Sunday, March 31, 2019

March 2019's Monthly Reading Summary

Can you believe we've hit the end of March already?  Time is flying by faster every year.  But we must have made it through another month based on the books I need to summarize for you.

As usual, the link takes you to my full review.  The Index has not been updated; I'll get to it next month.

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

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss – 5
Meet the Once-ler.  Back in the past, he found a forest of Truffula Trees.  Through ingenuity, he found a way to make these trees into something that everyone could use.  However, the Lorax shows up to try to warn him of the dangers that might cause.  Will the Once-ler listen?

I had this book as a kid, and we read it many times while I was growing up.  Rereading it as an adult, I was struck again by just how dark this book is.  There is a clear environmental message to the book.  I do wish it were more even handed, but I realize this is a picture book for kids, and a morality tale at that.  The pictures and creatures are pure Dr. Seuss and are fun.  The story, while told in rhyme, features some of Dr. Seuss’s made up creatures, so it isn’t early reader friendly, but as kids are ready to tackle something more challenging with the help of adults, this book would be great.

Survive or Die by Catherine Dilts – 4
The employees of Bender Clips are going on a corporate retreat.  Jack Bender, the owner, has shut things down for a week and rented out the Survive or Die camp in the Colorado mountains.  The camp was used as the location for a reality TV show of the same name a decade ago, and the host is still basking off the fame that show brought him.  Jack has a surprise for his employees.  The winner of the week will get a raise, and the loser will get fired.  Leave early?  You might be fired as well.  The employees, and a few spouses tagging along, are less than enthusiastic at this turn.  And some of the employees have their own agendas for the week that go beyond the challenges.

Before things get too far, a small group of employees find a death threat left on Jack Bender’s car.  The first night, someone dies, only it isn’t Jack.  Was it a tragic accident?  Is there a killer at camp?  Who will win the raise?  Or will accidents befall more people?

This is a creative book.  The plot is as much about the competition as the murder, and I got caught up in both stories.  One part of the climax turned things darker than I was expecting, but overall, I enjoyed the book and everything is explained by the end.  While we have a core number of characters, there are a lot of them, and I had trouble keeping them all straight at times.  Fortunately, we usually got the needed context when someone entered a scene.  The core characters are well developed, and we get some nice growth in most of them.  There is subtle humor aimed at corporate life in the book; as a corporate employee during the day, I found it fun while hitting too close to home.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.

Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg (Ian Ludlow #2) – 4
Bestselling author Ian Ludlow is heading to Hong Kong on business – promotion for a film based on one of his books and research for his next one – and Margo French is joining him as his research assistant.  Neither of them realize that their arrival in Hong Kong has attracted the wrong kind of attention thanks again to one of Ian’s books.  Will they recognize the danger they are in before it is too late?

I enjoyed this one just as much as the first in the series.  There is plenty of humor as events progress, some coming from the circumstances and some coming from a skewering of Hollywood thanks to the movie Ian is there to help promote.  I did feel some of the humor fell into the adolescent male category, which I didn’t always appreciate, but this isn’t something new for this author.  Thanks to well done multiple viewpoint storytelling, we know the slow burn that is happening before Ian and Margo realize they’ve attracted the wrong attention, but once the book really takes off, it becomes impossible to put down.  I love the fact that Ian is not a typical thriller hero since he is an overweight, middle age, writer.  He and Margo are great main characters.  If you are looking for a fun mix of humor and thrills, this is the book for you.

Lion Down by Stuart Gibbs (FunJungle #5) – 4
While FunJungle is located in a mostly uninhabited area of Texas, there are some larger estates and ranches that border the park’s property.  Living in one of those is Lincoln Stone, a radio and TV news personality that is known for saying very controversial things.  He has a dog he loves, and, unfortunately, that dog has been killed.  Lincoln is quick to blame it on the mountain lion that roams in the area, but the agent of the Department of Fish and Wildlife put in charge of the case doesn’t think that’s true.  Thanks to Teddy’s reputation for solving puzzles at FunJungle, the agent turns to Teddy for help.  Teddy agrees that the evidence left behind doesn’t add up.  Can he figure out what happened?  Meanwhile, Teddy and Summer, his girlfriend, are asked to figure out why the giraffes in FunJungle get sick every Monday.  Will this case distract them from saving the mountain lion?

It’s nice to see Teddy get involved in one mystery that takes place outside the parks in this one.  The mysteries are strong and are balanced perfectly, with clues that ultimately lead Teddy to the solution.  The climax pulls in all the elements of the book in an unexpected way that leads into a page turning race to save the day.  While this series has balanced the environmental message and the mystery well, this one got close to lecturing us a couple of times instead of working it in more organically.  I thought the characters created for this book were a little thin and more caricature than character.  Both of these complaints are things that adults will notice more than the kids who are the target age range for the books, however.  The series regulars are still strong, and I especially love Teddy, Summer, and their families.  The usual suspects also bring us several very funny scenes.

Chocolate Cream Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke (Hannah Swensen #24) – 3
Valentine’s Day is coming, and The Cookie Jar is getting ready to cater various Valentine’s Parties with new treats.  Hannah Swensen is throwing herself into this baking in order to not think about the news she’s gotten that Ross was already married, so their wedding was all a lie.  She has told the town of Lake Eden in an effort to curb gossip, and all of her friends are with her.  Which is why Ross sneaks back into town in the early hours of the morning demanding something from Hannah – something she might not be able to give him.  What will happen if she can’t?

As a longtime fan of the series, I’ve been expecting this book for several books now.  The murder itself takes place late in the book and is wrapped up quickly.  There were some other plot elements I was enjoying, so I wasn’t bored, however, I wish things hadn’t been left dangling quite so much until the next book in the series.  We get plenty of talk about food as always, with twenty-eight new recipes by my count.  It is always nice to catch up with these characters, at least for this fan of the series.  If you have been a fan, you’ll want the next chapter in Hannah’s saga, but if you are new, don’t jump in here.

Bridges Burned by Annette Dashofy (Zoe Chambers #3) – 5
It all starts with an explosion.  One of the few houses in a new subdivision explodes after the residents report smelling gas.  While EMT Zoe Chambers isn’t on duty, she rushes to the scene to offer whatever aid she can.  While she is there, she stops the distraught owner from rushing in to see if his wife was home.  Sadly, the wife’s remains are found in the rubble.  The fire investigator also find evidence that the gas leak and explosion that killed her wasn’t an accident.  While police chief Pete Adams, Zoe’s new boyfriend, immediately suspects the husband of setting things up, Zoe doesn’t believe it.  It helps that she has begun bonding with the victim’s daughter.  Both Pete and Zoe dig in their heels, certain that they are correct.  Where will the facts lead?  Will their relationship be destroyed before the truth is revealed?

With Zoe and Pete’s relationship being fairly new, this mystery really tests them.  As always, both are prominent characters, even sharing time as our third person view point characters.  That’s a good thing, too, since it allows us to better understand where they are coming from in their arguments and lets us see they both know when they might be wrong or did something stupid.  But all this drama is only part of the book.  While this might be a bit more of a procedural than the multiple suspect books I am used to reading, we still get plenty of twists and turns to the case and a climax that had me turning pages as fast as I could to see what would happen next.  Obviously, Zoe and Pete are strong leads, but the rest of the cast are just as strong.  Like the rest of the series, this book straddles the line between traditional and cozy with just a smattering of foul language and a bit more detail than in the books I normally read.  Just know that going in, and you’ll be fine.

“M” is for Malice by Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone #13) – 5
PI Kinsey Millhone is reluctant to take a case from one of her recently discovered cousins, Tasha Howard, but the case is too intriguing to turn down.  The head of Malek Construction has recently died, and the only will anyone can find divides his estate among his four sons.  The problem is no one has heard from Guy, the black sheep of the family, since he was supposedly disinherited almost twenty years ago.  Can Kinsey pick up a very cold trail and find him?

Those familiar with the series will know what to expect, plenty of family drama and a case that is much more complicated than it sounds.  Yes, things slow down a bit in the middle, but I suspected what was coming next and I found that suspense more than enough to keep me reading.  Kinsey is the star of this series, and her slow growth is enjoyable to watch.  We do get a bit from other series regulars, but we spent the most time with the characters related to the mystery, and they are all strong.  I was especially happy to note that a group of Christians Kinsey meets don’t turn out to all be hypocrites or extremists, which is what I expect almost every time I run across that in a mystery.  Fans of Kinsey who haven’t read this book yet are in for a strong entry in the series.

The Revenge of Magic by James Riley (The Revenge of Magic #1) – 5
It’s been six months since the attack on Washington, D.C.  Six months since Forsythe “Fort” Fitzgerald’s world was turned upside down when a giant creature comes up from the ground and destroys many of the monuments there, killing his father in the process.  In that time, one thought has kept Fort moving forward – the desire for revenge.

One day, Fort is surprised to be visited by the representatives of a school for magic.  Thirteen years ago, four magic books were found and only those born after they were discovered can read and use them.  When Fort is offered a chance to study at this school, he jumps on it, figuring this is a chance to learn something to help him extract his revenge.  However, not everything at the school is what it seems.  Can Fort learn what people are hiding from him?  Or will he be kicked out before that happens?

Since this is the first in the series, there is some world building that happens here.  However, it is mixed into the story so well that it never really slows things down.  It borrows a few fantasy tropes, but it mixes them up in such a way that it makes you forget where you might have seen them before.  The characters have layers to them, and, while they feel developed for a first book in a new series, I suspect we will be seeing much more depth to them as the series progresses.  The story moves forward quickly, and I never wanted to put it down.  This is a little darker and has less humor than James Riley’s earlier series, but it isn’t really that dark.  I’m intrigued by the threads left dangling at the end of this book and can’t wait to see where things go next.  Pick this book up today so you won’t be left behind on this magical ride.

Drowned Under by Wendall Thomas (Cyd Redondo #2) – 4
It’s the week before Christmas, and Cyd is dreading the upcoming holiday filled with rumors, whispers, and awkward family moments.  Then Barry Manzoni comes to her for help.  Barry is a childhood friend and Cyd’s ex-husband.  His parents are on an Australian cruise, and they vanished part way through.  Even though they didn’t book with Redondo Travel, Cyd still begins to use her contacts to see what she can learn.  In fact, she uses one of those contacts to get herself booked on the next cruise their ship is taking, which is following the same route.  Okay, so she might be using the trip to avoid Christmas with her family, but she does want to help Barry.

After a whirlwind trip half way around the world, she arrives on the ship only to find a dead body.  The crew want to say it is a tragic accident, but Cyd suspects foul play.  Does this tie into the disappearance of the Manzonis?  Can Cyd trust anyone on board?

If you haven’t read the first book in the series, a warning – this book does by necessity spoil some of the events of the first book in the series.  If you have read the first book, you know exactly what to expect here, and you won’t be disappointed.  We’ve got a fast-paced story with twists that keep Cyd hopping as she tries to uncover what exactly is happening.  There is a strong screwball comedy element that keeps us laughing, although some events and Cyd herself keeps us grounded.  I did feel the book got a bit frantic at times, but it never lasted too long.  The characters are a little caricature as well, but that just makes them fit perfectly into this world.  There is a smattering of foul language here.  We also have a very strong sub-plot with another endangered animal, but there is no animal cruelty involved this time around.  I enjoyed the different take on the Christmas setting – since the book is set mostly off the coast of Australia, we don’t have cold and snow, after all.  This is a fun ride, so pick up this book and hold on tight.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X #4) – 5
Evan Smoak’s first mission as a nineteen-year-old in 1997 sent him to an Eastern European country to take out a general who was going to make the region unstable.  Well, more unstable than it already was.  At the time, current President Bennett was just an undersecretary at the Department of Defense who was secretly in charge of the Orphan program.  At the time, Evan thought the mission went off without a hitch, but now he finds himself directly in President Bennett’s crosshairs.  What about that mission is so dangerous to President Bennett now?

This conflict is personal, and Evan knows that it will only end with one of the two men dead.  Therefore, Evan has to find a way to take out the most protected man in the world.  With President Blank sending Orphan A after Evan, he must gather information quickly and quietly.  Meanwhile, someone has called Evan’s phone requesting his help.  And that help is on a deadline as well.  Will Evan be able to juggle both missions and come out alive?

Even though President Bennett is obviously not any President in US history, I still had to overcome my issues with the premise when I picked up this book.  Fortunately, that didn’t take me too long as I was soon hanging on.  Yes, once again we have a fast-paced thrill ride as Evan faces one complication after another in an effort to save his life and protect his newest client.  I loved his ingenuity in solving these problems against overwhelming odds.  Evan continues to struggle with his humanity as he deals with real life, and I love the depth it brings to his character.  The rest of the cast, whether new or returning, as just as strong.  Naturally, this book does feature more language and violence than my normal cozies, but as long as you know that going in, you’ll be fine.  While the book is an outgrowth of what has happened in the series so far, it really can be read as a standalone.  We get the background we need without spoiling the twists and turns of the previous books.  So pick up this thriller today and set aside enough time to read it.  Once you start, you won’t want to put it down.

The Hidden Corpse by Debra Sennefelder (Food Blogger Mysteries #2) – 4
Hope’s neighbor Peggy Olson has come to Hope for help after catching some stuff on fire in her kitchen.  Peggy had fallen asleep only to wake up to the smoke.  What bothers her is she didn’t even remember starting to cook anything.  When Peggy’s house burns down the next day with Peggy inside, Hope feels extremely guilty for not saying anything to protect Peggy from accidentally doing this again.  That guilt changes when the police find evidence that it could have been arson.  A second body in the house only further confuses things.  Can Hope figure out what happened to her neighbor?

This book has a very strong mystery with plenty of questions that need to be answered.  The suspects were strong as well, and they kept me guessing until the end.  In fact, I was certain it was several of them at various points in the book, yet the final solution made perfect sense.  Hope is a great main character as well.  My biggest issue is the supporting cast.  I feel like they are still fairly thin characters, and several of them are annoying.  I hope they get more fleshed out as the series progresses, allowing us to like them more.  Since I am a blogger (but not a food blogger), I found that aspect of Hope’s life very interesting, although her world is very different from mine.  And, speaking of food, there are six delicious sounding recipes at the end of the book.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Downton Tabby by Sparkle Abby (Pampered Pets Mysteries #7) – 4
Pet therapist Caro Lamont is spending this morning in her office working on some paperwork, which is why, when Graham Cash asks her to watch his tabby cat, Toria, for a little while, she readily agrees.  Cash and his business partner, Jake, have rented an office for their very successful app making business in the building that Caro uses, and Caro has enjoyed getting to know them both.

When Cash doesn’t return in the agreed upon time, Caro begins to get worried.  After all, she has afternoon appointments.  She decides to take Toria to the house that the business partners share.  However, when she arrives, she finds no sign of Cash and Jake’s dead body floating in their pool.  What happened to Jake?  Is Cash okay?  Or is he the killer?

There is plenty happened here, including a visit by Caro’s ex-husband, so the pages fly by.  Unfortunately, all the events mean that the mystery could have been a bit stronger.  Still, it had some fun twists and surprises before reaching the logical conclusion.  The real star here are the characters, both two and four legged.  The pets will charm you, and the humans will entertain you.  Some are more realistic and help draw you into the story.  Others are so over the top that you are certain to laugh.  Yet they are perfectly balanced and feel natural interacting with each other.  This series is always a light, fun treat, and this entry is no exception.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

March 30th's Weekly TV Thoughts

So, I may have added a couple of mid-season shows this week.

Supergirl – They are going to get back to the Russian Supergirl storyline.  Interesting how they have explained her presence.  How they are going to work that into the rest of the stories for the season.

God Friended Me – If you weren’t crying during that episode, you have a heart of stone.  They managed to have a few twists in there I wasn’t expecting, but I still saw that climatic scene coming before we got there.  And I was still crying.  Not surprised with where the father’s story went this week.  And Miles and Cara’s fight was obviously coming for a couple of weeks.  Now that we’ve gotten there, I hope we see where they go soon.

Arrow – I did not see Oliver’s sister being this evil.  Heck, she blew up the Queen’s Gambit all those years ago?  I’m thinking she is now the big bad of the season.  Or am I really way out of line on this one?  Laurel being caught in the crossfire is going to be interesting.  It’s too bad since I was enjoying watching her play on the right side of the law this season.

This is Us – Every marriage has issues.  I get it.  But I have loved watching Beth and Randall’s marriage, and this is one of the storylines that is driving me crazy this season.  This episode didn’t help at all.  And I really, really want to know why Beth agreed to go out with Randall again.  And did he ask her out or did she let him know she had changed her mind?

Survivor – They let one person back in the game.  And if you stay in the game, you are on the jury.  I wonder if the jury is now set, or if people can still leave if they decide to drop off the edge of extinction.  Getting Joe out sure was the right move, although with him being able to get back in, that can be scary.  During individual immunity, I realized how few of the players I really know at this point.  That always happens every season, but I feel like it is worse this time around since one tribe hasn’t gone to tribal yet.

Million Dollar Mile – Yes, I’m watching this.  Pretty much, you put obstacle courses on TV, and I’m there.  Absolutely scary in this case, however.  I would need more than a 2-minute head start to beat someone running a mile, never mind about those obstacles.  And they are definitely harder than I normally do at my mud runs.  I probably won’t keep talking about it, but I will definitely keep watching.

Abby’s – I was intrigued by this show.  Okay, and the fact that it’s set in a bar made me think of Cheers.  But an outdoor bar filmed outdoors in front of an audience was definitely intriguing.  I found the first episode amusing.  It’s a pilot, so it wasn’t the funniest episode I’ve seen of anything, but I’m willing to give it a few weeks to find itself.  I definitely see the potential for more comedy to come.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Movie Review: Fantastic Beats - The Crimes of Grindelwald


Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Fun beasts, great revelations
Cons: Pacing is way off
The Bottom Line:
More CGI beasts
Look great; distract from story
Pacing still issue




Still Building, So Still Slow

I was busy this fall, so I didn’t go out of my way to see the new Fantastic Beasts movie, The Crimes of Grindelwald, when it hit the theater.  It didn’t help that I was hearing decidedly mixed reactions to the movie.  But, being the Harry Potter fan I am, I knew I’d have to watch it eventually.  Honestly, it was about what I expected.

The movie starts in New York in 1927 as Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is being prepared for his trip to England to answer for his crimes.  What crimes?  He’s been working to help wizards take over the world from us mere muggles.  Of course, he is not going to go quietly, and an elaborate escape plan goes off without a hitch, leaving him free.

The main action picks up a few months later in England.  While there has been no further sign of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is attempting to convince the Ministry of Magic to allow him to travel abroad again.  That isn’t going well, and Newt is prepared to stay at home until his next appeal even when a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) attempts to lure him to France with rumors of a magical creature they need to find before Grindelwald does.

However, it is the appearance of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) in his home that actually gets Newt moving, especially with word that Tina (Katherine Waterston) is in Paris.  Soon the quest to find Tina is under way with Newt along so he can tell her how he really feels about her.  Only, Paris is where Grindelwald is, and he is making plans of his own.  What is he up to?  Will our friends get caught when his plan begins?

Okay, I’m about to make myself a huge target, but here’s the thing about J. K. Rowling.  She is amazing at creating characters and entire worlds.  She is a great writer and brings you into this new world as if it were real.  I fully appreciate her powers as a writer.  However, her pacing is horrible.  She has created this world and wants us to live in it, but the result is a story with all the twists and excitement crammed into the final half if not final third of the story.  That was the case with the Harry Potter books.  And, since she is writing these screenplays, it is the case here as well.

Now, this isn’t to say that I wasn’t enjoying some of these flights of fancy.  The beasts she’s imagined are wonderful, and the effects used to make them real are fantastic.  There’s a reason we all fall under her spell.  However, the story was very slow.

And it doesn’t help that we have these unrelated characters we pop in on every so often, for a few minutes at a time.  By the end of the film, it is obvious why we had to meet them, but without any context, it was hard to understand why they were part of the movie and why we should care about them.  It would have been much easier if the main characters had gotten involved with these other characters earlier.  And it would have made the revelations at the end much more impactful.

Because the movie does have twists.  The revelations at the end are huge, and I’ll definitely be there for the next film to find out what it all means for the story we are being told now and the world we already know.

My fault is not with the actors.  They are all great at bringing their characters to life.  Jude Law is a lot of fun as the younger Dumbledore.  Johnny Depp can be a bit over the top as Grindelwald at times, but this is Johnny Depp we are talking about – that’s no real surprise and he mostly works.  And the four main returning characters and actors are once again fantastic.  I love this little band.

I hope these movies get tighter as they progress.  I can tell there is a good story in there, but they need to be more focused than Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book Review: Downton Tabby by Sparkle Abbey (Pampered Pets Mysteries #7)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Light, fun story with fantastic characters
Cons: Mystery could be a little stronger
The Bottom Line:
Missing cat owner
Connected to a murder?
Pet friendly, fun book




Dead Body and a Tabby’s Missing Owner

I was definitely due for a visit to Laguna Beach.  Okay, so I could drive down there any time I wanted (and was willing to fight traffic), but I wanted to visit it via the world of the Pampered Pets Mysteries.  Over the previous six books, I’ve fallen under the spell of the characters, human and animal, in this series, so I was quite happy to dive into Downton Tabby.

Since this is book seven, we get to spend time with Caro Lamont, a successful pet therapist in the area.  She’s spending this morning in her office working on some paperwork, which is why, when Graham Cash asks her to watch his tabby cat, Toria, for a little while, she readily agrees.  Cash and his business partner, Jake, have rented an office for their very successful app making business in the building that Caro uses, and Caro has enjoyed getting to know them both.

When Cash doesn’t return in the agreed upon time, Caro begins to get worried.  After all, she has afternoon appointments.  She decides to take Toria to the house that the business partners share.  However, when she arrives, she finds no sign of Cash and Jake’s dead body floating in their pool.  What happened to Jake?  Is Cash okay?  Or is he the killer?

There is plenty going on in this book.  We’ve got Caro’s clients, her ex-husband showing up uninvited, the on-going feud with her cousin Mel (the star of the even numbered books in the series), and the mystery itself.  The result is a book that kept me turning pages since I was never bored.  I did feel some of these elements did distract from the mystery at times, but they were still fun.  The mystery itself takes some wild twists and turns before reaching the logical conclusion.

I already mentioned the characters, but let’s go back to them.  They are a hoot.  While Caro and some of the others are almost normal, others are pretty outrageous.  The worst of the bunch is Betty, Mel’s employee who has managed to work her way into Caro’s life as well.  Not that I’m complaining because Betty is always good for a laugh or two each time she shows up.  Other characters will also make you grin.  I do wish we’d see Caro’s neighbor, April Mae, again, since she is a hoot as well.  In fact, her and Betty in the same scene would be hilarious.

And that’s not counting the antics of the pets in the series.  Seriously, if you love animals, this book is right up your ally.  These pets will steal your heart when not making you smile and laugh at their antics.

Sadly, I am allergic to animals, so I don’t have any pets of my own, but if you do, there are a couple of cat treats at the end you can make for your own animals.

This series never fails to charm me, and Downton Tabby was no exception.  If you enjoy light, fun mysteries, you need to be reading this series.

Enjoy this one?  You'll definitely want to read more of the Pampered Pets Mysteries.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Music Review: Only Jesus by Casting Crowns


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: 12 more outstanding songs
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Twelve Casting Crowns songs
Encouragement and challenge
Once again great disc




Casting Crowns is Back with the Fantastic Only Jesus

I am not tracking Christian music like I used to, and I’m always afraid that a new release by one of the few groups I still love is going to slip by me.  That almost happened with Only Jesus, which Casting Crowns released at the end of November.  Fortunately, I learned about it because now that I have it, I am loving it.

This disc gives us 12 new tracks filled with encouragement and challenge.  The disc opens with “The Bridge.”  No real surprise, it is about the bridge that Jesus created between our sin and the holiness of God.  While it’s not terribly original, the lyrics are still powerful.  “No rescue so relentless/No greater love than this/Where sin leaves a canyon/Your love builds a bridge.”  It’s a nice, mid-tempo track to open the disc.

Matthew West joins the group for the second track, “Nobody.”  I wasn’t surprised to see that he helped write it as well since it feels like one of his soft rock songs.  Not that I’m complaining in the least since I love his music.  The idea is that God choses the nobody’s to accomplish His purposes.  Again, not something new, but I love the way the song reminds us of this truth.  I even laughed at one of the lines when I first heard it, and it still makes me smile.

The title track is an anthem that challenges the world’s idea of leaving a legacy, instead hoping that our lives point to “Only Jesus.”  It is at once convicting and inspiring.

A couple of the tracks are reminders for those who have turned their backs from God that He is still reaching for them, trying to draw them back to Him.  “Even When Your Running” is a great track about God’s presence being where we are no matter what we are doing.  Meanwhile, “Love Moved First” reminds us that God draws us to Him no matter how bad our sin is.

Over the years, Casting Crowns has given us some songs that challenge the complacency we have in much of contemporary American Christian culture, and, as convicting as some of those songs are, they are really good.  We get two of those songs here.  “One Awkward Moment” is the first, and it challenges us to have those awkward conversations with people because their eternal future is on the line.  Then there’s “Start Right Here” that makes us examine whether we are willing to leave the comforts of church to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus.

Those familiar with Casting Crowns’ music won’t be surprised by the style here.  They’ve mastered the modern adult contemporary sound.  Yet the music is the perfect complement to their lyrics each time, and the two combine for songs that minister to me no matter how many times I hear them.  That’s why I keep coming back to their discs year after year, and I’m confidence this disc will be no exception.

Casting Crowns’s many fans will love Only Jesus.  It continues their musical legacy of pointing us to Jesus.

CD Length: 50:27
Tracks:
1. The Bridge
2. Nobody (Featuring Matthew West)
3. Only Jesus
4. In the Hands of the Potter
5. Even When You’re Running
6. One Awkward Moment
7. Awaken Me
8. One More Song for You
9. Start Right Here
10. The Change in Me
11. Love Moved First
12. Home

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Book Review: The Hidden Corpse by Debra Sennefelder (Food Blogger Mysteries #2)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong mystery; Hope
Cons: Characters could be better developed
The Bottom Line:
Mysterious fire
Why was Hope’s neighbor murdered?
A strong mystery




Can Hope Find the Hidden Killer?

Last year, I enjoyed getting to meet Hope Early and her family and friends.  I was drawn to her because she is a food blogger, and I love culinary cozies and blogging.  I was looking forward to visiting with her again in The Hidden Corpse.

Hope’s neighbor Peggy Olson has come to Hope for help after catching some stuff on fire in her kitchen.  Peggy had fallen asleep only to wake up to the smoke.  What bothers her is she didn’t even remember starting to cook anything.  When Peggy’s house burns down the next day with Peggy inside, Hope feels extremely guilty for not saying anything to protect Peggy from accidentally doing this again.  That guilt changes when the police find evidence that it could have been arson.  A second body in the house only further confuses things.  Can Hope figure out what happened to her neighbor?

The mystery itself is very good.  There are several things going on here and potentially several motives that kept me guessing.  At one time or another, I was sure I knew who it was, and I was completely sure it was a different person each time I thought I had it all figured out.  Yet when the killer is finally revealed, everything makes sense.

My issue with this book is the characters.  Yes, Hope is a great main character, but I felt like the supporting characters weren’t nearly as well developed.  In fact, a couple of them are very annoying here; we need to see more well-rounded characters to make us appreciate them more.  On the other hand, I found the suspects to be good.  Since I was jumping from one suspect to another as I went along, I was obviously buying them as real characters.

As a blogger myself, I certainly found Hope’s career interesting.  She’s taking a photography class here, which allows her to interact with some other food bloggers.  It’s a different world than book blogging and what I do, but I still enjoyed reading about her career as I went along.  And, obviously, I love culinary cozies, so the fact that Hope enjoys cooking was a plus as well.

Speaking of which, we get six recipes at the end of the book for such things as Lemon Ricotta Cookies and a Meatball Sub Casserole.  They definitely sound delicious.

I really am hoping that the series regulars become better rounded characters as the series goes along.  However, the mystery itself is strong enough in The Hidden Corpse that fans of culinary cozies will enjoy it.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Ornament Review: Boba Fett - Star Wars #22 - 2018 Hallmark Ornament


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Looks just like a popular character
Cons: None worth capturing
The Bottom Line:
A bounty hunter
Popular character’s turn
Captured for your tree




Boba Fett has Finally Tracked Down a Place in the Official Star Wars Series

I’m not sure why it has taken Hallmark so long to add Boba Fett to their official Star Wars ornament series.  He’s a popular character with a cult following despite having such little screen time in the series.  And clearly, with the repeated characters and rather bizarre additions (General Grievous anyone?), they are looking for ways to extend this series.  Oh, it’s not like they haven’t released an ornament or two of him before, but it was nice to see him pop up in the official line in 2018.

For those not familiar with the character, he’s the bounty hunter who actually captured Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.  He also shows up briefly in Return of the Jedi among other places.  So, while he has a short amount of time on the screen, he plays a big role in the original trilogy.

And fans of the trilogy won’t need any help recognizing him when they see this ornament.  He’s wearing his signature weathered Mandalorian armor, along with his jetpack.  His gun is in his hand, and his legs make him look like he’s been using his jet pack to float since his legs look like he is ready to come in for a landing.

Okay, so I’m not one of the Star Wars fans who love this character.  Anyone who captures Han while working with the Empire isn’t someone to like, right?  Still, I do appreciate the character’s place in the story and am glad to be able to add him to my Star Wars ornament collection.  This ornament captures him perfectly and in action, so I’m very happy with that.

However, since it captures him in action, you can’t stand him up.  After all, he would have to balance on the side of one foot.  However, that isn’t a problem since he hangs well.  Yes, he is leaning some, but to be it adds to the illusion that he is in action and not posing for us.  His feet are big enough for the 22 in a Christmas tree series marker on the bottom of one of them.

Whether you are a big fan of the character or not, Boba Fett is a great addition to any Star Wars ornament collection.  If you haven’t added him to yours yet, be sure to fix that today.

And be sure to check out the rest of the official Star Wars ornament series.

Original Price: $17.99

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Candy Review: White Chocolate Marshmallow M&M's


Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Look pretty in their spring pastel colors
Cons: Bland, overwhelmingly sweet taste
The Bottom Line:
Intriguing combo
Turns out to be sweetly bland
So disappointing




Too Sweet.  And I Shouldn’t Have Been Surprised

I love marshmallows, so seeing that marshmallow is part of something is a great way to get me to try it.  When I stumbled over the White Chocolate Marshmallow M&M’s, I didn’t even hesitate before throwing a package into my basket.  Sadly, they proved to be disappointing.

Obviously, these treats are designed as a spring seasonal item.  The bag and the colors of the candies themselves are pastel spring colors.  As you’d expect, they’ve got a marshmallow center with a white chocolate coating and a candy shell.

How to they taste?  They are extremely sweet.  Honestly, it’s kind of hard to tell much about individual flavors because they are so sweet.  I was hoping for some marshmallow taste, but it gets swallowed up in the general sweetness of it all.  Frankly, it’s a bit overwhelming with how sweet it is.

And that probably shouldn’t have surprised me.  All of the White Chocolate M&M’s I have tried have had the same issue of just being too sweet.  I was hoping these would have some distinct flavor, but I was sadly disappointed.

Sometimes, marshmallow can be sticky, but that’s not the case here.  In fact, they should make the hard centers of the Caramel M&M’s more like these.  They are just a tad gooey but not at all hard to eat.

So I don’t recommend this particular variation on M&M’s.  I had to try the White Chocolate Marshmallow variety, but they aren’t nearly as good as they should be.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

March 23rd's Weekly TV Thoughts

Things are looking a bit light the next couple of weeks as several shows go on hiatus before they ramp up for their final run of episodes.  But here's what I have for this week.

Supergirl – Very interesting to meet Lex.  I’m thinking my predictions of Lena turning to the dark side have been diminished now that she’s had a run in with him again.  Definitely don’t think she’s going there by the end of the season.  I wasn’t aware that James had a sister, but it was fun to meet her.  My favorite part was Lex controlling the guns to the music as he escaped, however.  And now that Manchester is dead, how will that play into the hate storylines?

God Friended Me – I knew the first job was too easy.  I’m glad they at least addressed Miles’ dad’s job promotion and his family issues.  Not surprised at how that progressed, but it was still good to see it at least addressed.  And can we all agree that Simon is not behind the God account?

Arrow – So, if I’ve been complaining about the flashforwards all season, you can pretty much bet how I felt about this episode.  It didn’t change my mind one bit about the future storyline since it seems like the present storyline is irrelevant.  Here’s hoping they can change my mind by the end of the season, but I doubt it.

The Flash – I’m glad Nora’s secret it out.  I hope we get some answers as to what is really going on with her when we come back.  (In a month?  Seriously?)  Anyway, Grace is a worse Cicada to be facing.  Defeating her uncle would have been tough enough.  I knew she’d kill her uncle before the episode was over.  Although he sure seemed to change fast from evil to nice.  I wonder if the dark matter had anything to do with that.

This Is Us – What is it with characters on shows not wanting to have kids right now.  Seems to be popping up on several of my shows in the last couple of years.  Not surprised that Kevin chose Zoe.  I’m dreading next week with Randall and Beth’s fight.  I can’t wait for that storyline to be over.  And I completely get where Toby was coming from, although that final scene with him holding his son was so perfect.

Survivor – I hadn’t noticed we had two episodes back to back until the first one didn’t end.  They finally voted out one of the returning players.  Since they’ve been talking about that all along, it was interesting to see it finally happen.  That was quite a twist in the second hour with two tribes going to vote one person out.  And they finally showed up more than two minutes of the edge of extinction people.  I’m very curious to see what happens with them next week.

The Orville – Kind of saw both storylines coming, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them.  I actually felt sorry for Gordan.  Okay, so I like the character, but he wasn’t a goofball.  And what a voice he has!  Those two need to produce a few songs together.  I’d buy them.  The smoking sub-plot was supposed to be funny, but with my on going issues with neighbors smoking, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I was supposed to.  And how fun to see Voyager’s Tim Russ show up near the beginning.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Movie Review: Captain Marvel


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Creative introduction to a new Marvel superhero
Cons: A few niggles
The Bottom Line:
New superhero
Creative introduction
In a fun movie




Fun Twist on an Origin Story

I hadn’t heard of Captain Marvel until Marvel Studios announced they would be creating a movie for this character.  Considering my lack of comic book knowledge, this isn’t completely surprising.  However, I put it on my must watch list since I figured I’d need to see it to be ready for the next Avengers movie when it comes out next month.  I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it.

As the movie opens, we meet Vers (Brie Larson), a member of the Kree.  This race is caught in a war with the Skrulls, an alien race that can transform themselves into any other person or animal they’ve seen.  Vers has spent the last six years training to be part of their elite military squad under the direction of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law).  She has no memory of her time before she started training, but she accepts that and uses it to drive her to train harder.  It has paid off because she is finally ready to go out on her first mission.

However, the mission goes wrong and she finds herself tracking several Skrulls on Earth in 1995 where she also crosses paths with Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a rookie agent named Coulson (Clark Gregg).  Will she be able to stop the Skrulls?

As superhero movies have flooded the market, I have complained about how similar the origin movies can be.  We see how they get their powers while also seeing them fight their first villain.  Yes, I need to be introduced to these heroes myself often, so I appreciate the background, but they can be extremely formulaic.  That wasn’t the case here.  Yes, we are introduced to Vers and get quite an interesting backstory, but it isn’t the typical first movie origin story, so I really enjoyed it.

That also means the plot has some unique and fun twists to it that kept me engaged between action scenes.  I did think by the time we got to the climax things were a bit anti-climactic, but that might just be me.

 There is certainly plenty of action in the film.  This is a superhero movie, after all.  These action scenes usually involve some pretty heavy special effects.  All those effects were believable, including the effects to make Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg look 25 years younger.

The acting was mostly good.  Brie Larson has some scenes with a pre-teen, and I thought some of those scenes were forced, but that was my only complaint in the acting department.  As the star, Brie has a wide range of scenes to play, and she nailed the rest of them.  The rest of the cast is obviously having fun while working hard to make us believe their characters are real.

You’ll definitely want to stay through the credits.  There are two scenes, one that sets up Captain Marvel’s appearance in next month’s Avengers movie.  The second one is good for a laugh, but I’m wondering if it will play into the new movie as well.

Captain Marvel does a good job of introducing us to another superhero from the Marvel world.  If you care about staying up to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ll want to watch it, and you’ll have a lot of fun doing that.

March 22nd's Book Beginning and Friday 56

Well, it's been since the beginning of the year since I participated in Book Beginning and Friday 56.  I've just been very busy on Thursday nights.  But I'm back this week.

This week, I'm featuring The Hidden Corpse, the second Food Blogger Mystery by Debra Sennefelder.




The book comes out on Tuesday, but I finished it today for review on Tuesday.

Here's how the book begins:

"Still missing, no new leads on Lily Barnhart."

Nothing like jumping in with a mystery, right?

And jumping ahead to page 56, we find:

"I heard about the fire.  Did Peggy fall asleep again while cooking?"

I hope you'll come back Tuesday to read my full review.  Until then, have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X #4)


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, fast paces action
Cons: My issues with the premise; violence
The Bottom Line:
The fight for his life
Finds Evan multi-tasking
A great fast-paced book




Target: The President

Anyone who has been reading the Orphan X thrillers from Gregg Hurwitz knows that Evan Smoak’s life has been building to a confrontation with President Bennett.  We get the confrontation with Out of the Dark, and it is the wild ride you’d expect for this series.

For those who haven’t met Evan yet, he was recruited as a twelve-year-old into a secret government program and trained to be an assassin.  He went rogue years ago and now uses his skills to help those who find themselves in impossible circumstances.  However, his past as part of the Orphan program has a way of coming back to complicate his life.

Evan’s first mission as a nineteen-year-old in 1997 sent him to an Eastern European country to take out a general who was going to make the region unstable.  Well, more unstable than it already was.  At the time, current President Bennett was just an undersecretary at the Department of Defense who was secretly in charge of the Orphan program.  At the time, Evan thought the mission went off without a hitch, but now he finds himself directly in President Bennett’s crosshairs.  What about that mission is so dangerous to President Bennett now?

This conflict is personal, and Evan knows that it will only end with one of the two men dead.  Therefore, Evan has to find a way to take out the most protected man in the world.  With President Blank sending Orphan A after Evan, he must gather information quickly and quietly.  Meanwhile, someone has called Evan’s phone requesting his help.  And that help is on a deadline as well.  Will Evan be able to juggle both missions and come out alive?

Given our current political environment, I was a little hesitant to read a book where the premise is taking out the President.  Now, let me be clear, the President in the book is in no way either our current President or any President we’ve had in my life time.  Not only is the name different, but the rest of the details of his life are different.  And it is very clear that he is a very bad man.  One thing I like about Evan is that he only goes after truly vile people, and the character in this book certainly qualifies.

So I set that aside and dove in.  I was quickly caught up in Evan’s drive to protect his life against overwhelming odds.  As you’d expect if you’ve read the earlier books in this series or any of Gregg’s other books, the pace is fast and the complications keep mounting until it looks like there is no way Evan will pull things off.  And yet he manages to do that in some creative ways.

One thing I have loved about this series is that Evan is much more complicated than he first appears.  On the surface, he is a man who has been trained as a killing machine, but he is looking for ways to shed that.  This conflict is fascinating to watch, and his journey takes some interesting twists here.  The book is peopled with other great characters, both new and returning.

Being a thriller, this book is definitely not one of the cozies I normally read.  Yes, there is some language, although not as much as you might expect.  However, the violence makes up for it.  This one especially seemed to be a bit more violent than the earlier books in the series, but that might just be because this book is freshest in my mind.  Just know this going in and you’ll be fine.

This book plays out from threads introduced in earlier books, most notably the previous book in the series.  However, it could easily be read as a standalone.  Yes, you won’t appreciate all of the nuances of events and characters, but everything you need to know is explained here without any spoilers.  Of course, since it will just make you want to read the earlier books, you might as well start there.

Despite my issues with the premise, I completely enjoyed Out of the Dark.  If you are a fan of fast-moving thrillers, you need to be reading this series.

Missing some of Evan’s adventures?  Here are the Orphan X thrillers in order.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Movie Review: Life-Size


Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Acting from the leads, some fun
Cons: Predictable, growth happens too fast
The Bottom Line:
A doll brought to life
Predictable kids’ movie
That doesn’t charm me




My Opinion of This Movie Didn’t Change on a Second Viewing

I know I watched Life-Size years ago.  We’re talking probably when it first aired on TV in 2000; if not, it wasn’t too long after that fact.  I remember not being that impressed with the movie at the time, so I was a bit surprised when I discovered the film has developed a bit of a cult following, even earning a TV movie sequel.  With that in mind, I decided to give the movie a second shot and see if my take on it had changed.

Casey Stuart (Lindsay Lohan) lost her mother a few years ago.  While she still lives with her dad Ben (Jere Burns), he has turned his grief into a drive to become a partner in his law firm.  Sad and lonely, Casey finds a spell that she thinks will return her mother to her.  Going behind her father’s back, she acquires the book and gets what she needs to enact it.

However, things go wrong and she accidentally brings an Eve doll to life.  As Casey tries to figure out a way to undo the spell, Eve (Tyra Banks) begins to infiltrate Casey and Ben’s lives.  Will her presence bring any changes to them?

Not familiar with Eve?  She’s essentially a Barbie clone.  While the movie never mentions the famous doll, Eve talks about all her careers and how perfect she was at them over the course of the movie.  Obviously, with model Tyra Banks playing the character, she’s also beautiful.  And there are references to her house and other accessories.

I’m sure you can see where the plot is going from my teaser, and you’d be correct.  Now, as you know, I don’t knock a movie for being predictable if I am having fun along the way.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have fun watching this movie.  Yes, it hits all the expected notes.  However, it feels perfunctory as it goes about doing that.  In fact, at times it seems like it is rushing to hit those notes instead of allowing them time to develop and the characters to grow.  Instead of enjoying myself, I found myself ready for the movie to be over.

This isn’t a fault of the actors, who are all good.  Okay, so some of the supporting players are over the top, but the main trio are all solid actors.  Yes, even Tyra Banks, who isn’t known for her acting, does a good job as Eve.  Frankly, I’m surprised she hasn’t gotten more acting jobs.  This was back when Lindsay Lohan was still a rising star, and she shows how talented she was here.  Jere Burns has some fun reacting to Eve’s antics as the movie progresses.

In fact, I think that’s one of the film’s faults.  It spends more time with dad Ben over Casey once Eve comes to life.  Ultimately, this is supposed to be Casey’s story, but by spending the time with Ben, we are short changed on her growth.

Maybe I was too old both times to see any magic that Life-Size holds.  While the movie has its fans, I don’t think I will ever be one of them.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Drowned Under by Wendall Thomas (Cyd Redondo #2)


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong mystery, lots of fun
Cons: At times a bit too busy
The Bottom Line:
Missing passengers
Send Cyd racing down under
Fast paced and wild ride




Cyd’s Cruising to Find Missing Passengers

I haven’t been able to travel for a couple of years now (stupid adult responsibilities), so I’m anxious to find some mysteries that scratch the itch to travel.  That’s why it was a pleasure to head out again with Cyd Redondo.  She’s a travel agent who is just starting to travel herself, and she’s finding herself in some dangerous waters as she does so.

Drowned Under is her second adventure, but I don’t recommend you start here.  This book includes some major spoilers for the first book.  It has to.  But you’ll want to read the books in order, so go back and pick up Lost Luggage first.  It’s well worth it.

It’s the week before Christmas, and Cyd is dreading the upcoming holiday filled with rumors, whispers, and awkward family moments.  Then Barry Manzoni comes to her for help.  Barry is a childhood friend and Cyd’s ex-husband.  His parents are on an Australian cruise, and they vanished part way through.  Even though they didn’t book with Redondo Travel, Cyd still begins to use her contacts to see what she can learn.  In fact, she uses one of those contacts to get herself booked on the next cruise their ship is taking, which is following the same route.  Okay, so she might be using the trip to avoid Christmas with her family, but she does want to help Barry.

After a whirlwind trip half way around the world, she arrives on the ship only to find a dead body.  The crew want to say it is a tragic accident, but Cyd suspects foul play.  Does this tie into the disappearance of the Manzonis?  Can Cyd trust anyone on board?

Those who have read the first book will know what to expect here, and they won’t be disappointed.  We are off on another wild romp with plenty of surprises and complications that keep Cyd rushing to figure out what is going on and us turning pages.  I do feel the book gets a little frantic at times, but by the end the various plot threads come together into a satisfying conclusion.

Because Cyd is traveling, we really get an entire new cast of characters here, all of whom might or might not be behind the problems Cyd is trying to unravel.  Of course, that adds to the plot, but the characters all come across as real, or at least real for Cyd’s world.

What do I mean by that last comment?  This book has a very strong screwball comedy element.  Between some of the situations that Cyd finds herself in and some of the people she meets, there are plenty of laughs.  Yes, that does mean many of the characters come across as a bit more caricature instead of characters, but they fit perfectly into the book.  And there are definitely more serious moments that ground us enough to take the crimes seriously.  It helps that Cyd, while not immune from the occasional odd ball comment or action, comes across as very real.

The book has a smattering of foul language.  Like the first, there is a very strong sub-plot involving an endangered animal, however, there is no animal cruelty in this one.

Since this book is set in Australia at Christmas, it doesn’t feel like a Christmas book I normally would read.  After all, we’re talking about heat instead of cold and snow.  But I enjoyed the nods to the season that were part of the story.

If you are looking for a fun ride off the coast of Australia, look no further than Drowned Under.  Pick up this book and hold on tight.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.