Friday, June 22, 2018

Stalking Jack the Ripper - the first Audrey Rose Wadsworth novel

How many times has the tale of Jack the Ripper been told?  How in the world can anyone truly write an entirely new take on the legendary murderer?  I didn't pick up this book for the longest time, simply because I thought it would be just another story about someone trying to solve the mystery of who Jack the Ripper really was.  That, and I'm not a big fan of James Patterson or this whole ego-centric world of books he seems to have created (where stories are being written by other authors, but his name is slapped on the cover in an effort to sell the book).  So when I got the book for Christmas, I set it to the side, figuring I would get around to reading it eventually.  Well, eventually got here, and I read it.

And, boy, am I ever glad I did!!!

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerry Maniscalco is definitely a whole new take on the story of Jack, that's for sure.  It's the tale of Audrey Rose Wadsworth, a most unusual young woman of the late nineteenth century.  You see, Audrey Rose (and yes, whenever her name is said in the book, it is not simply Audrey, but always Audrey Rose) is training under her uncle to learn everything she can about post-mortem work as a coroner.  Something her father is most definitely displeased with, and something that worries her brother to no end.  Her mother, having died some years ago, always told Audrey Rose to stay strong and be determined - so she is.  She even convinces her uncle to let her disguise herself as a boy and attend one of his lectures at a local university.  Where she meets Thomas Cresswell.

And let me say that, in my opinion, Thomas Cresswell is the breakout star of this book!  He is sassy, he is straight-forward, he is frolicking and playful, yet he knows when to be serious and strong.  And his sarcasm and wit is such a fine juxtaposition to the dark seriousness of the story that it creates the perfect balance, so that the reader does not fall too deeply into despair with all the murders, blood, and bodies.

Maniscalco deftly writes a serial killer mystery that will keep you guessing until pretty close to the end.  I thought I had it figured out, then changed my mind, then changed my mind again - and while I did manage to guess who it was ultimately before the big reveal, I still have to give the author credit for keeping it subtle and providing plenty of red herrings to obscure the truth from being uncovered too easily.  And she provides a very strong protagonist in Audrey Rose Wadsworth.  Audrey Rose is clearly a Nancy Drew archetype - mother died when she was young, father is protective, but she maintains her independence and is not afraid to face danger head-on, regardless of society's standards, in order to solve the mystery...yet, at the same time, she knows how to maintain her lady-like manners when required and hold off that amorous man when there's a mystery that's more important to solve!

And what a mystery it is.  The "Leather Apron" as he was first called is on the loose, killing women of ill-repute, and when it turns out that Audrey Rose's family has a connection to not one, not two, but three of the young women who were so brutally murdered, she is determined to get to the bottom of things and stop the crazed man from killing any more.  When her uncle is suddenly accused of the crimes due to his profession and skill set, it becomes even more important that Audrey Rose unmask the real killer to prevent her uncle from being hanged.  With Thomas Creswell forever at her side, whether she wants him there or not, Audrey Rose sets out on a path to capture the killer, at the very risk of her own life.  But the closer she gets to his real identity, the more she discovers that there are some secrets that should best stay hidden...

Stalking Jack the Ripper was a surprisingly great story, and the end sets the stage for the second volume in this series.  Can't wait for that one to come out in paperback!

RATING:  9 portraits worth considering out of 10 for spinning a totally new take on the Jack the Ripper story and giving readers two new totally lovable protagonists!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Dark Shadows Audio Book - 50th Anniversary Special - Blood & Fire

It felt so good to re-enter the world of Dark Shadows, and what better way to get back into the swing of things than with this 50th anniversary audio book?  I am a bit disheartened that after 50 audio stories, Big Finish decided to do this special anniversary story and then re-boot the numbering back to number 1 again (hmmm, taking a queue from DC and Marvel comics, perhaps?).  However, numbering aside, I will say this - they certainly know how to do a 50th anniversary special right, that's for sure!

"Blood & Fire" takes the story of the Collins family back to its beginnings here in America.  Angelique is once again front and center as the Dark Lord sends her back in time, to 1767, where he instructs her to put an end to the Collins bloodline before it spreads into the new world (a/k/a America).  So, in true Dark Shadows style, we take a trip back in time, back to the year 1767 - there, each of the Collins' ancestors resembles a present-day member of the Collins' family - but the names and relationships have changed, and Angelique finds herself...oh, wait, no, that was the lead-in for a completely different storyline...


Fans are treated to a lot of origins, of sorts, in this story.  We meed Laura Stockbridge before she becomes the phoenix.  We meet Abigail Collins before she becomes so bitter.  We meet a young Joshua Collins before he weds Naomi.  We meet the ancestors of the Cunninghams, the Griffins, the Haskells, the Loomises, and heck, there's even a werewolf thrown in for good measure.  Add in Angelique (a/k/a Cassandra Peterson), and you know you're in for one heck of a good ride!  And with two CDs, made up of four parts (episodes), it's a fully fleshed-out story that truly pays tribute to all that has gone before (or is to come?) and fleshes out a lot more of Collins' history.

When I first saw that Joanna Going was providing a voice on this CD, I got excited, thinking perhaps she would be doing Victoria Winters (the character she played in the 1990s television show), but instead, she is the young Laura Stockbridge.  She does a pretty good job with the role, too, I must admit - going from the innocent young bride-to-be to a full-fledged supernatural being intent on one thing - destroying the witch who has tried to rain destruction down on the Collins' family.  It's a phoenix vs. witch showdown that only Dark Shadows could do!

The story centers around the upcoming nuptials of Joshua Collins to Laura Stockbridge.  Angelique appears on the scene, and pretending to be a wife, stranded in Collinsport while awaiting her husband to come in from sea, she wiggles her way into the Collins' household.  The great Collins House is in the process of being built, so the family resides in Anchor House.  Angelique is on a mission to destroy the Collins family, but she finds herself conflicted.  As the story progresses and she becomes more involved with the family, she realizes that the Collins family has always been the same, and that she has no place in it - so she moves forward with her plan of destruction!

Apparently, this story occurs before the audio story, "The Path of Fate," as the ending of "Blood & Fire" provides a lead-in to "The Path of Fate."    Which, I know I've said it before, but it is something I so love about all of these audio books - the continuity is truly mind-boggling.  Although they may not be told in order, they do manage to intermingle stories and ultimately connect them - I wonder if anyone has ever sat down and truly figured out the exact order all of the audio tales should be listened to in order to hear them in chronological order, story-wise?

Fifty years of Dark Shadows, and 50 audio stories has been building to this, and without a doubt, "Blood & Fire" was well worth it.  Can't wait to see what the next fifty years holds in store for this amazing, one-of-a-kind series!

RATING:  10 buried urns out of 10 for providing an anniversary story that honors, adores, and expands on the history of one of the greatest television shows of all time!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

House of Shadows: Book Two - House of Secrets

Author Darcy Coates brings readers back into the Gothic world of Sophie and Joseph Argenton and the terrible curse of the Grimlock with the sequel to House of Shadows.  While I have always loved Gothic tales (I mean, c'mon, Dark Shadows started me down that path, and I've loved it ever since!), I've never been a fan of the romance part that always seems to accompany many Gothic stories.  Coates, thankfully, knows how to truly balance it, so that the Gothic, supernatural side is the focus, and the romantic elements are secondary.

House of Secrets picks up shortly after the end of the first book, where Sophie helped her new husband, Joseph, along with his uncle and cousin, escape the horrors that the cursed Northwood manor held for them all.  Sophie believed that, with the curse behind them, she and her husband might actually discover a happy marriage, regardless of how it began (let's face it - getting married solely so your husband can sacrifice you to keep a curse at bay is not exactly the best way to start a marriage...).  Unfortunately, the horrors of the past are not quite finished with them.

Coates truly makes the reader feel for the characters, particularly Sophie.  Yes, she does get a bit whiny sometimes with her "does he love me, or does he not love me" thoughts - but it does fit perfectly with the story, as it keeps the reader guessing as to Joseph's true intentions.  Remember, in the first book, he married her for the sole purpose of having a sacrifice to the Grimlock.  Just because that did not happen does not necessarily mean a happy ending for the couple - particularly since tales of Gothic and supernatural tend to have dire consequences for their characters.

The horror begins anew in this second novel when Joseph receives a letter from his uncle, indicating that his young cousin, Elise, was possessed by the Grimlock after the destruction of Northwood.  He has taken her to the abandoned Kensington estate in the hopes of finding a way to rid Elise of the deadly creature, but Garrett needs Joseph's helps.  Joseph intends to leave Sophie behind, but she won't hear of it!  Determined and strong-willed, she follows him, and the two eventually arrive at the desolate estate.  In true horror fashion, there is a wide chasm separating the house from the rest of the world, and a decaying wood bridge is the only way across.  Far below is a dried up river that once ran through the chasm.

As with an any old house, this one has a history.  Kensington belonged to the Argenton family, and Miss Bishop, the sister of a man who married into the Argenton family (and the curse!) was determined to find a way to save her brother.  Decades of her research lay within the library and various rooms of the old mansion, and it becomes a race against time for Sophie, Joseph, and Garrett to discover a clue in one of the books, journals, and diaries that will lead them to a way to put an end to the Grimlock and save young Elise.

Coates provides plenty of tense moments - numerous dark shadows, stormy nights, cold winds, hoarse whispers, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night - all the elements necessary to make the perfect terrifying tale.  There are also several surprise moments, and a heart-warming reveal that will touch even the hardest of hearts.

I am almost saddened that the story ties up all loose ends and provides a true ending to the story of Sophie, Joseph, and the Grimlock - I would love to see more tales of these characters.  However, I'm thankful Coates shared these two fantastic stories and definitely recommend them to any fans of the Gothic and supernatural.

RATING:  10 cessant's bloom petals out of 10 for horror and supernatural in true Gothic style without over-burdening the story with too much romance!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

DC Comics Secret Hero Society, Book 3 - Detention of Doom

Clark, Bruce, and Diana return to school in Scholastic's third book of the DC Comics Super Hero Society series, Detention of Doom.  Written by Derek Fridolfs and drawn by Dustin Nguyen (of Li'l Gotham fame), this series has been a real delight, and this book is no exception.

(And just in case you are wondering, yes, Clark is Superman, Bruce is Batman, and Diana is Wonder Woman - DC Comic's big three, so to speak - although in this series, they are far from big - they are elementary school students in Gotham City, and, as can be expected, they must face off against villainous crimes in each story)

Detention of Doom begins with a simple award ceremony - the award for bravery, the peace prize, and even a participation award.  While Bruce is somewhat bored with the ceremony, finding the whole thing to be frivolous, it soon turns out to be anything but when Clark's award suddenly causes him to disappear!  With the help of Barry (Allen a/k/a the Flash) and Victor (Stone a/k/a Cyborg), Bruce and Diana begin to investigate what has happened to their friend.  All roads lead to Lex Luthor, but they cannot find any evidence to prove he did something to Clark.

Needless to say, the frustration gets to them, and when Diana accidentally drops Clark's award, the group of super-friends suddenly find themselves ... well, somewhere else.

I love the fact that Fridolfs and Nguyen increase the cast of these books with each volume.  What started out as just Clark, Bruce, and Diana has now expanded to include Barry, Victor, Oliver, Joker, and Harley, as well as appearances in this volume of Doomsday and Bizarro (and even a brief appearance by Bat-zarro).  The story is not dumbed down at all, despite starring the heroes as children and with a target audience of young readers; instead, Fridolfs and Nguyen tell a fun story of adventure and team-work as the super-friends desperately try to find the missing Clark and then escape from the detention of doom in this other-worldly place.

The inter-mixing of comic panels with screen-texts between the kids, as well as photos from Bruce's robotic drone and messages in Bruce's online diary, to tell the story keeps it fresh and makes the reader feel as if they are a part of the search and rescue.  And the heroes' adventure in this "phantom zone" is full of lessons on trust, team work, and patience, and it's fun to see the characters learn as they go to depend on each other's strengths, as well as compensate for one another's weaknesses.

There's obviously no doubt the heroes escape their time in detention, but the turning of tables at the end of the story will bring a smile to any reader's face.

Thankfully, I see on www.amazon.com that a fourth book is scheduled to be released in March of next year, so that pretty much tells me this series is still successful (which I'm happy to see, since so many series that I really enjoy end up getting cancelled pretty quickly).

RATING:  8 time-out rooms out of 10 for proving that detention can be just as much a learning experience as the regular classroom!

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Scarlet Rose GN No. 1 - I Knew I'd Meet You

What do you when you fall for a Robin Hood-type rogue who is terrorizing the countryside, stealing from the rich to give to the poor and needy?  Why, you don a mask and costume yourself and assume a new identity to help the rogue in his nightly adventures, what else?

Writer/artist Patricia Lyfoung introduces readers to The Scarlet Rose in the American translation of her first two graphic novel tales, combined in "I Knew I'd Meet You," published by Charmz, a division of Papercutz graphic novels.  Maud is a young girl who relishes life, and who, even moreso, loves the adventure and the mystique that the man known only as "the Fox" brings to the countryside.  But when her father is murdered for a book, and she is forced to go live with an overly strict grandfather who has very specific ideas on how young ladies should behave, Maud finds herself in a quandry.  She's not interested in book-learning or manners or fancy balls - she's only interested in practicing with the sword her father made her before he died and avenging his death.

After she helps the Fox escape capture one night, Maud dons a mask and creates the persona of "The Scarlet Rose" as a means to attract the Fox's attention, while at the same time, searching for the man who killed her father.  But nothing works out quite as she planned.

She chances upon a man who looks like her father's murderer at a ball, but he doesn't have the scar she gave him...

She nearly gets captured as the Scarlet Rose, but when the Fox comes to rescue her, instead of being her knight in shining armor, he tells her to give up this life of adventure...

Her grandfather grows concerned over her actions, and Maud is sent to a convent to protect and teach her...

As with any true hero, Maud overcomes each and every obstacle, determined to be who she wants to be!  With the help of Guilhem, Count of Landry, her skills with the sword grow every day.  But not everything is what it seems, for Guilhem betrays her trust when he aids her grandfather in sending her to the convent, and even more when he reveals the most unexpected secret of all...

The Scarlet Rose is a story of adventure, mystery, and a bit of romance thrown into the mix.  There is no lull in the story, there are no cardboard characters (even the minor characters have personality and story that make them just as interesting as the main cast), and there are enough subplots to leave you wanting for more.  The art is just this side of Manga, with some magnificent backgrounds and settings, and some truly beautiful clothing for all of the characters.  It's clear Lyfoung did not rush through any panel, but gave careful thought to each character's look, expression, action, and the setting of each scene, so as to bring each page to life in such beauty as to easily draw the reader into the Scarlet Rose's world.

So glad I picked this one up, and looking forward to the second volume (since this first book does end with a shock of a cliffhanger...)

RATING:  9 travel diaries out of 10 for introduction another strong, new female lead into the world of comics!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Wedding to Die For - A Brandt and Donnelly Caper, Case File Number Three

Officers Brandt and Donnelly return for their third "caper," and this time, their success in quelling the bigotry in Woodley has opened the door for the two police officers to head up a new task force that will help see to it that the state's new gay marriage law (this book was published back in 2014) is adhered to by the numerous hometown businesses who don't want to recognize and honor it.  And, as fate would have it, their very first case involves a Romeo and Juliet scenario - albeit with a gay twist!

A Wedding to Die For is definitely the best of the Brandt/Donnelly novels so far, at least when it comes to the mystery plot.  A prominent gay couple (one a newscaster, one an attorney) are planning their wedding - but when they are turned away by the baker and the florist they want for their wedding, they fight back.  Enter Brandt and Donnelly.  The two police officers, as a part of their new duties on the task force, pay a visit to the florist, and then the baker, to convince them to revisit their discriminatory actions against the gay couple.  The florist and the baker are both resistant, but ultimately they give in (due to the number of order cancellations based on the public outrage after the couple went public with the issue), allowing their sons to take over the jobs for the wedding.  Their sons, who, coincidentally enough, are both gay.  And, who coincidentally enough, happen to not only know each other, but share a secret from their past that turns out to have some very deadly consequences in the present.

Author Xavier Mayne provides a well-written tale of revenge, star-crossed love, and flat-out hate-filled bigotry.  Someone wants to turn the wedding into a disaster.  And a disaster it becomes when nearly everyone at the reception becomes violently ill, forcing Brandt and Donnelly to act quickly and get them the medical attention they need.  They immediately begin an investigation into the source of the mass-poison, and then into the culprit behind it.  When one of the two grooms winds up dead on his honeymoon, it becomes a murder investigation.

Was it the baker or the florist determined to seek revenge on having been forced to offer their services to the gay couple?  Or was it one of their sons, who may not be everything he's pretending to be?  Or was it someone completely off the radar, with intentions Brandt and Donnelly can't even begin to understand?  And what of Justin and Roman, the baker's and florist's sons?  Is their romance doomed before it even begins?

Mayne has got a great hold on the characters, and even the ever-flamboyant Bryce makes a few brief appearances that are so over-the-top, yet everyone knows someone just like him.  The growing rapport between Brandt and Donnelly, now that they are engaged (that happened at the end of the second book - where have you been?), flows naturally, and it's nice to see them getting to become more comfortable with each other and with themselves, particularly as they begin planning their own wedding.

My only problem with this book (and the previous two) are the gratuitous, overly-explicit sexual encounters - between Brandt and Donnelly and between Justin and Roman.  I realize that there is a market for erotica, and I'm by no means a prude.  But (and this is just for me!), when I'm reading a mystery, particularly a really good mystery like this one, explicit sex scenes such as the ones here pull me out of the story.  To me, those scenes have absolutely no bearing on the mystery, and, in fact, the romance between the couples would have been more intimate had the explicit nature of those scenes been toned down.

Not sure that I will be picking up any further books in this series, regardless of how much I enjoy the mystery part and I like the characters.  Guess we will just have to see what the future holds...

RATING:  6 stacks of blueberry pancakes with a side of bacon out of 10 for taking a Shakespearean tragedy and turning it into a good little mystery.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle (Amanda Lester Mysteries No. 3)

The drama that fills the Legatum Continuatum School for the Descendants of Famous Detectives continues in this third book of the Amanda Lester mystery series.  For those just coming in, be warned - if you haven't read the first two books in the series, you might want to stop and go do that.  This is one series where each book builds on what has gone before, so jumping in now, with the third book, might leave you just a bit confused, or at the very least, behind on all that has gone before.

But for those who did read books 1 and 2 in the series, then prepare yourself for Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle.  After the turmoil of the last book, what with the Moriartys breaking out of jail, Amanda's shock to discover that Nick was still alive, and the betrayal of Editta, Philip, and Gavin, the reader is left to wonder just what else could possibly go wrong?  I mean, the Detective's Bible is missing, if not destroyed, the teachers at Legatum are divided into warring factions over whether to save the school or close it, and now, as this third mystery opens, the parents of the missing children are determined to see Headmaster Thrillkill and the school pay for what has happened to their kids!  And, of course, poor Amanda gets sucked into the midst of things when Thrillkill asks her to gather her friends back at the school for the summer break to help him resolve:

1.  Rescue Editta Sweetgum
1.  Find Philip Puppybreath and Gavin Niven
2.  Find out what the key discovered with Wink's body goes to
3.  Find the Detective's Bible
4.  Solve Wink Wiffle's murder
5.  Monitor Professor Redleaf's computer
6.   Find attorney and prepare for wrongful death lawsuit
7.  Make film about our options without the Bible
8.  Speak to David Wiffle

And if you think that list would be enough to keep Amanda and her friends busy over the summer, let's not forget the mysterious purple rainbows that have suddenly started appearing in Windermere and the surrounding communities, as well as the numerous zombie sightings all over the Lake District.  Add in the gold leprechaun coins, the mysterious love letters from Mavis Moriarty to Wink Wiffle, the 3-D images coming out of Professor Redleaf's computer, and the torment Amanda suffers about her feelings for Scapulus Holmes and Nick Moriarty, and you've got yourself a complicated mystery to solve!

Author Paula Berinstein has definitely created a soap opera-ish world, with Amanda Lester at the center.  The teen angst is taken up a notch with this book, as Amanda suddenly finds she is competing with her friend, Amphora, for Holmes' attention, and meanwhile finds herself unexpectedly kissing Simon Binkle.  Meanwhile, amidst all of the drama, and the responsibility of solving so many mysteries, Amanda finds that famed director Darius Plover is demanding more and more of her time, as he seeks out her aid with reviewing and revising the script for his latest project.  This man has been her idol for so many years, so how can she say no?

There is a somewhat slow build-up in this book, as Berinstein provides a bit of a recap and walks Amanda through her numerous quandaries of how to approach each of the mysteries.  However, after the half-way point, the action and pace definitely pick up, leading to another explosive conclusion that leaves another person dead, six more people kidnapped, a mysterious girl who aids the detectives, and the school split down the middle as half the teachers leave to form their own school in Scotland.

At 380 pages long, there is plenty of room for the story, but prepare yourself, for the ending leaves the reader hanging, meaning the only way I'll find out what happens next is to pick up book four and start reading!

RATING:  8 acoustic levitators out of 10 for building a Harry Potter-type world with the descendants of famed detectives, all the while keeping it fresh and exciting!