly different at different parks, I'm not even going to claim I know which particular statue inspired this ornament.  It really doesn't matter since the basics remain the same.  These statues feature Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse.  Walt is pointing out to the distance.  You could say he is pointing into the future.  Or maybe he's pointing to all the guests they get to welcome to the park that day since he is usually pointing down Main Street to the entrance.  Both the man and his creation are smiling.

I will say that the ornament looked better in pictures than it does in real life.  The issue is in the fact that plastic is being painted to try to look like metal.  It's not bad, but it is definitely a flaw.  The good news is, this ornament looks better in dim light - say on a Christmas tree with just the lights of the tree on in the room.  Again, it doesn't look bad.  You can definitely tell who is in the statue.  They have the details in the faces and bodies you'd expect.  It just looks like plastic trying to be metal complete with some areas that are weathered and rusty.  And it’s those weathered and slightly rusty places that look so odd.

That complaint aside, I love it.  Then again, is that any surprise since I love Disney so much?

Since this is a statue, it comes with a great base so you can set it out to be displayed year-round.  If you are looking to hang the ornament on your tree, you'll find the loop on Walt's shoulder.  It's a great place for it since the ornament hangs straight.

If you buy this ornament expecting something that looks metal, you'll be disappointed.  But if you love Disney and these statues as much as I do, you'll be glad you bought the Partners ornament.

Original Price: 17.99

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Book Review: Game of Scones by Mary Lee Ashford (Sugar and Spice Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, good mystery
Cons: Pacing could be better
The Bottom Line:
Recipe battle
Dead body sidetracks cookbook
Good series begins

War of the Scones

Over the last couple of years, I've become a fan of the Pampered Pets Mysteries written by the writing team of Sparkle Abbey.  So, when I saw that one of those authors was launching a series of her own, I had to start it.  Plus, I don't seem to be able to resist a culinary theme.  That’s why I picked up Game of Scones by Mary Lee Ashford.  I'm glad I did.

This book introduces us to Rosetta Sugarbaker Calloway, “Sugar” to friends.  After losing a job at a food magazine, Sugar goes into business with award winning baker Dixie Spicer to form Sugar and Spice Cookbooks.  Their plan is to focus on helping to launch community cookbooks.

Their first project is very close to home since they are working on a cookbook for the centennial of St. Ignatius, Iowa, the town they've set up their business in.  Unfortunately, the cookbook project has heated up the long simpering feud between Elsie Farmer, a member of the most powerful family in town, and Bertie, Dixie's aunt.  The pair are currently fighting over who has the best scone recipe.  There is only room for one in the book, and both think their recipe should be included.

In an effort to find a compromise, Sugar stops by to visit Elsie.  However, she finds Elsie in her garden dead.  After their very public fight, naturally Bertie is the prime suspect, but Bertie seems to have left town.  Or has something worse happened to her?  With Dixie distracted by her aunt's disappearance, Sugar begins to try to figure out what has happened.  Can she find the truth?

I can't remember the last time I read a mystery set in Iowa, and I found that a lot of fun.  St. Ignatius is a charming town with that small-town appeal we love in a cozy.  I'm already looking forward to many more visits there.

Likewise, the cast is fun.  Sugar and Dixie are a great pair, and they make a formidable duo.  We meet an assortment of family and friends, and I felt like we got to know several of them here.  I'm looking forward to learning more about everyone in future books.  The suspects are strong and kept me intrigued.

I did feel the pacing was a bit off.  However, I never lost interest, and it wasn't long before something else intriguing would happen.  Things came together for a great climax and wrapped up everything perfectly.

And what's a culinary cozy without recipes?  I wasn't surprised to discover that we get both scone recipes as well as a broccoli gratin recipe.  I must admit there was one cookie mentioned in the book I was intrigued by, but it wasn't included.

I'm definitely looking forward to visiting Dixie, Sugar, and the rest of the gang again soon.  Game of Scones whets your appetite for more mysteries to come.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Music Review: The First Noel EP by Marc Martel

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: First three tracks are fun
Cons: I have never been a fan of the second three tracks
The Bottom Line:
A second EP
Not as good as first for me
Due to selections

Song Selection Makes Marc's Second Christmas EP a Disappointment for Me

As a fan of Downhere (and I will miss that band forever), I've followed Marc Martel to his solo efforts.  I was excited when I learned about The First Noel, since I had really enjoyed his first Christmas EP.  Sadly, this one didn't measure up, but I suspect it's mostly a personal issue for me.

The project starts well with three wonderful songs.  It opens with the upbeat "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas."  This duet with Plumb was released as a single last Christmas, and it proved to be a radio hit.  That's not a surprise since it is fun.  "Mary, Did You Know?" comes next.  This time, Marc teams up with Buddy Greene, who co-wrote the song.  Their duet is phenomenal.  Then again, I really do love this song.  Finally, there's "The Christmas Song."  This time, the guest is Scott Mulvahill, and once again, the duo create a fun version of the song.

It's the second half where things fall apart for me, and it is nothing but the song choice.  The second half starts off with the title track, a song I find slow and boring.  Marc does increase the temp a little on this track and adds a new chorus, but it still doesn't really work for me.  Next up is "Ave Maria" followed by "The Hallelujah Chorus."  I know, I know, they are both classic pieces, but they aren't to my taste.  One or the other would have been fine, but having both back to back doesn't interest me.

But here's the thing, all three of these tracks are technically wonderful.  Marc has the musical talent to pull them off well.  I enjoy the bells used near the beginning of "The Hallelujah Chorus," and find his guitar heavy arrangement of "Ave Maria" fun.  Marc tackles these three tracks without a major musical guest star, but his voice is so strong you don't need a duet.

The music on all of these tracks in minimal.  The EP came about via a Go Fund Me (yes, I contributed), so there is no elaborate orchestra.  Marc's background in a band comes through since keyboard and guitar are the predominate instruments.  Yet you really aren't lacking anything.  The vocals are strong and really do carry the tracks.

And that's why I'm still glad I got the release even if the second half songs aren't my favorites.  I doubt I will specifically listen to these tracks on their own much, but mixed in with the rest of my Christmas music on my phone and computer, I will enjoy The First Noel EP.

CD Length: 22:11
1. It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas (feat. Plumb)
2. Mary, Did You Know? (feat. Buddy Greene)
3. The Christmas Song (feat. Scott Mulvahill)
4. The First Noel
5. Ave Maria
6. The Hallelujah Chorus

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Movie Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Lots of laughs, moments with old friends
Cons: Doesn't live up to the original by a wide margin
The Bottom Line:
Return to Ralph's world
Has laughs; but it's not as fun
Wish it were better

Race to Save Vanellope's Game

Like many others, I loved Wreck-It Ralph.  I'd forgotten just how much until I rewatched it in October.  As soon as they announced the sequel, I was anxious to see it.  Sadly, Ralph Breaks the Internet had its moments, but ultimately is disappointed me.

The movie picks up six years after the first one.  Everyone we met from the first movie is still hanging out at the arcade.  As far as Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is concerned, life is perfect.  He still spends his days being the villain of his game, but he gets to hang out at night with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), enjoying the various activities in the nearby arcade games.  However, Vanellope is getting bored with her game, wishing for more out of life.

When Ralph tries to shake things up for her, it goes horribly wrong, with the result being the steering wheel from Sugar Rush breaking off the machine.  With no easy way to get parts, Ralph and Vanellope set out to find a replacement, using the recently installed Wifi to go to the internet.  But finding a replacement part is only half the challenge; they also have to pay for it.  Will they get the part before Sugar Rush is removed from the arcade?

I'm trying to put my finger on what exactly went wrong as far as this movie goes.  It still has plenty of humor.  I wasn't laughing quite as hard as some of the people I saw it in the theater with were, but I laughed plenty, especially when they stumbled into the "Oh My Disney" site.  So many laughs that this DisNerd loved there.  They were pretty creative with how they depicted various websites and how they showed people getting around the internet as well.  Some of the humor felt a bit forced to me, but that was a minor complaint.

Maybe part of it is because, while Ralph does break the internet, that actually isn't the focus of the movie.  So maybe I kept expecting the movie to be about something it wasn't.

I think part of my problem is with the theme.  (And I'm trying to be vague here.)  It's not that I disagree with the theme, it's anything remotely bad, or I feel like they preached at us.  In fact, I would say it is something people of all ages can relate to.  I did feel like it contradicts the theme of the first movie, however.

Those looking to spend more time with the friends we made in the first movie should know that we do get updates on the major characters, however as far as returning characters go, it is mostly just Ralph and Vanellope in the internet.  We meet some fun new characters who make up for the missing old friends.

The actors are all in top form.  Whether returning or new, they bring their characters to life perfectly and let me get lost in the story.  Likewise, the animation is great.  It's much more ambitious than the first one was, and they pull off the very different locations perfectly.

While Ralph Breaks the Internet wasn't the fun sequel I was hoping for, I could definitely see it growing on me when I watch it a second time.  And I definitely will watch it again.  If you enjoyed the first, you'll want to see this one.  Just know it is a perfect example of a sequel not being as good as the original.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

December 1st's Weekly TV Thoughts

Caught up on shows, with plenty of new episodes to watch this week.

Survivor (11/21) – Dan’s right, it did take quite a bit from the Davids to take him out.  But then again, they were the underdog.  But talk about a crazy tribal!  That right there is why I continue to watch this show.  The unexpected is so incredibly entertaining.

Supergirl – James is no longer undercover.  Lena is going dark.  And we know that Black is evil as well.  At least we got some good steps forward in the plot this week.

God Friended Me – I suspected there was something funny about that last chess match all along, so that wasn’t a surprise.  But I don’t watch this show for the plot twists; I watch it for the heart-warming endings, and thankfully we got another one.  I’m curious where Miles and his dad are going to go if his dad starts to believe him.

Arrow – Finally!  But what a violent end, even for this show.  I’m just glad Oliver is out of prison, and I hope we can lighten things up some.  I guess I was wrong that Diaz is a series regular this season since it looks like he’s dead.

Legends of Tomorrow – Oh my goodness!  I was laughing so hard at that episode.  Just about every scene had at least one line or moment that was hilarious.  Definitely the light touch I needed after Arrow.

The Flash – I get where Nora is coming from.  Barry is right, but I get where Nora is coming from for sure.  Interesting to have a father/daughter villain team to go against the father/daughter heroes.  I feel sorry for our big bad now that we know more of his backstory.  (Supergirl, this is how you make someone sympathetic.)  With the crossover coming in two weeks, I get that they couldn’t have planned much more than this, but I feel like they might have planned to air the week of the election originally and then taken this week off?  Why else would a Thanksgiving episode air the week after the holiday.

This is Us – I love Beth, normally.  But in this case, she is dead wrong.  There is no way Randall can drop out of the campaign at this point.  Granted, I’m the one saying he shouldn’t be able to run since he doesn’t live in the city, but that’s beside the point since he is running.  Did not see the twist with Nicky coming.  What in the world is that going to mean?  And I’m still worried about the flashforwards.  Between this show and Arrow, I’m really beginning to hate flashforwards.

Survivor – I had missed we had a couple episode until I sat down to watch Wednesday night, late.  So I watched it over two nights.  And we went from a full on team choice to a split blindside.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the Davids now down a player again?  I might have waited a week to send Carl home for that reason, although he clearly needed to go soon.  I am always surprised by players to get the way he did.  It’s a sign you want to go home.

Friday, November 30, 2018

November 2018 Monthly Reading Summary

Last day of November, so it must be time for the monthly reading summary.  And I'm not going to have time to get the index updated this month.  I seem to only update that every other month these days, don't I?

As always, the links will take you to my full review.

All ratings are on a scale of 1 (bad) to 5 (great).

Killed on Blueberry Hill by Sharron Farrow (Berry Basket Mysteries #3) – 5
Summer may be winding down, but Oriole Point, Michigan, is getting in one more berry inspired festival to bring in the tourists.  The Blueberry Blow Out Festival includes carnival games, booths, and friendly competition between the various berry growers in the area.  At least it is supposed to be friendly.  Marlee Jacobs is shocked when she witnesses a fight between her fiance, Ryan Zeller, and Porter Gale, the owner of one of the biggest blueberry farms in the country.  Yes, there is bad blood between the two families, but this went much further than a rivalry normally would.  When Porter dies a few hours later, people think it is complications from his diabetes.  However, the police believe it is something more, and they are looking at Ryan as a suspect.  Can Marlee clear him?

I love this series, and this book is another example of why.  The characters are strong.  The series regulars are fun, and a couple even made me laugh, but we spend more time with the suspects, and they actually felt better developed to me than the regulars.  Not that I'm complaining.  The strong suspects helped drive a complex plot where the red herrings provided their own complications, not just as a distraction from figuring out who the killer is.  I enjoyed the book the entire way through, but the final third got so compelling I really didn't want to put the book down.  Throw in a few blueberry infused recipes, and you've got a fantastic book.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

City of Secrets by Victoria Thompson (Counterfeit Lady #2) – 5
Elizabeth Miles is attempting to give up her former life as the female in a group of conmen and fit into high society in order to prepare for her marriage to young lawyer Gideon Bates.  Part of that involves attending church on Sundays, and it is at church that she has met Priscilla, a recent widow who is one of the few people Elizabeth considers a friend in her new life.  One day Priscilla comes to Elizabeth for help since she has just learned that her recently deceased second husband has left her broke.  Priscilla knows there should be more money.  Can Elizabeth figure out what happened?

If you haven't started this great new series, I do recommend you back up to the first since it sets up so much of Elizabeth and her life in 1910's New York City.  Since this is only book two in the series, it's still very easy to get caught up.  When you do, you'll find yourself caught up in another fun caper.  I did feel the pacing was a bit off early on, but it soon picked up and by the end, it was impossible to put down.  This isn't a traditional mystery, although it still firmly fits in the crime fiction family.  The characters are all strong, and they help make the final third of the book very compelling for us.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

The Skeleton Makes a Friend by Leigh Perry (Family Skeleton Mysteries #5) – 5
Dr. Georgia Thackery has landed a summer job teaching a high school enrichment program on the campus of Overfeld College.  Even better, she's found a semi-private cabin on a nearby lake to rent, meaning that her daughter, Madison, and her best friend, Sid, are able to accompany her.  Even better, they are isolated enough that Sid, who is a living skeleton, can get outside the house occasionally.  Their solitude is interrupted when a teen shows up asking to meet Sid.  She is a member of Sid's clan in an online game, and she thinks a third member of their clan has gone missing.  Sid and Georgia haven't investigated for too long before they stumble over a dead body.  Can they figure out what is going on?

Those who love this series are in for another treat.  Drop everything and read this book now.  If you haven't picked up the series yet, you really should do so.  Yes, there is a slight paranormal element to the book, but it really is slight.  The characters are so strong that you'd swear they were fully fleshed out, yes, even Sid.  We don't have a large cast of recurring characters, but the new characters more than make up for it.  The twists keep us guessing up until the very end, when everything comes together perfectly.  But it is Georgia, Sid, and Madison that make up the heart of this book.  Their relationship is wonderful, and the bone puns and other jokes kept me smiling.  I truly enjoyed my time with the characters.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #17) – 4
Hercule Poirot is on vacation in Egypt, just looking to relax.  However, he quickly gets involved in the drama involving a young heiress on her honeymoon.  When a murder happens on board the ship they are all traveling on, Poirot finds himself drawn into the case.  Can he unravel what really happened?

This is classic Agatha Christie with an extremely complex mystery that seems so simple once Poirot unravels it all.  I did feel the book took a bit too long to truly get started, opening as it does a few months before the events really began.  But once it does, hold on.  Some of the supporting cast could have been stronger, but the main characters were all strong and kept me confused until the end.  Agatha Christie is still a master of the mystery genre, and this book shows exactly why.

Spy School Goes South by Stuart Gibbs (Spy School #6) – 5
Spy in training Ben Ripley is shocked when Murray Hill asks to speak to him.  This junior SPYDER agent hasn't said a word since he's been captured several weeks ago, but now he has agreed to lead Ben to the evil organization's secret headquarters, but he will only reveal this location to Ben and Erica Hale after they have left.  Unfortunately, Ben's suspicion that it might be a trap are proved true, and he and his friends find themselves stranded in Mexico.  Is SPYDER really nearby?  Can Ben stop their newest plan?  Or will they even make it back to civilization?

Those familiar with this series will know exactly what to expect from this book, and they won't be disappointed.  If you haven't found Ben's wonderful adventures, you are in for a treat.  The action is non-stop with plenty of twists along the way that keep the pages flying.  Yet there is still enough time for the characters to get some development.  There is definitely more to them than we see on the surface.  And there is plenty of humor; in fact, I might have been laughing out loud while reading one part.  If you are new to the series, you might want to back up and read them in order.  Trust me, you'll find yourself reading all of them and thinking of some kids you can pass these great books on to.

Reason to Doubt by Nancy Cole Silverman (Carol Childs #5) – 5
Radio reporter Carol Childs's daughter, Cate, is home for the summer, and she's brought a boyfriend with her.  Pete makes his living as a photographer, and the police begin to suspect him of being the Model Slayer, a serial killer who has been claiming victims in the Los Angeles area for the past several months.  Cate insists that Pete is innocent, and Carol doesn't find him a compelling suspect either, but then a phone call at the station sheds new light on the case.  Is Pete innocent?  Can Carol figure out who the killer really is?

The premise of this entry in the series intrigued me, and it didn't disappoint at all.  This case becomes very personal for Carol for a couple of reasons, and that helped drive the plot.  We got plenty of twists before reaching a page turning climax.  The plot also brings out a different side of Carol, which I enjoyed seeing.  The characters are all strong, and I loved seeing how Carol's love life progressed.  The series straddles the line between cozy and traditional, and the subject matter here makes this book no exception.  Just know that going in, and you'll be fine.  Once you start, you'll definitely be hooked and turning pages as quickly as you can.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Killalot by Cindy Brown (Ivy Meadows #6) – 4
Part-time PI and actress Ivy Meadows is enjoying a rare day off with her boyfriend, her brother, and her brother's girlfriend at the Renaissance faire thanks to free tickets from her friend, fellow actor Riley.  They are going to watch Riley's debut in the jousting event when a terrible accident ends with one jouster seriously injured and the other riding Riley's horse off into the desert.  Riley claims to have been knocked out, but was he?  Ivy finds herself undercover at the home of a Broadway writer and at the faire.  Will she be able to keep her undercover assignments straight?  Will she find out what happened?  Could this job land her a ticket to Broadway?

As you can tell, there is a lot happening in this book.  Unfortunately, it overshadows the mystery at times.  While things came to a satisfactory climax, I felt we could have gotten more development on the mystery earlier.  However, I was never bored.  So much was happening I was always reluctant to put the book down because I was having fun.  Part of that fun came from the characters; as usual for the series, we meet a wide variety of very fun people.  While the book has a comedic tone overall, things do get serious in the last quarter without getting dark.  This allows for some wonderful character growth in Ivy.  Fans of the series will be thrilled to see how she progresses here.  I can't wait to see where this leads in the next book.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly – 4
Henry Pierce is just days away from a patent and a huge meeting with a potential investor at the company he founded.  However, he's also just moved into an apartment since he has split with his fiancee.  That, of course, means a new land line, and Pierce starts to get phone messages for someone named Lilly.  Pierce quickly figures out that Lilly is a prostitute, but how did he get her number?  Why would she give it up?  Pierce isn't able to let the puzzle go, and he begins to spend his weekend obsessing over finding her instead of doing the last-minute things he should be doing for his company.  Will he find her?  Will he destroy everything he's worked for in the process?

This book is definitely a departure for Michael Connelly, featuring an everyman and bordering on a technothriller.  It starts out well with plenty of intrigue, but it gets bogged down in the second half.  The pace gets way too slow at one point before picking up again and racing to the climax.  Pierce's reasons for getting as involved as he does are reasonable, but we don't find out until the end.  He does make an interesting main character, however, and the rest of the cast are just as strong.  Since this book originally came out in 2002, it has some dated elements.  It's amazing how much our lives have changed in the last decade and a half.  This is one of Connelly's rare stand-alones, and you can read it as much, but fans of the Harry Bosch books will recognize some cool Easter Eggs, including a reference to the ending of City of Bones, the Bosch book that came out just before this book did.

Wreath Between the Lines by Daryl Wood Gerber (Cookbook Nook Mysteries #7) – 4
The town of Chrystal Cove, California is getting into the Christmas spirit, and Jenna Hart is busy with a bunch of Christmas themed events at the Cookbook Nook.  Her life is more complicated by the fact that her sister and her family are visiting, and Jenna gets pulled into their drama.  But things take a huge turn when her neighbor, Jake, comes over in a panic one night to report that a friend who had been staying with him has been murdered, trussed up with Christmas light and stabbed by a Christmas star.  Who would want to kill a visitor to town?  Or was Jake the intended target?

If you are looking for a cozy filled with Christmas spirit, you've come to the right place.  This book is filled with Christmas.  The mystery is a little weak since a couple of sub-plots crowd it out, but we do still get some twists before reaching a creative and fun climax.  The series regulars are all here, and it is wonderful to catch up with them again.  Once you've finished the book, you can keep the Christmas spirit with the many recipes for holiday goodies at the end.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Books Can Be Deceiving by Jenn McKinlay (Library Lover's Mysteries #1) – 5
Lindsey Norris is settling into her new life as the director of the public library in Briar Creek, Connecticut.  One of her many joys is working alongside her best friend Beth Stanley, the children's librarian.  Unfortunately, Lindsey has never warmed to Beth's boyfriend Rick Eckman, and spending more time with him doesn't change that at all.  So, Lindsey isn't upset when the two break up.  However, Beth gets some surprising news about Rick the next day just before she finds his body.  It's obvious that Rick has been killed.  With the police certain that Beth is guilty, Lindsey springs into action to clear her best friend.  Can she do it?

I'm finally getting around to starting this series, but I've loved the other books from Jenn McKinlay I've read.  I pretty much knew what to expect here, and I was right.  We get a fantastic cast of characters that I already can't wait to spend more time with.  The setting, both the library and the town, are charming as well.  I'd move to this town is it weren't for the murder rate (and the fact that it's fictional).  There is a bit of series set up that slows things down at the beginning, but the mystery is very strong once it gets started.  I was surprised by some of the twists along the way.  I also laughed several times along the way, and part of the climax made me want to cheer.

Just Plain Murder by Laura Bradford (Amish Mysteries #6) – 4
In the time that shop owner Claire Weatherly has been dating detective Jakob Fisher, she has never met Russ Granger, the man Jakob counts as a mentor and father figure.  Of course, it makes sense since Russ has retired and moved to Florida.  He is back in Heavenly, Pennsylvania, for a visit, but before Jakob and Russ can reconnect, Russ is murdered.  Distraught over the man's death, Jakob throws himself into solving the crime.  Can Claire help him come up with any leads?

It's been two and a half years since we've been able to visit this community, and I hadn't realized just how much I missed it until I was reading the first page.  I was immediately swept back into the peaceful state I find while reading this series.  In keeping with a town next to an Amish community, the pace in this series has always been a bit on the slow side, but I did feel this book's pacing was slower than normal.  Still, when the pace does pick up, we get a well-done plot.  The real star has always been the characters, and I was thrilled to be able to visit them again.  They are as wonderful as ever, and I enjoyed some of the developments happening in their lives.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

The Coloring Crook by Krista Davis (Pen & Ink Mysteries #2) – 4
The Georgetown bookstore Florrie Fox manages has added a weekly coloring group, and Florrie has enjoyed getting to know the regulars.  One of them, Dolly Cavanaugh, also enjoys bargain hunting at estate sales, and one week she comes in excited about her latest find, a copy of The Florist, a rare adult coloring book from the 1700's.  However, later that night, Florrie finds Dolly dead with a corner of a piece of paper in her hand.  That's all that can be found of book Dolly just bought.  As secrets begin to come to light, Florrie is left to wonder how well she really knew Dolly.  Was the book the motive for Dolly's murder?  Or did a secret from her past catch up with her?

I was charmed by the first in the series, and I enjoyed this one just as much.  The setting may be a neighborhood in the Washington DC area, but by sticking to the neighborhood, it still feels like a traditional cozy setting.  And what a setting!  I'd love to spend hours browsing in this bookstore.  Florrie is a great lead character, and she heads up a cast of equally fun characters.  It's hard to picture most of them as killers, in fact.  The plot is filled with twists and complications.  I began to suspect a few things, but I still had huge gaps I hadn’t figured out before I got to the end.  I do feel the ending was a bit rushed, and a few things got glossed over as a result, but that's my only issue with the book.  As with the first, the cover can be colored, and there are five recipes at the end.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: The Coloring Crook by Krista Davis (Pen & Ink Mysteries #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Setting, cast, twisty mystery
Cons: Ending is rushed
The Bottom Line:
Rare coloring book
Did it lead to a murder?
Story filled with fun

Coloring Can Be Profitable…and Deadly

I completely enjoyed the first in Krista Davis' new Pen & Ink Mystery series, so I was thrilled when we got to revisit Florrie Fox and the rest of the characters in The Coloring Crook.  I wasn’t surprised to find that this is a fun sequel.

Florrie spends her days as the manager of the bookstore Color Me Read in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC and her nights creating adult coloring books.  She's also heading up a club at the bookstore for adults to come and color together.  It's through this club that she's gotten to know Dolly Cavanaugh, who owns a brownstone in the neighborhood.  In addition to coloring, Dolly loves to hunt for bargains at garage sales.

One day Dolly arrives for the weekly coloring club meeting thrilled with her latest bargain.  She believes she has found a rare copy of The Florist, an adult coloring book from the 1700's.  There are very few of them left, so this could be Dolly's ticket to wealth.  However, the evening, Florrie finds Dolly's dead body.  The book is missing, only a piece of torn paper left in Dolly's hand.  As secrets begin to come to light, Florrie is left to wonder how well she really knew Dolly.  Was the book the motive for Dolly's murder?  Or did a secret from her past catch up with her?

Normally, we don't think of big cities as the setting for cozies, or at least modern cozies, but the Georgetown neighborhood works wonderfully here.  The action all takes place in the area; in fact, Florrie walks much of the time.  This feels like a cozy.  Florrie has a great guest house she lives in, and the bookstore sounds like one I would gladly spend a day browsing in.  An appealing setting is much of what draws me to a series, and this one has it.

I've also got to love the characters, and I certainly feel that way about this bunch.  Florrie is wonderful, and I love spending time with her.  Various members of her family and friends bring out different sides of her that I enjoy seeing.  Even the suspects are a nice bunch.  Yes, there are one or two characters we don’t like, but they are the exception.

As I alluded to above, this book isn't quite as simple as the rare coloring book being the motive, and I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot.  I did begin to piece things together early, but I only had a few pieces of it.  While the solution is logical, I did feel that the ending was rushed, leading to a few things being glossed over.  That's my only complaint with the book, however.

Since adult coloring books are the theme of the series, this book offers a cover you can color when you are pondering the latest twists and turns of the case.  And, since Florrie loves to bake, you'll find five recipes at the end.

With a charming setting, great cast, and involved plot, The Coloring Crook is well worth reading.  Personally, I'm already looking forward to a return visit.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ornament Review: Inside Story #3 - Santa and Squirrel - 2018 Hallmark Ornament

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Cute scene creatively displayed
Cons: It's the last in this series
The Bottom Line:
Santa gives present
As series comes to an end
Goes out with cute piece

Santa's Inside the Final in this Series

For better or worse, Hallmark has started announcing how many years some series will run.  The idea behind it being that someone might start a series if they know it will only run a certain number of years.  However, those of us who fall in love with a series are always disappointed when the series ends.  That's me this year.  Inside Story was always supposed to be a three year series, and it is ending with another fun ornament this year.

The ornaments in this series all feature a scene inside a traditional ornament shape.  I'm honestly not sure what the shape of this year's ornament is called.  I know I've seen it before.  It has a round center with pointed ovals on the top and bottom of the piece.  The outside is a sea green; it's pretty, and it won't blend into your tree too much.

The scene is in the middle circle, and features Santa.  He's standing next to a decorated Christmas tree.  The scene is outside, and the ground and tree and both covered in snow.  In front of the tree is a squirrel, and Santa is holding a present for the squirrel – a sack of nuts.

Once again, this is a very cute scene.  The tree is tall enough that it goes from the bottom to the top of the space, but is still skinny enough that the rest of the scene fits okay.  Like others in the series, the fact that it is inside a round ball makes the back of the scene slope up, but it doesn't distort the scene this year at all.

Since the ornament has a pointed bottom, you have to hang it.  That's no issue, however, since the bottom hangs straight.

My sadness at seeing this series end is lessened by the fact that they do have a few other similar series that I collect and enjoy.  Still, it is great that Inside Story goes out on such a nice note.

You can now get the complete Inside Story ornament series.

Original Price: $19.99

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book Review: Just Plain Murder by Laura Bradford (Amish Mysteries #6)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful to visit these characters again
Cons: Mystery could be stronger
The Bottom Line:
A mentor murdered
Brings us back to these old friends
Sit back and enjoy

It was Heavenly to Visit These Characters Again

It's been two and a half years since we were last able to visit the residents of Heavenly, Pennsylvania.  I hadn't realized just how much I missed these characters until I picked up Just Plain Murder.  By the end of the first page, I felt like I'd come home, and we'd only seen three of the series regulars.  I was smiling the entire way through the book.

If you haven't found this series yet, it is set in the Amish country.  Claire Weatherly, our main character, isn't Amish herself, but the gift shop she runs sells many items made by the Amish, and through that she has made friendships in both parts of her community.  She is dating Jakob Fisher, the local police detective, who has his own at times painful ties to the community.

As this book opens, Jakob's old mentor has come back to Heavenly.  Russ Granger was the policeman who inspired Jakob's interest in police work when he was a boy, and he became like a father to him when Jakob became a police officer.  Russ has long retired and moved to Florida, but he is back to visit his grown daughter.

However, before Jakob and Russ can reconnect, Russ is found murdered.  Distraught over the man's death, Jakob throws himself into solving the crime.  Can Claire help him come up with any leads?

Throughout this series, people talk about how peaceful the town is, especially the Amish side of the community.  That comes through in the books.  Just picking one up brings a sense of peace I don't get from any other of my favorite series.

The pacing of these books has always reflected that more peaceful setting.  Even so, this book seems a little slower paced than most.  There is a lot of focus on Jakob and how he is dealing with the loss, and it doesn't feel like we make significant progress on the mystery until the final third.  However, the end result is well worth reading.  I was highly satisfied when I was done.

The real star of this series has always been the characters, and they shine here.  All your favorites get at least a scene if not several.  There are some interesting developments for a couple of them as well.  They have been friends since the first book in the series, and it was absolutely fantastic to be able to visit them again.

There are a few references to things that have happened in previous books that come close to spoiling events, but if you haven't read those earlier books, you can still jump in here.  However, to fully appreciate the characters, you'll want to read the series in order.  That is a journey well worth taking.

It is always wonderful to check back in with our fictional friends, and I was so thankful to be able to do that with Just Plain Murder.  Whether you are new or old to this series, you'll be glad you picked up this book.

Enjoy more visits to Heavenly with the rest of the Amish Mysteries.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.


Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy of this book to give away.  Because it is a physical book, the contest is limited to residence of the US.

Just leave me a comment with your e-mail address so I can get in touch with you if you win.  I will pick the winner Tuesday December 4th, so please leave your comment before midnight Pacific Time on 12/4.  You will have until midnight on 12/9 to get back to me, or I will choose a new winner on 12/10.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Music Review: Don't Look Back by Josh Wilson

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 5 fun new songs backed with spiritual truths
Cons: It’s only 5 new songs!
The Bottom Line:
New EP release
Five enjoyable new songs
For fans old and new

Josh Wilson’s Back with a Great EP

I don't buy as much new music as I used to, but there are still a few artists whose new releases I look forward to.  Josh Wilson is definitely one of them.  His honest lyrics have a way of making familiar truths relatable and fresh.  It's been a few years since his last new release came out, but when I saw he was releasing an EP this year, I was thrilled.  Don't Look Back is as good as I had hoped it would be.

I will admit, it took me a couple of listens to fully appreciate this new release.  And part of the problem was the first track.  "Self Less" reminds us that following the two greatest commands “Ain’t about thinking less of myself, it’s thinking about myself less."  As the bridge says, "Love God, love people/It’s so hard and so simple."  Okay, so the lyrics are convicting, but my issue is more the style.  Josh almost chants the chorus, and it’s definitely a stretch from his usual soft rock style.  But the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve enjoyed it.

Stylistically, the next track is very similar, but I liked this one right away.  "Borrow (One Day at a Time)" comes straight from the Sermon on the Mount, reminding us that we aren't supposed to worry about tomorrow, instead focus on today.  Considering I am always worrying about things I will need to be doing in the future, it’s a reminder I need to hear.  I really appreciate Josh's honesty here since he makes it clear this is something he struggles with as well.

Things slow down for "OK," which is a more classic Josh Wilson song both stylistically and lyrically.  Josh has written songs before about leaving the past behind, including our guilt and shame over our confessed sin.  That's what the first verse of this song focuses on here.  The second verse expands it to anyone struggling with life.  This song is a clear and powerful reminder that Jesus came for us as we are, so "It's okay not to be okay."

I don't have a good Christian music radio station to listen to (probably one reason I don't get as much new music as I used to), so I hadn't heard "Dream Small" yet.  This song was actually released months ago to radio, but I fell in love with it right away.  It is a song about the little things in life that are truly important for eternity, things like spending time with your kids or visiting widows.  Josh makes it clear he isn’t saying we can’t dream big, just don’t miss the small things God wants us to do daily.  As he points out, "With His great love, a tiny rock can make a giant fall" and "The God who does all things makes oceans from rivers."  This is an important perspective to have in life.  Plus, it's a catchy song that is fun to sing along with.

The EP wraps up with the title track.  "Don't Look Back" is again about God's forgiveness and our need to leave what has happened to us in the past and move forward secure in God's grace and mercy.  Yes, it is echoing themes of "OK," but I need to be reminded of this simple truth quite a lot myself, so I welcome it here.

As I said, it took me a couple of listens to fully appreciate this disc, but that has proved to be a thing of the past.  (And I'm not going to look back.)  These are five fun songs packed with spiritual truth.

And yes, that is still my biggest complaint.  I wish this were a full release, although it is priced accordingly, so I really can't complain.  I'm just greedy.  I want more music.

If you are a fan of Josh Wilson's music already, you'll love Don't Look Back.  And if you haven't found this artist yet, now's the time to jump in.  You'll soon be looking back to get the rest of his music and then joining me looking forward to what he releases next.

CD Length: 17:49
1. Self Less
2. Borrow (One Day at a Time)
3. OK
4. Dream Small
5. Don't Look Back