Friday, November 17, 2017

The Second Veronica Speedwell Mystery - A Perilous Undertaking

It's always a treat when you read the second book of a series and find it to be just as enjoyable, if not even more so, than the first!  I have been fortunate in a lot of series I've picked up in recent years, that the authors have been able to meet and exceed my expectations with more than just the first book (it's just a shame that the publishers for some of those series didn't want to do more than three books in the series, which seems to be the magic number these days...)

And Deanna Raybourn certainly did not disappoint with A Perilous Undertaking, the second Veronica Speedwell mystery.  Veronica and her not-quite-the-gentleman friend, Stoker, find their success in solving the previous murder mystery has made them people of interest - particularly to a mysterious Lady Sundridge, who asks them to vindicate a man condemned to hang for the murder of his mistress - but Lady Sundridge firmly believes he is innocent.  And Veronica and Stoker wouldn't let an innocent man to go the gallows, would they?

Raybourn builds on the budding relationship between Veronica and Stoker as they get sucked into yet another game of cat and mouse, where lies abound on every side, and no one is completely honest with them.  The sarcasm, quick wit, and playful barbs that bounce back and forth between the two protagonists make the characters more alive than simply stilted dialogue, and that underlying sexual tension building between the two keeps my rooting for them to eventually get together.  And their good cop/bad cop routine (who is good and who is bad depends wholly on the situation) manages to elicit any number of clues to lead them on the path to the real killer.

The story once again brings Veronica's royal connection into play, and readers also learn a bit more about Stoker and his past and family.  We also discover to just what lengths Veronica and Stoker will go to help each other, as well as protect each other.  And do so they must, as someone (in true Nancy Drew fashion) is leaving warning notes, threatening them off the case - and after a rather senses-enlightening interview with a suspect, they very nearly end up in jail!

But persistence pays off, and through a rather intricate web of entanglements, Raybourn leads her sleuths to the ultimate showdown in the most unlikely of places for those living in 19th century Victorian times!  The characters are fun and engaging, the mystery is so well-plotted - it definitely kept me guessing, and the continued subplots leave the reader with some answers, but even more questions about both Veronica and Stoker. 

I readily love the fact that this is a period piece, as it allows the author to lead her protagonists through old fashioned means of solving a murder - no cell phones, no computers, no easy access to all information.  And the fact that she has made Veronica so forthright and blunt makes it all the more fun, reading about the reactions of those Victorian hypocrites who are appalled at her speech.  Any book that can make me smile as I read it like there Veronica Speedwell books do are definitely high on my reading list!

RATING:  10 bloodstained dancing slippers out of 10 for showing the world that even in Victorian England, a female sleuth can still gain the upper hand on her male counterparts!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Wrestling Demons - A Brandt and Donnelly Caper, Case File Number Two

Okay, I decided to give this series a second chance and picked up the second book, hoping beyond hope that the author had toned down the graphic nature of his writing after that first so-called "mystery" story. I admittedly liked the characterization of Officers Brandt and Donnelly, so there is a part of me that was wanting to find a way to continue with the series - but I firmly decided if the graphic sex depicted in the first book inundated the second book just as much, then that would end it for me.

Thankfully, this was not the case!

Author Xaiver Mayne addresses something I believe to be an important topic in Wrestling Demons - the fact that sports stars are oft-times protected when they commit crimes, while others who perpetrate the same crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  In this second case file, Officers Brandt and Donnelly are called to the Mayberry-type town of Woodley to assist the police chief there with a sensitive case.  It seems someone has made public a video tape taken in the boys' locker room, showing embarrassing images of the wrestling team, particularly the star wrestler, Jonah Fischer.  While the video goes no further than showing Jonah's backside, the police chief and the worn are worried that because the video has gone viral, it will put unneeded pressure on the team, and particularly on Jonah, before the upcoming finals.  Brandt and Donnelly agree to look into the matter, despite the clear feelings of the police chief (and the rest of the town for that matter) that the video is being used by "perverts" (a/k/a gays).

Mayne takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the book, as the two officers try to uncover the truth.  A second video placed Jonah in a very precarious position (as it not only shows full frontal of the eighteen year old, but it outs him as being attracted to one of his fellow players, who also happens to be his best friend!), and the town is outraged!  Brandt and Donnelly have a difficult time, since they are a gay couple, dealing with a homophobic town - but Jason is fortunate that is friend does not condemn his homosexuality, but instead, agrees to help him through it.

Things go from bad to worse for Jason, as his chances for a wrestling scholarship are taken away from him, and a third video that goes viral shocks everyone!  Brandt and Donnelly have to work overtime to put an end to this, as the town is getting ready for a mob lynching.  There's a huge surprise, however, when the town holds a meeting to address the situation - and when Brandt and Donnelly find an unexpected connection between these videos and the video of a young girl having sex with two high school boys that shamed the girl and drove her and her mother out of town several years back, they make it their mission to not only protect Jonah and his best friend, but to show the town of Woodley that it's time to come out of the '50s!

The story is actually very touching and definitely relevant to today's world (where people place sports stars above the law and victimize them when they are the perpetrators of crimes), and the growth and changes in Jonah's relationship with his best friend is really enjoyable to read.

NOW - that being said, Mayne still manages to throw in a couple of somewhat explicit sex scenes; however, they are toned down compared to the ones in the first book, and there are nowhere near as many, thankfully.  I am definitely more about the mystery and story, and Mayne definitely delivers that in this second case file - enough that I'll be search for the third book so I can see what happens to Brandt and Donnelly next (although the end of this book gives a very strong hint at what's to come).

RATING:  6 platters of half-baked scones out of 10 for providing a great mystery with a touching coming out tale that wasn't over-splattered with graphic sex.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Wonder Woman '77 meets The Bionic Woman - a Dynamite Comics/DC Comics mini-series

As a child in the '70s, I grew up watching both Wonder Woman (starring Lynda Carter) and the Bionic Woman (starring Lindsey Wagner).  Both shows featured strong leading ladies as heroes who were both super and lovely to look at, and both shows lasted only three seasons.  Coincidentally enough, both shows changed networks during their run - Wonder Woman's first season aired on ABC, then switched to CBS for its second and third seasons, while the Bionic Woman's first and second seasons aired on ABC, then switched to NBC for its third season.  Regardless of how short-lived they may have been, and regardless of switching networks, I absolutely loved both shows and both leading ladies.

As an adult, I have been fortunate enough to have met both Lynda Carter and Lindsey Wagner, and both are as nice and real in person as they are on the television shows, and both of them not only acknowledge their work, but are proud of the work they did in the shows.  Yet, in all these years, I can honestly admit I never really thought about the two of these heroes meeting.  So, when Dynamite and DC Comics announced a crossover mini-series, I got excited.  I mean, c'mon - what fanboy of the '70s wouldn't geek-out at the chance to see these two super-women team up for an adventure!

Simply titled Wonder Woman '77 meets The Bionic Woman, this six-issue mini-series offers up everything that a great comic should be - strong leading characters, a fantastic story with nasty villains from both shows, a perfect pace to keep the story going, yet highlight both characters equally, and enough easter-eggs and guest-stars to make you squeal with excitement as you read each issue!

Writer Andy Mangels brings Diana and Jaime together in the most natural of ways - a meeting of the national security organizations - the IADC, the OSI, the NSB, the FBI, and the CIA.  This, of course, means we get treated to appearances by Steve Trevor, Oscar Goldman, Eve Welch, Joe Atkinson, and Jack Hanson.  The organizations are gearing up to ferret out a new para-military organization known as "Castra."  The first issue ends with a bang, with the first casualty - Joe Atkinson!

Mangels takes readers (and fan boys!) on a fun jaunt down memory lane, as we learn that the cabal includes villains such as Captain Radl (from Wonder Woman), Dr. Franklin (from the Bionic Woman), Dr. Thiago Solano (from Wonder Woman) with Gloria Marquez, now calling herself Dr. Cyber (from Wonder Woman), Dr. Orlich Hoffman (from Wonder Woman), and Carl Franklin (from the Bionic Woman) - along with a whole new slew of Fembots (from the Bionic Woman)!  With all of these villains teaming-up for a new world-domination plan, it's a good thing Mangels doesn't leave Diana and Jaime to face these evil-doers on their own.  He brings back Druscilla a/k/a Wonder Girl - - we get reintroduced to Tina, the girl with powers - - there's Max, the bionic dog - - along with Queen Hippolyta, Nubia, Callahan, Fausta ... and on page 8 of issue 4, we see "Joanna," who Diana refers to as the mistress of the dance on Paradise Island, who called her dance the "Dance of the Zephyr Winds" (uhm, seriously - is there any child of the '70s that did not pick up on that direct Isis reference - Joanna Cameron was the actress, and "Zephyr winds that blow on high, lift me now, so I can fly!" was her cry to fly).  Oh, Mr. Mangels, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that you have made this fanboy's decade with this book!!!!

There are a number of fun surprises throughout the story, and it's great to see a team-up where the two heroes don't fight first and then become friends.  Let's face it, that gets old real fast.  Instead, Diana and Jaime hit it off from the start, and it brought a smile to my face seeing how Jaime reacts to the Invisible Plane, and later to Paradise Island.  The amount of continuity from the two shows brought into this series definitely reveals how much of a fan Mr. Mangels is of these two series.  And the ending - well, let's just say there's clearly more story to be told - I just hope he gets the chance to tell it!

The art is by Judit Tondora, with whose work I am wholly unfamiliar.  However, she manages to get the actors' faces pretty good throughout all six issues - with the exception of the Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers.  Wonder Woman pretty much comes across as Lynda Carter in every panel, and all the supporting cast resemble the actors who portrayed them in both shows.  But Jaime, for some reason, never actually comes across as Lindsey Wagner, and I'm not sure why.  Did that bother me?  Not so much - it was a little surprising at first, but as I got more and more into the story, pretty soon the fact that Jaime did not look like Lindsey Wagner at all became a non-issue.

This book is a DEFINITE MUST-READ for anyone who grew up watching these two ladies on the television each week (or even for those youngsters today who watch the shows in rerun, or on Hulu, or Netflix, or wherever).  With beautifully rendered covers by a variety of artists, to the fun-tastic fan-loving story inside, each issue is a true treasure, and I will be keeping fingers and toes crossed that Dynamite and DC give the go-ahead for a sequel (wouldn't it be great to see the Six-Million Dollar Man brought in, as well as perhaps the Christopher Reeve Superman! egads!!!).

RATING:  10 star-spangled swimsuits and white jumpsuits out of 10 for the absolutely best cross-over story I have ever read, and probably ever will read!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Heroine Worship - "Identity Crisis"

The one book I never thought would have a sequel, but which I desperately wanted a sequel - well, it actually got a sequel!  Heroine Complex was a fantastic, fun read with a unique spin on the whole super hero genre and with two Asian women as the lead characters.  Aveda Jupiter (also known as Annie Chang to her friends) and Evie Tanaka are back - the only problem is, the demon problem in San Francisco has been cured, and the city no longer needs any super heroes to protect it.

So what's a girl to do?

This is where Heroine Worship picks up, as author Sarah Kuhn brings back Aveda and Evie, along with all of their friends, to face a new and possibly more frightening adventure - Evie's wedding to Nate!  Okay, based on the cover, this story is not quite the "adventure" that I was expecting.  Even the back of the book with its synopsis made it sound like it was going to have a big mystery and another big baddie on the loose in San Francisco.

Instead, Kuhn gives readers page after page of Aveda bemoaning the fact that San Francisco doesn't need her and whining about the fact that the city has come to love Evie and her fire-throwing power far more than they ever did her non-powered antics.  In fact, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that this book (which, by the way, is told from Aveda's point of view, rather than Evie's like the first book) is one huge identity crisis as Aveda tries to come to terms with the idea that she is no longer the top dog and tries to figure out how to be a better friend to Evie, who is no longer her assistant, but also her friend and co-super hero.

The whining and self-doubt goes on and on ad nauseam, and quite frankly, I was about ready to put the book down after the first hundred pages or so, when there was nothing really interesting happening.  Sure, there were hints of a possible demon still hanging around the city, and yes, Kuhn provides a few scenes of character development with Aveda, Evie, Nate, Lucy, Bea, and Scott.  But the whole "no one like Aveda any more and everyone thinks she's an attention-starved diva" got a bit old when it was repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Then there was the fight at the wedding dress pavilion in the fashion market.  Okay, that caught a bit of my interest.  Then there was the crazed bride-to-be at the cake shop.  Definitely a pattern developing.  Then the mystery comes to light - just how is this demon controlling people - is it in the air?  Is it in the clothing?  Is it in the undergarments?  There are several viable suspects in the story, and by the second half of the book, I became hooked again, and I couldn't wait to tear through the pages to find out not only how Aveda and Evie were going to stop this new demon, but also who was the human counterpart helping it.  And I'll graciously admit - the person I had pegged as the human culprit was not the one.  So kudos to Kuhn for making the reveal a big surprise (and once it is revealed, the reader will see that the clues were there all along).

There's definitely romance in this one - Aveda does finally break down and admit her feelings for Scott.  The author throws in a couple of rather racy scenes of the two of them getting down and dirty, but it's not too blunt, thankfully.  And Kuhn provides more back story on Aveda (since this is her story, just as the first book was Evie's story).

So, while the book has a slow and rather ambivalent start, it definitely picks up after the half-way mark and makes it well worth the read.  As good as the first book - probably not.  But good enough that I'd buy a third one if Kuhn writes one?  Yes, definitely.

RATING: 7 demon-infested wedding gowns out of 10 for proving that super heroes do not need to be dark and gritty to still be good and enjoyable to read about.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 9 - The Mystery of the Icy Paw Prints

The Briar family nears the end of the travels around the globe in the ninth book of this early reader mystery series.  It's rather a shame that the series ended with the 10th book - not sure if that was the author's intent all along, or if the books did not sell enough for the publisher to continue the series.  In either event, the series has been a fun jaunt around the world, and it is definitely something I would have thoroughly enjoyed when I was in first or second grade (heck, I usually have a smile now as an adult when I read them!).

The Mystery of the Icy Paw Prints finds the Briar family back in the United States, albeit far from the mainland in the snowy, freezing mountains of Alaska.  Author Harper Paris once again provides us with some great descriptions of the area, including Mt. McKinley and the surrounding volcanoes, icefalls, and glaciers.  They arrive in Anchorage, where they plan to stay, but a side trip to Nome finds the family stranded in an isolated forest area when their car breaks down.

This time, the mystery the twins find to solve does not come from their grandfather's e-mail; rather, they stumble across a mystery when a local woman and her daughter rescue them from their stranded vehicle and take them to the small village where they live to wait for a mechanic.  The fact that it will take two or three days for a mechanic to traverse the snow and ice covered land to get to them provides readers with a feel for the isolation some of these smaller villages in the outer parts of Alaska feel.

Paris provides a rather tame and obvious mystery - someone, or something, has been stealing fish from all of the locals, and no one knows who it is.  With nothing better to do while stuck in the small village, the twins, with the help of their newfound friend, Malina, investigate the area where the fish were stolen from Malina's mother.  They find some very unique tracks leading away from the empty container, and upon investigation, the tracks appear to be that of a polar bear - which Malina says is impossible, as polar bears do not come that far south.

As can be expected, the twins ultimately discover the culprit (by setting a trap), and the grown-ups are all thankful to have the "thief" exposed and happy to know their future fish finds will not be stolen.  Ethan and Ella's parents are somewhat concerned that their children got involved in yet another mystery (one that could have been dangerous considering he animals that roam the area), but they are proud of them nonetheless.

Leaving readers, as well as Ethan and Ella, to wonder what mystery the next book would have in store for them?

Again, this is a series that I highly recommend for parents who have beginning readers - the books are easy to read, they provide engaging stories with likable characters, and Marcos Calo illustrates the books with beautiful renditions of not only the characters, but the various exotic locales that the Briars visit.  Plus, the books provide a learning experience, since the author always includes various references to local vocabulary and history.

RATING:  7 grazing reindeer out of 10 for continuing to introduce young readers to the various wonders around the world!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doctor Who, the 10th Doctor with Donna Audio Book - Volume 3 - Death and the Queen

Ah, the joys of the Doctor-Donna pairing.  I was never a Doctor Who fan until the new series started with Christopher Eccleston, and although I enjoyed those first three seasons, nothing compared to my love of the show until that fourth season when Donna Noble, as played by Catherine Tate, appeared! She was funny, she was snippy, and she was never afraid to call the Doctor out on things.  So when her character was written out after only one season, I was really disappointed.

Until the books carried on the stories - for four books.  And then there were several audio stories that continued the pairing.  But there were only three or four of those.  So I couldn't fill my Doctor-Donna fix - until Big Finnish came back with some full-cast audio dramas featuring both David Tennant and Catherine Tate reprising their iconic roles!  And after listening to the first two, I put off listening to this third and final story, because I knew once I had listened to it, that would once again be the end of my Doctor-Donna stories.

But this final story was well worth the wait!

Death and the Queen, written by James Goss (who has written in the Doctor Who universe a number of times over the years), perfectly captures the companionship and friendship that existed between the Doctor and Donna.  The little barbs and quips kept me smiling, and the non-stop action right from the get-go kept my full attention throughout the entire story.

The story centers around Donna (around whom ALL stories should center, in my opinion!), who has met her Prince Charming and is set to marry him.  Fans of the series may recall that Donna first met the Doctor on her wedding day (which didn't turn out well at all, so that should be a sign of what direction this story is headed), and Goss even manages to slip in a cute reference to that prior wedding.  We get a few quick flashbacks that provide all the backstory we need to get us to the point where Donna is ready to be married, but the Doctor suspects there is something way too sinister going on for him to allow her to get married in peace.

For one thing, the Prince comes from a planet/land of which the Doctor has never heard - and the Doctor knows everything, having pretty much been everywhere in the known universe.  That's the first red flag.  Then there's the fact that the Prince and his mum are set to go forward with the wedding, even though there is something out there that is slowly destroying the surrounding towns outside of the castle.  Donna, being Donna, does what she does best - she brings all of the surviving townspeople into the castle to keep them safe, much to the chagrin of the Queen Mum.  There's friction on all sides, but it is a wedding after all, and not even death itself will stop it from happening.

Of course, that's maybe because Death is an invited guest at the wedding - and maybe because Donna isn't set to be wed to the Prince she thought she was marrying!  Goss throws in several surprise twists, and the ultimate showdown between the Doctor and Donna and the Prince of Death himself is one worthy of Russell T. Davies himself!

I thoroughly enjoyed this final tale (only for now, I hope!) of the Doctor-Donna pairing, and I am thankful it ended on such a well-written note!

RATING:  10 inscribed undergarments out of 10 for keeping the memory of Donna Noble alive with stories like this!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles No. 1 - The First Escape

A doppelgänger is defined as a "ghostly counterpart of a living person." However, author G.P. Taylor took the work and used it to define not one, not two, but three characters in his series, The Dopple Ganger Chronicles. Now, it should be noted - this series came out back in 2008, and that is when I bought this first book, as well as the second book, in the series. The second book ended with a cliffhanger, leaving me with an expectation that a third book would be published. So I waited...and I waited...and I waited...and I finally gave up, I shelved the two books after reading them, and promptly put the series to the back of my mind.

Until a few weeks ago, as I was perusing, and somehow I came across this series as a suggested book. The only thing is, instead of showing two books in the series, it actually shows THREE books in the series! It seems the book was published back in 2011, but somehow I managed to never see it, and thus, for the past six years have assumed the third book never came to be. Obviously, I bought the book, but once I received it, I realized something - I honestly did not remember the details of the stories from books one and two. So, what else could I do? I decided to go back and start from the beginning...

The First Escape introduces readers to Sadie and Saskia Dopple, two trouble-making twin sisters who are identical in every way - except their eyes, which are mirror versions of each other (one blue, one yellow). The girls were orphaned by their mother and left at the Isambard Dunstan's School for Wayward Children, which is run by the very strict, very cruel headmistress, Miss Rimmer, who is looking for any excuse possible to get rid of the Dopple sisters. And that moment comes when the mysterious Muzz Elliott shows up at the school - and makes her wishes known that she wants to adopt Saska and not Sadie!

Taylor spins a fun little mystery that is filled with plenty of high-spirited antics and life-threatening dangers, and quite honestly, it's refreshing to see some protagonists who are not only NOT squeaky-clean, but who are devious little pranksters and have no qualms about thumbing their nose at authority. And if you're wondering, that second part of the "Dopple Ganger" refers to Erik Ganger, the only boy at the School for Wayward Children who also happens to be a former thief. He helps Sadie escape the school (which definitely makes for some fun-filled reading) and is instrumental in helping the sisters with the mystery surrounding Muzz Elliott's home and a missing treasure.

The story is told not only through prose, but also through comic book-style pages of art and story, and also through some rather interesting formatted pages that integrate the typed text with the action of the story (you have to see it to understand what I am talking about). But it all works - none of it jars the reader from the story, but rather, it actually enhances the uniqueness of the story and its characters.

On a side note, something I had forgotten about this series is the fact that it is a Christian-based series. There are some subtle references to God and angels, and I'm actually curious to see where Taylor takes these concepts in the next two books.

RATING: 8 stuffed donkey hinds out of 10 for finding a unique way to tell a unique story with unique characters - and to pull it off so successfully!