Saturday, February 29, 2020

February 29th's Weekly TV Thoughts

Time to leap right into some TV thoughts.  (I crack myself up.)

God Friended Me – What a trail for them to follow.  From Miles having himself to the kid to the truth.  I knew there had to be something else going on, but I had no clue what it us until the end.  That was an emotional episode at the end.  The card is intriguing.  I wonder where they will be going with this part of the storyline.

Batwoman – I was thinking Mary knew that Kate was Batwoman earlier in the episode.  I just jumped the gun by half an episode, obviously.  I love how quickly she figured it out.  I mean, seriously, those were mostly clues from this episode.  The “vampire” was a bit weird, but I like how it advanced Alice’s storyline.  And her admission there at the end was heartbreaking, but in a good way.

Supergirl – We already live in a semi-alternative Earth, they couldn’t change things up too much and rewrite that Kara told Lena the truth earlier, so the outcome of the episode was never in doubt.  Still, it was a great way to bring in previous characters for cameos.  I really liked that.  James was most noticeably absent except for one flashback that I’m sure was recycled footage, but it was fun to see those other characters show up as they did.  And it gave us needed character growth for Kara.  I loved their explanation for changing the actor who played the nymph, too.  (No, I’m not going to try to spell his name forward or backward.)

Girl Scout Cookie Baking Championship – This was the first time I wasn’t craving cookies the entire time.  I was actually craving chips during the first round.  Those seven layer bars sound good, just hold the bacon.  Make them six layers, and I’m sold.  As for the cakes, based on looks, I would have gone with the Golden Gate Bridge, but I’m a bit biased since I grew up in the Bay Area.  Sounds like the winning cake tasted the best.  Definitely would like to sample it.

The Flash – I’m not a fan of Grodd, but I didn’t mind him this much this time.  Probably because he wasn’t really a villain this time.  Still, I hope we are done with him for a good long while.  Whenever Caitlyn/Killer Frost is on, all I can do is look for evidence that she is pregnant.  In certain shots you can tell, but they are very quick.  I was wondering why Iris had a double on our side of the mirror and the other woman didn’t.  They at least answered part of that question.  Now, what is she really hiding?  And is that Thone back again?  Yes, I did love the nod to God Friended Me (from the same creator) in the title of the episode.

Legends of Tomorrow – I’m really struggling with this season, mainly because of Constantine.  I hope they are leaving that dark storyline behind now.  I’m interested in Charlie and the loom.  They sure haven’t known what to do with Nora this season, which is a shame.

Survivor – Not Ethan!  He’s one of the winners I most definitely remember, and I really like him. I’m sorry to see him go.  I was certainly blindsided.  And, if you are going to go for a power group, you’ve got to go for the head, not the weakest link.  Rob or Pavarti were the ones to go.  Now, however, I’m wondering how long it is until we mix things up.  Probably another week or two.

LegoMasters – Honestly, I would have had trouble with some of those genres myself, not telling a story in them with words, but in one scene?  Then add in a completely opposite scene and I’m really confused.  However, I did like some of the scenes they came up with.  The two the judges picked out were my top favorites as well.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Music Review: Brand New by Matthew West

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great songs that remind us of the truth
Cons: One song needed more polish
The Bottom Line:
Reminders of truth
In some fun soft rock wrappings
Matthew at his best

Matthew West is Back with Brand New Encouragement

While I don’t follow Christian music like I once did, there are certain artists I still love and automatically buy.  Matthew West is one of those artists for me.  His lyrics are always encouraging, and I enjoy his style.  He’s just released Brand New, and, more than anything he’s released in the past, I feel like he is speaking directly to me.

The main theme of the disc is summed up in the title track.  (Surprising, right?)  The idea behind “Brand New” is that God is still making us brand new each day despite our sin, our failures, and how we think we haven’t progressed far enough.  It looks at how we felt when we first became Christians and then encourages us to feel that way every day.  Couple that with Matthew’s infectious soft rock, and you’ve got a winner.

The idea of God’s overwhelming forgiveness despite our repeated sins comes up again in “The God Who Stays.”  And Matthew marvels in God’s grace in “Grace Upon Grace” and “The Man Who Needed Grace.”  He claims God’s promises of grace and mercy over feelings of guilt in “Not Today.”  And yes, there are songs about living life purposefully, another common theme for Matthew.  “What If” is the biggest that comes to mind.  Accepting who God has made us to be pops up in “The Me You Made.”  And he makes a passionate plea to be real about our struggles in life with God and those around us in “Truth Be Told.”

You’re probably looking at my comments so far and thinking to yourself, “Mark, I could have guessed all this just based on the titles of the songs.”  And you’d be right.  There is nothing too surprising or new here, especially if you are a fan of Matthew’s music.  But here’s the thing – it’s still true.  Just because I’ve heard something before doesn’t mean I don’t need to hear it again.  And again.  And again.  There are powerful truths in these songs, and Matthew has found great ways to express them.

Or maybe it is just that this is the disc I need right now.  I’ve felt like many of these songs are written especially for me.  There isn’t anything on this disc I didn’t already “know,” but somehow the way Matthew is expressing them is reminding me of these timeless truths in a fresh way.  And I can’t thank him enough for that.

There is one track that doesn’t work for me – “Too Young Too Soon.”  In it, Matthew takes on teen suicide.  Yes, it is a sad subject, so it is a somber song.  That’s actually not my issue with it.  The verses feel like he tried to work too much into them, making them come across as muddled.  It almost feels like a rough draft of a song.  Hopefully, that is just me, and the song speaks to those who need to hear it most.  The chorus and the bridge are simply powerful, so it’s still a good song, just not at the level of the rest.

“Looking Up” is a great song about the legacy of Matthew’s father in his life and how he learning to look up to God in order to lead his own family.  It’s made even more special by his father appearing at the end of the song.

There are fourteen new songs here (yes, there are sixteen tracks, but two are transition tracks).  With so many songs, there is something for everyone.

Stylistically, Matthew doesn’t deviate from his usual soft rock.  If you enjoy his past releases (which I do), that’s great news indeed.

I am so thankful for the reminders I needed in Brand New.  God will be using this release for many years to come in my own life and I’m sure countless others.  Thank you, Matthew West, for sharing it with me.

CD Length: 50:37
1. Intro
2. Brand New
3. What If
4. Walking Miracles
5. The God Who Stays
6. Grace Upon Grace
7. Not Today
8. Why I Make Christian Music
9. Love on the Radio
10. Truth Be Told
11. The Me You Made
12. Looking Up
13. Without You
14. Too Young Too Soon
15. Hope Returns
16. The Man Who Needed Grace

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Book Review: Death with a Dark Red Rose by Julia Buckley (Writer's Apprentice Mysteries #5)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Characters I love in a story that hooked me early
Cons: Beginning a little weak (although still hooked me)
The Bottom Line:
A missing person
Lands Lena in mystery
Keeps pages turning

Mysterious Disappearance

Since I’ve enjoyed the first four books in Julia Buckley’s Writer’s Apprentice Mysteries, I was looking forward to catching up with Lena and the gang in Death with a Dark Red Rose, the latest in the series.  But even though I’m a series fan, I was surprised at just how quickly I came under the spell the book wove.

Life is going well for Lena London.  Her latest collaboration with bestselling novelist Camilla Graham is doing well, she and her fiance, Sam West, are just starting to plan their wedding, and she enjoys spending time with her new friends in Blue Lake.  The only shadow is the new factory that is being built just outside of town.  It looks like the building is going to be an eye sore, and Lena is not happy about it and other ways it might change this area she considers home.  However, a cold wind blows in when someone vanishes.  Soon, Lena and her friends are caught up in another race to figure out what is happening before things turn deadly.  Will they solve things in time?

Yes, I’m being even vaguer than normal is describing the plot of this book.  Honestly, I thought the initial set up was the weakest part of the book.  Having said that, I was still hooked from the first page and that didn’t let go until I reached the end.  It amazed me just how quickly I was concerned for these character’s safety, and that concern never wavered.  Stupid real life for getting in the way of me being able to read faster.  I did see a couple of twists coming, but there were still plenty that surprised me as I went along.

Obviously, I love the characters.  Lena has amassed quite the group of friends over the year she’s lived in town, and we get to see all of them again here.  From their interactions on the page, we can tell just how much they truly do care for each other.  At times in the past, I’ve felt this aspect of the book could be a little overdone, but here it was just right.  The new characters fit right into the world that’s been created for the books, and I hope some of them pop up in future books.

Each chapter in these books starts with a quote from the current project that Lena and Camilla are working on, and this book is no exception.  I’ve always appreciated how those quotes foreshadow the events to come in the chapter, but here these quotes also helped me appreciate just how the novels in the series incorporate elements of Gothic novels into their storytelling.  Not being super familiar with that genre, I hadn’t picked up on a few subtle things this series does well to incorporate these elements.  I’m impressed with just how seamlessly the elements of Gothic and cozy are mixed for this series.

And I still want to read some of Camilla’s books.  If only they were real.  The plots she and Lena talk about sound wonderful.

The main plot in this book stands on its own, however, this book does have some pretty major spoilers for earlier books in the series.  That’s necessary considering what happened to the characters in those books.  I highly recommend you read this series from the start.  It’s best to watch how things unfold unspoiled, and you’ll be hooked on every page.

Death with a Dark Red Rose is another thrilling page turner.  Block off plenty of time when you sit down to read because you won’t want to put this book down until you reach the end.

Need to start at the beginning?  Here are the rest of the Writer's Apprentice Mysteries in order.

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 Thursday, March 5th, so please leave your comment before midnight Pacific Time on 3/5.  You will have until midnight on 3/10 to get back to me, or I will choose a new winner on 3/11.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Movie Review: Riddled with Deceit - A Martha's Vineyard Mystery

: 5 out of 5
Pros: Twisty mystery, fun characters
Cons: Light dose of Hallmark cheese
The Bottom Line:
Emeralds are missing
With murder not far behind
In great mystery

“This is a One Time Deal.  I’m Retired.”

Having completely enjoyed the first Martha’s Vineyard Mystery movie from Hallmark, released last month, I was looking forward to visiting the characters again in the second movie, Riddled with Deceit.  I’m glad I say I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.

While Jeff Jackson (Jesse Metcalfe) has hung up his detective shield and retired to Martha’s Vineyard, he can’t seem to quite leave his old life behind.  That’s why he agrees to consult for one night with the Martha’s Vineyard police, including his late father’s friend Police Chief Madieras (Eric Keenleyside).  They are beefing up security for an emerald brooch that has been returned to Britt Hill (Sunita Prasad).  The brooch was in her family for years before it was stolen, and it’s only recently been returned.  She plans to unveil it at a gala, display it at the inn she runs, and then turn it over to the Smithsonian.

Things go well at the grand unveiling, but later that night things turn dangerous.  A theft leads to an attack, and then someone dies.  Jeff may have only been hired for one night, but he can’t let it go.  Once again teaming up with his old friend, Zee Madieras (Sarah Lind), he tries to figure out what happened.  Can he make sense of all the clues?

I was very impressed with this mystery.  It twisted in all kind of fun directions, and had some plot twists I did not see coming.  They kept me confused until the end, but by then everything made perfect sense.  Along the way, there were some rather tense scenes.

The characters are fantastic again as well.  Jeff and Zee really are the stars of the show, and their chemistry is fantastic.  It’s fun watching the two of them work together to solve this mystery.  I also appreciated the pieces of their backstory we got to see.  There is obviously an attraction there, but I appreciate that they are working on reconnecting as friends.  I have no doubt that we will get to a romance if we get enough of these movies.  (And please tell me we will get plenty of these movies.  They are fantastic!)  One piece of information we get puts Jeff’s backstory in a completely different light, and I’m curious where they are going to go with it from here.

Once again, the writing and acting were at the upper end of the Hallmark movie range, meaning the cheese was kept to a minimum.

And we continue to get beautiful shots of scenery.  I don’t know where they really film these movies, and I don’t want to know.  I want to keep pretending everything is really being filmed on location.  Even if that isn’t true, I appreciate the beautiful locations they are using.

While the name is different, this movie is loosely based on the third book in the series by Philip R. Craig, Vineyard Deceit.  I haven’t read the book, but based on the description, I can tell they took the idea of an emerald brooch as the MacGuffin of the story and ran with it in a different direction, which is fine.  The result was quite good.

This really is a fun mystery with a twisty plot sure to keep you guessing until the end.  I was once again charmed by Riddled with Deceit, and I’m looking forward to visiting these characters again.  I hope it’s soon.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Al Dente's Inferno Winner

I just pulled the winner of Al Dente's Inferno.  And that winner is...

...Katherine P!

I just sent you an e-mail, so be on the look out for it.

I'll have another giveaway starting on Thursday, so come back then.

Book Review: Murder Makes Scents by Christin Brecher (Nantucket Candle Maker Mysteries #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters; fast paced mystery
Cons: Didn’t buy the MacGuffin; timeline issues.
The Bottom Line:
Stella finds danger
Follows her home from Paris
Ultimately, fun

Stella Returns Home with an Unexpected Souvenir – Danger

One thing that will draw me to a cozy series is the location.  If we’ve got an area known as a vacation destination, then I want to visit via the page since it feels like a mini-vacation for me.  That’s why I was drawn to the Nantucket Candle Maker Mysteries originally, and that’s what we get with Murder Makes Scents, the second in the series.

However, the book opens in another vacation destination – Paris.  Stella Wright is taking a break from the Wick & Flame, her candle shop on Nantucket, to attend a perfume conference with her mother, Millie, who is one of the speakers.  The conference ends abruptly, however, when Stella and Millie are part of a crowd that witnesses a man being stabbed right in front of them.  After being questioned by the police, they return home to the island, assuming their only connection to the crime is behind them.  Stella quickly begins to think that trouble has followed them home.  Is she correct?  What might their connection to the murder be?

When I first heard this book was going to start in Paris and then conclude on Nantucket, I was a bit worried.  Would the pacing be good?  Would the plot work on two different continents?  I was quickly caught up in the events in Paris, and it didn’t take long for us to be just as engrossed in what was happening when the duo return home.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the plot revolves around a MacGuffin, a literary term for the thing that ignites the plot.  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is in this case.)  This is where I had my biggest issue with the book.  I just found the item and what it was going to be used for hard to believe.  I wanted to buy into that aspect of the book.  I really did.  But I just couldn’t turn off the logical part of my brain that was asking too many whys and hows about it.

Despite this, I still got caught up in the plot because the stakes are personal for Stella.  I plowed through the book in just a couple of days because I needed to know what was going on and who was responsible.  Stella’s investigation kept uncovering suspicious behavior, but it was all explained in the end.  The climax was a bit over the top, but it felt like it fit in with the rest of the book.

We don’t spend as much time with some of the people from Stella’s life we met in the previous book, but I enjoyed the time we did get to spend with them, and it makes sense given the plot of the book.  We do, however, see plenty of her suspects, and they do their part perfectly by acting suspicious while still appearing to be nice people who would never commit a crime.

Being the timeline stickler I am, I do have to point out that Stella couldn’t seem to keep track of when various events in the book took place.  Sometimes, she got it right, and others she had it wrong.  A lot happens in a little bit of time.  I guess that combined with her jet lag made her lose track of time.  It doesn’t affect the plot, just annoyed me.

The book has a couple of extras.  Being a candle themed mystery, we get some quick notes about making candle molds.  Then there’s a delicious sounding recipe for a cranberry pie.  It’s not quite cranberry season right now, but this is definitely one to remember come fall.

Murder Makes Scents will leave you burning the midnight candle to find out how it ends.  Even with my issues, I was glad I read it.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Book Review: Crypt Suzette by Maya Corrigan (Five Ingredient Mysteries #6)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong mystery; fun fall feeling
Cons: Some suspects could use more development early on
The Bottom Line:
Hit and run murder
Start this Halloween cozy
With a well-done plot

Halloween Hit and Run

Halloween came early for me this year.  While I don’t always get to read books in the season they are set, I do believe this is the earliest I have read a book set at Halloween in a long time.  But in the case of Crypt Suzette, it was well worth reading any time of year.

This book is the sixth entry in the Five-Ingredient Mysteries series.  It features Val Deniston, who runs a café at a health club and also moonlights as a caterer.  She is living with her grandfather, who writes a weekly recipe column for the local newspaper.  Clearly, there’s lots of food involved in these cozies.

Bayport, Maryland is about to get a new bookstore, and Val has been asked to cater the event.  Since the bookstore is opening just a few days before Halloween, she’s offering some Halloween twists on treats, and the festivities are going to include a literary themed costume contest.  Val is delighted when Suzette Cripps enters the contest.  Suzette is a college student who has started renting a room from Val’s grandfather since it is close to her job.

The morning after the party, the police arrive to inform them that Suzette has died, the victim of a hit and run.  The police are investigating it as an accident, but Val fears it is something more.  Suzette seemed to have secrets and be afraid of someone.  Was she just paranoid?  Or did someone kill her?

This series uses the number five as a hook, with each book featuring five clues and five suspects.  Actually, I think we had more than five suspects, although some of them weren’t suspects for very long.  However, this keeps the book moving forward since Val and her grandfather are always looking at someone different as a suspect in the killings.  The clues are sprinkled throughout the book, but as Val pulls everything together in the end, they all point to one killer.  I’m impressed with how they were mixed into the plot and felt foolish for not figuring them out myself.

Because there are so many suspects, I felt like some of them could have been better developed early on.  I had a bit of a problem keeping a few straight in the first half of the book.  However, as the story progressed, we got to know them all better, and they all become strong suspects.

As far as series regulars go, Val and her grandfather get by far the most page time.  They are a good pair both as characters and as a detecting duo.  Honestly, Granddad is a hoot who takes on ghost hunting for this book.  He’s a delight.  Of course, Val is a strong main character, and I enjoy spending time with her.

The Halloween setting is used well.  We get a strong fall feeling, and there are several scenes that make full use of the season, including a very creepy scene late in the book.

And yes, we get five recipes with five ingredients each at the end of the book.  Okay, so there’s a little cheating going on there, but I’ll let it slide since a multiple of five is involved.  (And I’ll leave it for you to see what I mean.)

Now might not be Halloween season, but Crypt Suzette will put you in the fall mood.  Whether you save it for October or read it now, I definitely recommend this book.

And be sure to check out the rest of the Five Ingredient Mysteries.

NOTE: I was sent a copy of this book.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Disney Pin Review: Pirates of the Caribbean - Crests of the Kingdom - 2019 Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great, classic crest for Pirates
Cons: Inside picture looks especially cartoony
The Bottom Line:
Crest for a pirate
Inside pic too cartoony
But crest is classic

This Crest Tells a Tale

Last year, Disneyland had a series of pins that created old fashioned crests for many of their popular attractions.  I discovered the series about half way through the year, and back collected the ones that were out yet.  I can’t tell you for sure when the pin for Pirates of the Caribbean came out, but if it wasn’t out when I discovered the series, I could have predicted they’d do a crest for this perpetually popular ride.

The front of these pins looks a bit plain, which may be one reasons why the pins haven’t been as popular as I thought they’d be.  They are a uniform gray color.  However, they are three dimensional, which helps tell the story.  Plus, it helps with the illusion that these are crests and not just a normal pin.

Anyway, the front of this pin is pretty much what you’d expect for a bin inspired by Disney Pirates.  Featured in the center of the pin is a skull with a bandana across its forehead.  There are a couple of swords crisscrossed behind it.  Around the scroll are the Latin words “Homines mortuos non fabulam narrare.”  (Yes, I did figure out thy were using real Latin on these pins, which makes me love them even more.)  No surprise that this translates to “Men dead no stories tell” if we are going with the literal word for word translation.

These pins are all hinged, with a color illustration inside.  The color picture is on a circle, and it depicts the scene of the skeleton in the middle of the piles of ill-gotten treasure.  It’s a bit too cartoony.  It’s weird because all of these pins have cartoony pictures for the background, but this one seems more so than most.

That’s my only complaint with this pin, however.  I especially love the front.  It’s not especially surprising given everything Disney has produced for this ride, but I’m okay with that.  In fact, I think it would have been disappointing if they had tried something different.

So I’m glad I added the Pirates of the Caribbean Crest to my pin collection.  I just hope by telling you a tale about it, I haven’t put myself in danger.

Take a look at my pictures of this pin on Instagram.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

February 22nd's Weekly TV Thoughts

I've got a couple of spoilers below, so read at your own risk.

God Friended Me – The show has definitely gotten more political this season, and this episode was just shy of a full-on lecture.  Nothing really to tie it to the main story arc either.  Did get more of the cancer storyline, but honestly, this could have stood almost by itself.

Batwoman – I knew Beth wasn’t going to survive.  I honestly thought they were going to kill her last time, so I was surprised she made it through the end of the episode.  But they way they did it this week was such a gut punch.  And now Alice is going to be even worse than before.  Can’t wait to see that.  The biggest surprise of the night however, was the fact that Mouse’s dad is still alive.

Supergirl – I must admit, Winn’s first episode back was better.  This one was a bit disappointing, at least as far as his story goes.  They are definitely ramping up the Luthor storyline, and I’m very anxious to see where this is going to go.

Girl Scout Cookie Championship – The woman didn’t win!  I guess I was most surprised because I thought her cake looked best.  Obviously, we can’t taste them, which is a major issue with the show.  And yes, I did notice that two people used Thin Mints in the first challenge.  Didn’t work out so well for them.  But the Samoa cookies are my second favorites (may be first these days), so I am always happy to see them represented like they were in the second part of the challenge.

The Flash – I really don’t remember the search for Sue until the middle of this season, but they acted like it was something we should have remembered.  I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of her since she got the cliffhanger, but I’m curious how she is going to play into the rest of the season.  And what is the deal with Iris?  Who/what is she?  And how long will the real Iris be in the mirror?  How much trouble is Barry going to be in if he doesn’t figure it out?

Legends of Tomorrow – It’s obvious they are still writing around characters being on the crossovers (including Arrow’s finale) with how little Barry was in The Flash and Sara and Mick were in this episode.  But the writers are doing a good job of writing around it and giving the other characters great stories to show them off.  Loved new Zari and Marie.  I wonder how long it will be before she or Nick remember the truth.  Meanwhile, I was not impressed with the Constantine story.  This was what I feared when he joined the show last year.  It’s finally happening.

Survivor – If you start talking to everyone, sharing secrets, and targeting everyone on the beach, you will be voted out.  Seriously, what was Danni thinking?  Even I know that.  Of course, at some point, you do need to make a move and try to take out the big players, but that isn’t the way you go about doing it.

LegoMasters – Sam and Jessica did very well this week, which was nice to see.  And those were some very impressive and creative builds.  I would never have come up with half of that.  Personally, I thought the telescope was the best of the lot.  And I loved what they came up with for the laptop.

Carol’s Second Act – I’m not sure where they are going with Carol and the surgeon.  I feel like it is too soon and they are moving too fast for this to be a relationship to invest in.  I kind of like the guy, so that bums me out.  And speaking of downers, I did not see the twist with the patient coming.  They handled it well, especially for a comedy, but what a gut punch.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Ornament Review: Milk and Cookies - Making Memories #12 - 2019 Hallmark Release

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Memories of midnight snacks left for Santa
Cons: Slight tip, but nothing major
The Bottom Line:
Milk, cookies, Santa
Combine in cute ornament
Warm, memory filled

Christmas Eve Memories

The Christmas season holds a ton of memories of traditions we celebrated as children and then pass on to the next generation.  Hallmark has done a great job of capturing those moments with the Making Memories series, and they’ve got another winner for us with Milk and Cookies.

As the title suggests, this year our snowpeople are leaving milk and cookies out for Santa.  They are standing next to the small table with a pretty light blue table cloth on it.  The cloth has a red fringe and some snowflakes stitched onto the bottom.  The child has just put a plate with three frosted sugar cookies on it, and the adult is setting a glass of milk on the table.  And how do I know this is being left out of Santa?  Because there is a note there written by the child that says “For Santa” on it.  After all, we want Santa to know they were left out on purpose.  Otherwise, he might think we were naughty, not picking up after ourselves.

The added bit of cuteness?  The family’s kitten is peeking out from under the table.

As usual, this scene is placed on a snowflake shaped base, so it could easily be set on any flat surface to be displayed.  But if you want to add it to your Christmas tree, you’ll find the loop in the adult’s hat.  It’s not quite balanced, but close enough that you’ll never know when you get a few Christmas tree branches around it.

This series continues to make me smile each year.  The snow characters are always charming, and the memories they evoke is fantastic.  Even when the activity is something I might not have done, I can still get the appeal.  In this case, I do remember leaving milk and cookies out for Santa when I was a child.  The nostalgia inspired by this series is absolutely off the charts.  It’s why we are on number twelve in the series with no signs of the series slowing down.  And yes, there is a 12 in a Christmas tree on the bottom of the snowflake base.

I had to pick up Milk and Cookies.  Like the rest of the series, it offers up nostalgia for your tree.

Enjoy more warm memories with the rest of the Making Memories ornaments.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book Review: Here Comes the Body by Maria DiRico (Catering Hall Mysteries #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Characters, plot, setting, humor
Cons: I refuse to find any cons
The Bottom Line:
Stripper dead in cake
Threaten Mia’s new business
In delightful book

Debut You Won’t Want to Refuse

There are certain tropes you expect when you pick up a cozy mystery – a small town, an amateur sleuth, and a story light on violence.  And then there are the books that surprise you in some delightful ways while still being cozy.  Here Comes the Body is one of those.

Mia Carina has returned to her Astoria neighborhood in Queens after being cleared of any wrong doing in the disappearance of her philandering husband.  She’s got a new job, too, working with her father.  Her father is reputed mobster Ravello, only there is nothing reputed about it.  However, his new business venture, Belle View, is completely legitimate.  Belle View is a catering hall that can handle anything from a fancy wedding to an office party.  Okay, so you might hear the occasional airplane from LaGuardia airport, but it’s still a great location with a killer view.

Mia’s first week on the job finds her in charge of a bachelor party.  However, when it comes time for the stripper to jump out of the cake, she fails to do so.  In fact, she is dead in the cake.  Unfortunately, the police quickly connect the victim to Mia’s father.  Ravello has done time in jail in the past, but for crimes he actually committed.  Mia doesn’t want to see her father jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, especially as he is trying to go straight for a change.  Can she prove his innocence?

New York City?  The mob?  Am I sure this is a cozy?  Absolutely.  Cozy is more an attitude than a strict list of things to include or not include, and this book has that attitude down perfectly.

We can start with the characters.  Mia has moved home, which means her life is filled with people she already knows.  We can tell how much she loves these people, and that warmth oozes off the page.  Yes, even the mobsters have that connection with her, but these are her Family, so why wouldn’t they?  Of course, the suspects kept me guessing until the end while also coming across as real.

Another reason this works is because the plot doesn’t go into typical mobster tropes.  Instead, the plot serves up some suspects and motives that are cozier.  There are enough twists to keep us guessing and a fantastic climax.

Even the location works.  By focusing on one neighborhood, we get to know the residents.  Then there are the people that Mia is now working with.  By focusing our attention on one or two specific locations, we are able to still get that cozy vibe, even when the plot takes us to other parts of New York City.

After mentioning foreign language in my review earlier in the week, I do have to mention that Mia’s grandmother and father both occasionally speak in Italian.  It’s not super prevalent, and we get a translation almost immediately.  It definitely added some flavor to their characters.  Honestly, if I hadn’t read it immediately after reading a book set in Italy, I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

I can’t leave out the humor.  I was laughing several times at the things that Mia was dealing with or her reactions to the events unfolding around her.

Just in case you haven’t picked up on it, I loved this book.  I read the majority of it on a lazy Sunday because I just couldn’t stop reading.  The characters are charming and the plot is fun.

Since this is a culinary cozy, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that there are recipes at the end of the book.  We get a total of four along with a fun tip for planning a party.

Maria DiRico has a hit on her hands.  Here Comes the Body left me anxious for the sequel.  It would be a mistake to refuse this excellent debut.

Don't refuse the rest of the Catering Hall Mysteries.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Movie Review: Dead Over Diamonds - Picture Perfect Mysteries

: 4 out of 5
Pros: Characters, good mystery
Cons: Usual Hallmark cheese
The Bottom Line:
Diamonds go missing
How did they lead to murder?
Fun mystery film

A Theft Leads to Murder

I’ve been looking forward to a second Picture Perfect Mystery since the first one premiered last year.  Allie Adams and Sam Acosta finally returned with Dead Over Diamonds, and it was worth the wait.

Photographer Allie Adams (Alexa PenaVega) has been hired to photograph a gala at the art gallery designed to show off the collection of a local man, and has everything from paintings to photographs and even a valuable necklace.  However, before the night is over, the necklace has been stolen.

Naturally, Detective Sam Acosta (Carlos PenaVega) is on the case.  But it isn’t long before a dead body turns up.  Can Sam and Allie figure out what is happening?

This movie also introduces us to Sam’s uncle Luis (Erik Estrada), who adds a lot of fun to the proceedings.  I don’t remember either main character having family in the first one, so this adds the necessary family member to the typical Hallmark mystery movie formula.  (Not saying I don’t enjoy the formula, but it is rather obvious.)

This movie has a good mystery.  There were plenty of suspects to keep us guessing.  I’ll admit I fell for the obvious solution for too long until things really began to unfold.  By the time we reached the end, I found all the twists logical and the clues finally made sense.

We also get some serious character development for Sam.  I don’t remember learning much about him in the first one, but here he gets a pretty serious backstory that I’m sure it going to play out over the course of several movies.  I’m curious to see how it is all going to unravel.

Yes, this is a Hallmark movie, so it has the usual dose of cheese.  I seem to notice it more when I watch one of these movies after a few weeks off, so I felt like there was a bit more present here.  Still, if you know about it going in, you’ll get so caught up in the story that you won’t mind.

It comes back to the characters for me.  I like Allie and Sam, so I enjoy spending time with them.  The rest of the regulars are fun as well.  I certainly hope that Uncle Luis becomes a regular.

A third movie is in the works and slated for May.  That gives you plenty of time to catch Dead Over Diamonds.  It’s a fun mystery you’ll enjoy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Book Review: Al Dente's Inferno by Stephanie Cole (Tuscan Cooking School #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun setting and characters with a strong mystery
Cons: Language barrier not handled well for the reader early
The Bottom Line:
Nell starts life anew
Murder in foreign country
With strong mystery

Nell’s Move Comes Complete with Murder

I try to keep an eye on all upcoming books I think I will enjoy, but I almost missed Al Dente’s Inferno, the first in a new series from Stephanie Cole.  With a culinary theme, but set in the Tuscany region of Italy, I had to pick up the book.

Nell Valenti has turned her love of food and her training as a chef into a career helping establish farm to table cooking schools.  When she is offered a job setting up a school for Chef Claudio Orlandini in Tuscany, she jumps at the chance.  Not only is she looking for some changes in her life, but Chef Claudio is her culinary idol.

However, Nell is shocked upon her arrival to discover that the villa Chef Claudio owns is in worse disrepair than she expected, meaning the transformation is going to be more work than she’d expected.  Then comes the news that a kick off dinner with some local dignitaries is scheduled for the next evening.  Even worse, the dinner ends with some of the guests dead and Chef Claudio missing.  What has Nell gotten herself into?

The idea of a cozy series set in Tuscany was really appealing to me.  I liked the idea of something set in Italy, and what’s not to love about that region?  The setting comes to wonderful life.  The scenery sounds beautiful, and the pace of life seems slower even as Nell is rushing around to get stuff done on a tight deadline or figure out who the killer is. 

Writing a book set in a foreign country, especially one that doesn’t speak English, is tricky for an author.  They have to balance writing a book we’d understand with the reality that not everyone is going to speak English.  Unfortunately, this book doesn’t quite get the balance right.  Nell is just learning the language herself, so she naturally has people translating for her.  But there are still times that Italian is thrown out, and we are left to figure out the meaning in context, or not given the translation right away.  It made the book a bit of a struggle to get into.  Fortunately, this seemed to go away as the story really got going.

We’re treated to a good mystery with plenty of suspects and motives.  I was surprised at who the killer turned out to be, and yet, as Nell was piecing it together at the end, it all made sense.  The clues had been in plain sight but the red herrings were so confusing I completely missed them.

And the book is populated with good characters.  We don’t get to know all of them well in this book, but there is a solid core that we come to care for before the book is over.  Nell’s character growth feels like a natural part of the situation she’s found herself in.  The other characters are interesting, and I’m sure we’ll come to know them better as the series unfolds.

There are some laughs along the way as well.  A couple times, the events caught me off guard and made me laugh out loud.  A few other times, I was smiling at what was happening on the page.

Of course, we get a recipe, too, and it sounds delicious.  Then again, when doesn’t Italian food sound good?

While it took me more work to get into the book than I was hoping, I am glad I picked up Al Dente’s Inferno.  The characters, plot, and setting of this debut are fun.

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, February 25th, so please leave your comment before midnight Pacific Time on 2/24.  You will have until midnight on 3/1 to get back to me, or I will choose a new winner on 3/2.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Movie Review: Maleficent - Mistress of Evil

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good story pulls you into this sequel
Cons: Acting doesn’t always work for me
The Bottom Line:
Fairytale sequel
Good original story
Better than the first

“Remind Me, Did He Die, or Was He Killed?”  “Both.”

I’ve tried watching Maleficent, Disney’s live action twist on Sleeping Beauty, twice now, and I just couldn’t get into it.  I just found it too slow to truly enjoy, especially since we knew where the story was going to go.  So when I saw they were going to release the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, I wasn’t that excited.  However, the previews made me curious just where they were intending to go with the story, so I decided to rent it.  Turned out, I enjoyed it more than the original.

It’s been a few years since we last checked in with these characters.  In that time, Aurora (Elle Fanning) has taken to her new role as Queen of the Moors, where she rules over all the fairies and other magical creatures.  Meanwhile, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is spending her time protecting the Moors from any threat coming from the human world.  Meanwhile, Aurora and Prince Phillip’s relationship has bloomed, and now Phillip (Harris Dickinson, taking over the role from Brenton Thwaites) has asked Aurora to marry him, a proposal she gladly accepts.

Unfortunately, Maleficent isn’t as enthused about the marriage as everyone else seems to be.  Still, she agrees to go to a celebratory dinner that night hosted by Phillip’s parents (Robert Lindsay and Michelle Pfeiffer).  To say the dinner goes badly is an understatement, and soon it looks like war is the only possible outcome.  Can anyone stop what has been set in motion?

Yes, there are still some nods to the original Sleeping Beauty story, but for the most part this is an original story, imaging what would happen next in the world created by the original.  So if you haven’t seen Maleficent, don’t sit down to watch this one.  You’ll be a little confused on what exactly is happening here.  If you’ve seen it recently, you’ll be okay since they do a good job of reminding you about the key plot points from the original.

They story they’ve come up with is a good one.  We get to learn more about Maleficent all while on the edge of our seats wondering how the characters will get their happy ending.  The story does a good job of showing the dangers of blind hate and fear without getting in the way of the story.  I was definitely caught up in the action much sooner and more fully than I was with the first one.

The effects are top notch.  While this is much more live action than some of the recently Disney “live action” films, there are still plenty of magical creatures, which means plenty of special effects.  They all looked great.

My problem with the film comes with the acting.  It’s in the same style as the original, so I wasn’t surprised with some of the choices the actors made.  They just didn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I am glad I decided to give Maleficent: Mistress of Evil a chance.  If you enjoyed the first one, you should definitely watch this one, and if you were remotely curious where they were going to take the story, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Disney Pin Review: Pirates of the Caribbean - Minnie Mouse: The Main Attraction #2 - 2020 Release

: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great theme around a popular ride
Cons: Dead cons tell no tales
The Bottom Line:
Minnie and Pirates
Prove to be a fun combo
With second pin set

A Pirate’s Life for Minnie

Each month this year, Minnie is visiting a classic Disney Parks attraction, and she is dressing for the occasion.  She started out in Tomorrowland with Space Mountain, she’s moving across the park to New Orleans’ Square and Pirates of the Caribbean.  (Yes, my Disneyland bias is showing.  But have you seen the ride at Walt Disney World?  Sorry, but theirs is vastly inferior.)  I’m only collecting the pins this year, and this is another fun pin set.

The pin set consists of three different pins.  Each month also has an appropriate color scheme, and this month is gold and black.  One pin is the icon for the attraction dressed up for Minnie.  In this case, we get a skull with a bow on top.  Honestly, this alone cracks me up.  We are talking something supposed to be a scary warning and making it cuteish.  No, it’s not fully cute, but it is edging that way.  The bow is black with little gold polka dots on it.  And the white skull has a gold tooth.  Next is Minnie herself.  She’s wearing a bow that matches the one from the skull.  Finally come the Minnie ears.  In this case, the different ears have icons in them.  In one is the skull with a bow again while the other has a ship’s wheel.  Instead of a bow, we get a pirate ship in the space between the two ears.  Each of the three pins has some glitter in the darker elements, too.

It’s going to be hard to top the Space Mountain pin set for beauty.  Then again, I love stars, so the glimpse of space it offered us was an instant draw for me.  However, this set is lots of fun.  The theming is once again outstanding, the color choices evoke the ride, and the pins are fun.  This is another popular ride, so I expect these pins will be popular for a long time to come.  This month’s items were certainly popular when I went to get them at my local Disney Store yesterday.

I’m really glad I decided to collect these pin sets each month.  The Pirates of the Caribbean set once again proves to be plenty of fun for fans of these theme park attractions.

If you'd like to see a picture, check out my picture on Instagram.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

February 15th's Weekly TV Thoughts

Girl Scout Cookie Championship – Obviously, I have a one track mind because the instant they announced the s’mores challenge, I wanted to see someone use Thin Mints.  Now I’m obsessed.  I need to try a chocolate mint s’more.  The cakes in the final round looked amazing.  Not sure I got Yosemite out of the winner’s cake, but it certainly looked great.

The Flash – I’d forgotten about Iris going into the mirror at first.  I was thinking we had a clone or something, but then I remembered the mirror.  I’ll be interested to see how long it takes before Barry really figures things out.  He’s definitely on the right track already.  And what was going on with Nash there at the end?

Legends of Tomorrow – If the show had been back in the fall, I’m sure it would have been the Halloween episode.  As obsessed with slasher as I am, I loved it, and all the little nods to the classics of the genre.  I’m going to be very interested to see where they go with Zari this season.

Survivor – What a start.  Glad Natalie is out.  I never have liked the Twinies since they were on The Amazing Race.  Not surprised Amber is gone.  I’ve always felt Rob was the stronger player of that couple, but considering they were a couple, she was always going to have a target on her back.  Not getting why Sandra is so angry at Rob.  Did he change his mind?  If not, he lies.  We know that about him.  He’s as big a liar as you are.  Get over it.  It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season unfolds.  Yes, I’m only remembering about half the cast right now, but I’m sure the others will pop in as they get more screen time.

Lego Masters – Space, the broken frontier.  I thought Mayim was going to be a guest judge, but she left with an hour left.  Sam and Jessica were in the bottom two twice and are still around.  Of course, with the other team’s build falling apart before it could be demolished, it was easy to see why they left.  They’ve got some creative challenges for this show.  This is going to continue to be fun.

Carol’s Second Act – We have a couple of story arcs going on here.  The patient was around last week, and it looks like will be a factory next week.  Plus we’ll be seeing more of the surgeon.  I actually liked him and especially loved the scene in the surgeon’s lounge.  I still think you can have a good bedside manner and be a good surgeon, but they made him human.  I’ll be interested to see where the crush goes.  The sub-plot involving the tattoo?  Best laughs of the series.  Could it be the writers are finally finding the rhythm of the show and what works?

Friday, February 14, 2020

Ornament Review: Up 10th Anniversary - 2019 Hallmark Release

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Looks great, sound clip adds to fun
Cons: Very hard to add the batteries
The Bottom Line:
Celebrate 10 years
With great looking ornament
Batteries are hard

Celebrating 10 Years with a Magic Ornament

Pixar’s wonderful movie Up celebrated 10 years in 2019.  (How can that movie be so old?)  As it often does, Hallmark celebrated this milestone with an ornament.  It’s one I’d been wanting for a while for this movie, but one aspect didn’t quite work like it should have.

We’ve gotten some ornaments of the characters over the years, but we had yet to get a Hallmark ornament of the house floating with all the balloons above it.  That’s exactly what we get this year.  The yellow house is, frankly, overwhelmed by the balloons above it.  And the balloons are multi-colored, just as they should be.  Okay, so the balloon part is really a solid plastic part with parts of spheres sticking off the main mass, but anyone can easily figure out what it really is.  The ornament uses a dangle element, with the house dangling from the balloons.  This makes it look much more like the house did in the movie, but it also means you can’t set this ornament out to be displayed.  You must hang it, but fortunately, it looks great when you are hanging it.  As far as the size of the house compared to all the balloons, the ornament captures how the two looked compared to each other when we look a look from far away.

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I love how this ornament looks.  It is a perfect representation of what I wanted to represent this part of the movie.  And I love the movie, so this is important to me.

Even better, this ornament is a magic ornament.  When you stick the button batteries in the compartment in the balloons and then press the button, you are treated to a 30 second clip of the main theme of the movie.  The instant you hit the button you’ll recognize exactly what the music is from.

So far, this is sounding like a fantastic ornament, right?  I was looking forward to adding it to my collection from the moment Hallmark announced it was coming.

The issue came when I had to add the batteries to the ornament.  The way the compartment is situated in the balloons, it is almost impossible to put them in.  Seriously, it took me several minutes to get them added, and usually I can add the batteries in less than a minute.  Considering, you shouldn’t store the batteries in an ornament, you then have to go through this each year.  As much as I love the magic element of this ornament, this is a major drawback for me.  I don’t know why they made it so hard to add the batteries.  You’d think they would have tried it out and made sure it wasn’t so hard.

But battery issues aside, this is still a good ornament.  I might not enjoy the music every year, but I will certainly enjoy this ornament.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book Review: Battered by G. P. Gottlieb (Whipped and Sipped Mysteries #1)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters; good mystery
Cons: A little slow to get started due to backstory
The Bottom Line:
Death of a neighbor
Keeps café owner busy
Good twists on genre

Murder Hits Close to Home

It’s always fun to find an author with her own twist on the genres I love.  In this case, I’m talking specifically about Battered, the first Whipped and Sipped mystery from G. P. Gottlieb.  It’s a culinary cozy, but the main character runs a shop that serves healthy treats.

Alene Baron runs Whipped and Sipped with her best friend, Ruthie Rosin.  Together, the two have turned the café and coffee shop into a healthy choice with a loyal clientele.  They serve only the best coffee, and most of their items are vegan, even the sweet treats, that is popular in their neighborhood in Chicago.  Alene lives a few blocks away from the café in a condo she shares with her father and her three children.

Her world is a little chaotic, but it gets more so when she finds one of her neighbors dead one afternoon.  It is clear that he was murdered, and soon Alene is casting everyone in the role of killer.  Since she knows everyone who might be a suspect, can she figure out what really happened?

Another way this debut has a twist is the location.  Cozies set in big cities like Chicago are rare; the setting is usually a small town.  However, this book doesn’t feel like it is set in a big city.  Most of the action takes place within a few blocks, and Alene knows all the suspects well.  It feels like a cozy even if it is in a big town.  Honestly, I appreciated the way G. P. Gottlieb pulled that off.

There are a lot of characters, and their relationships are complicated.  There is a cast of characters before the book gets started, so if you get confused, you can easily refer to that.  I found it took me a bit more work than some books to keep everyone straight, but I was soon able to do so.  It helped that the further into the book I got, the more the character’s personalities came through.  The more real a character is, the better I can remember them.  There are several prickly characters here, but that also helped me keep them straight and made it easy to consider them suspects.

I’ve complained in the past about books that have data dumps of backstory, and this book did fall into that trap, making it a little slow to get going.  We do need to know at least some of the background to understand what happens, however.  Once the murder takes place, we are able to follow Alene around as she tries to sift clue from red herring.  I thought I had it figured out a couple of times, but the solution still surprised me.

And recipes!  This book has a lot of recipes.  There are thirty, and they range from orange poppy seed muffins to fish tacos and gluten-free vegan cookies.  Yes, there are quite a few vegan recipes here, including vegan sweets, so if you are looking to eat a little healthier, this book will help you.

Battered took a little time to get going, but it was worth it.  If you are looking for a slightly different take on a culinary cozy mystery, this is the debut to read.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book.