Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 15 - The Professor and the Puzzle

When Simon & Schuster reduced the number of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books being published per year, I had hoped that meant two things - (1) the books would have a greater page count within which to allow a story to be more fleshed out with greater character development, and (2) that the stories would have more depth and be more engaging. This most recent Nancy Drew mystery, however, evidences the fact that S&S is still trying to sell this series based on the brand name alone, which is sad.

The Professor and the Puzzle (really?  I mean, who in the world came up with this name for the mystery?) has a fairly good premise to it. Nancy, Bess and George are invited to Oracle College's Greek Gala, a big fundraising event for the college that also serves as a way to help boost their enrollment. It's a huge event just outside of River Heights where everyone, from students to faculty to sponsors, dresses up as a Greek god or goddess. This year's event, however, goes south when the keynote speaker falls from a balcony and is seriously injured.

Was it an accident?  Or did someone sabotage the railing that the young man was leaning on as he gave his speech?  And if it were sabotage, why would someone want to hurt a student who everyone claims is so well-loved at the college?  With Nancy Drew in attendance, it's a pretty sure bet she'll be on the case!

Even though the plot deals with sabotage (which these S&S writers can't seem to do anything but sabotage, making it a tiresome plot device), the underlying mystery is actually pretty good.  [NOTE:  SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!]  At first, it appears that someone has it in for Sebastian Rivera, one of the most popular students at school that everyone appears to love.  When he falls from the balcony while giving a speech, Nancy quickly discovers that the balcony railing had been sabotaged so that it would break if anyone leaned on it.  Only, everything is not what it first appears, for soon after, Nancy finds she is on the wrong track when it turns out one of the professors who is not well-liked at all was the intended speaker, but a last minute change put Sebastian on the balcony instead.  When that professor's prized parrot goes missing, Nancy is sure someone is out to get her. Then, during her investigation, Nancy is knocked out a window and is almost seriously injured in an accident meant for the professor, Nancy realizes the stakes are high and she must find out who is behind the attacks on the professor!

And there are some great moments in the story as well - while Nancy and Bess both dress up for the party as goddesses, it is interesting to note that the author has George dress up as Hermes, a Greek god. This begs the question as to why Nancy and Bess would dress in female form, while George would choose to dress in the male form?  There's also the introduction of Iris Pappas, who is toted as an "old friend" of Nancy's from her early childhood.  The interaction between Nancy and Iris is one between good friends, and even Iris' father refers to Nancy as his "little fox."  There is a reference to "The Case of the Missing Cat," which Nancy and Iris tried to solve when they were very young.  Iris could also be a replacement for Helen Corning from the original series, as Bess and George must both leave the college early the next morning after the party, so they are unable to assist with the mystery-solving as they normally do, leaving Iris to become Nancy's new partner-in-crime (even helping her break into the security room at one point to look at the security camera footage from the night of the party).

Unfortunately, all of this could not overcome the weaker elements of the writing.  Such as, when has Nancy suddenly developed a phobia of being in large crowds?  Several times in this story, the author has Nancy become overwhelmed, to the point where she needs to sit down, from being crowded with so many people around her.  Was this some new "human weakness" that the author tried to instill in Nancy to make her more relatable with her readers?  In addition, since when did everyone start referring to Nancy as simply "Drew"?  Both George and Iris refer to her in this way throughout the story, and it makes me wonder if the book was written some time around when the television pilot was being considered for a series, since the title for that show was simply Drew. And then we have the culprit behind all of the sabotage.  To say the culprit's identity is pretty obvious from the get-go is a pretty fair statement.  It leaves the reader with a feeling that Nancy is simply blind in this story to miss all of the glaring clues that literally jump off the page when they appear!  I won't go into them for fear of spoiling it too much for those who want to read the story, but let's just say this mystery is not one of Nancy's finer moments.

And on a side-note - it is confirmed in this book that Nancy, Bess and George are still in high school.   On page 26, Iris's father, who also happens to run the college, tells the girls he hopes they will consider Oracle College after they graduate.  Later, on page 88, Iris's father warns Nancy to keep her investigation on the down-low, as he and his college will become a laughingstock if people discovery he is allowing a "high-schooler" play private eye on his campus.  Now, this could mean the girls are seniors in high school, getting ready to graduate, which could place them at 18-years old or so; or it could be the summer between their junior and senior years; or they could be juniors in high school, placing them at 16 or 17 years of age.  At any rate, Nancy and friends are no longer as carefree as the original series when they were out of school.  I would love to see this series character outlines to find out exactly how S&S sees Nancy, Bess, and George these days.

One final note, and this about the cover.  The scene depicted by Erin McGuire (who has remained the cover artists for all 15 books so far) comes straight out of the book, from page 125.  Since there are no internal illustrations (which I really miss from the Nancy Drew books!!!), it's nice to see a cover image that is a specific scene right out of the book.

The title and cover for the next book, The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane, gives high hopes that perhaps S&S is taking the series back in the direction of its original books.  One can only hope!

RATING:  5 African gray parrots out of 10 for at least providing a unique setting and supporting cast for the mystery.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tarantula, Case File 1: Penumbra

Picked this graphic novel up based on the ad for it in Previews (the magazine that gives the solicitations of all the comics coming out in a particular month, usually 2 or 3 months in advance of their actually hitting the newsstand). I'm usually willing to give indy comics that feature female protagonists a try, and this one seemed fairly interesting.

It was not at all what I was expecting!

Who is Tarantula? That is not a question that is answered in this first story.  Yes, readers will immediately see that she is a tough-as-nails crime-fighting super hero that deals with more than simple street villains.  Yes, readers will get a brief glimpse of her origin - of how she was taken in as a little girl by Senor Muerta and trained to fight and survive.  Yes, readers will see her bravely take on a number of supernatural miscreants, such as vampires and werewolves and even demons from beyond.  But other than that, this new super hero remains a mystery.

"My name is Tarantula.  It's not the name I was born with, but it's the name that suits what I have become - - a protector of the innocent, an agent of order in a world of chaos.  And as long as I draw breath, I will destroy evil in whatever form it takes!"

That is who Tarantula is.  Written by Favian Rangel Jr. and with art by Alexis Zieritt, Tarantula is a throwback to the comics of the '40s and '50s. It is a mixture of horror and superhero.  It tells a straightforward story, gives readers just the information they need to know to enjoy the tale, and doesn't bog the book down with extended backstories or flashy splash pages every other page.  Tarantula is the tale of one woman who is determined to take down the criminal element in her town, only to discover that there is a satanic cult that is out to do more than just control her town.  Calling in a favor from her old mentor, Senor Muerta, and teaming up with the new vigilante in town, Sombra, she takes the battle to the villains in order to stop them from opening a gateway that will unleash Penumbra on the world.

The art is a bit what I would call primitive - and maybe that's not the correct word, as it's bad, per se, but it's not what I would call standard in today's comic world.  However, it is certainly fitting for the story and the character, and swings back and forth from little to no backgrounds to very detailed backgrounds (depending on what is happening with the story/characters).  And the book is colored in mostly red and black, with some blue, green, and yellow thrown in here and there for added effect.

Not sure if there will be any more original graphic novels featuring Tarantula, but if Rangel and Zieritt get together to tell more stories, I'd be likely to buy them.

RATING:  7 lucha libre detectives out of 10 for telling a comic story the way it should be told - simple, to the point, and done-in-one!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Viv and Charlie Mystery, Book One - The Darkness Knows

"Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man? The Shadow knows!" This catch phrase from the Shadow radio serials is pretty much commonly known, and quite frankly, it's what attracted me to the book. The title is clearly a play on the words, and the fact that it is set in 1930s Chicago and centers around a radio starlet sold me (well, honestly, it actually took a couple of months before I bought it, but I did pick it up pretty much every time I went into Barnes and Noble).

The Darkness Knows is Cheryl Honigford's first novel, but she definitely hits the ground running with this tale. The protagonist, Vivian Witchell, is a former secretary turned up-and-coming radio star who may finally be getting her big break on the detective drama, "The Darkness Knows."  Life is great, as she may also have finally caught the eye of her co-star, the gorgeous actor, Graham Yarborough. But, as with any good mystery, fate has other plans.

When Vivian overhears a has-been actress arguing with an unknown man, she doesn't really think much of it.  After all, Marjorie Fox may think she is still the big star of radio dramas, but in reality, everyone knows she is little more than a washed up drunk.  Why the station's owner, Mr. Hart (and yes, the name made me think of 9 to 5 as well), keeps her around is anyone's guess. But that was none of Vivian's concern.  At least, not until she comes back to the station late that night to pick up the umbrella she left behind and stumbles across Marjorie's body in the radio's lounge.

Who killed Marjorie Fox? That is suddenly the question everyone is asking, and Honigford writes a wonderful murder mystery that is filled with suspects. No one liked Marjorie Fox, and it seems no one feels bad that she is gone.  There are plenty of people who had motive and opportunity - but the strange note found next to Marjorie's body indicates that Vivian could very well be the next victim.  Enter: Charlie Haverman - a private detective hired as a consultant for "The Darkness Knows" radio show who now is being assigned to protect Vivian from the potential threat.

But is Vivian really in danger?  Honigford does a great job of keeping the reader guessing on that point, and it seems just when you think you have it figured out, she throws you a curve ball and leads you in a completely different direction. Now, I will say that I did guess the killer pretty early on, but that's not because the author makes it obvious - I think it's simply because all my years of reading mysteries and watching television mystery shows has taught me how to pick out a killer from a cast of suspects. However, that did not stop me from enjoying the book at all - instead, it left me thrilled at the end that I was able to solve the crime right along with Vivian and Charlie (and while I did guess the killer's identity, I did not have the motive right at all).

Honigford provides two very interesting characters in Vivian and Charlie.  Vivian is headstrong and determined, does not want to fall back on her family's wealth, and when she wants something, she will do what she needs to in order to get it (to a degree).  Charlie, on the other hand, is a man's man, a product of his time who is very protective of the females around him and who has trouble coping with a woman who won't just let him tell her what to do; yet, at the same time, he finds himself attracted to Vivian's stubborn nature, and yes, the two definitely have the whole sexual tension thing going on that every male/female detective duo seems to have.

There are also plenty of supporting characters who ground the story and bring Vivian and Charlie's world to life - Vivian's best friend and fellow secretary, Imogene ("Genie"); the elevator operator, Angelo; the owner's daughter and station gopher, Peggy; the station's electronic whiz, Morty; Vivian's arch-nemesis, Frances; Vivian's mother; fellow voice actors; and so many others that flesh out this tale of 1930s radio and give the reader a sense of reality.  It will be interesting to see how many of them carry over into the next mystery.

Overall, an excellent read and another great adult mystery series to add to my collection.

RATING:  10 cowhide chaps and matching vests out of 10 for showing readers just want kind of evil really does lurk in the hearts of men!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 5 - Midnight at the Mansion

That pre-teen trio of detectives - Derek, Sam, and Caitlin - return for their fifth mystery-solving adventure in this latest book from author Steven K. Smith. And as Smith continues writing this series, his familiarity with the characters shows in their development as individuals,  and his storytelling techniques improve in keeping the story moving and keeping the reader engaged!

As with all of his prior books, Midnight at the Mansion is set in Virginia, this time at Richmond's historic Maymont mansion and its sister palace, the Swannanoa up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mystery involves the theft of two bald eagles that were kept in the animal sanctuary on the Maymont estate, and an FBI agent that literally stumbles across the three children as he attempts to evade capture by the criminals.  He barely has time to whisper, "Save the eagles," before he is up and running, leaving Sam, Caitlin, and Derek to wonder who he is and what he meant.

This book definitely has a stronger mystery than the last one, and it's got all the spooky elements that make it reminiscent of the old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. There's an old, abandoned mansion isolated in the mountain.  There's a dark, creepy tower with a locked room.  There are cryptic clues that the kids have to decipher before it's too late.  And the villains are the heartless, ruthless kind who are kidnapping endangered animals and selling them for profit in the secret of night.

The characters of Derek and Caitlin are much stronger in this book - Smith definitely has them growing up, which is nice, as it gives the reader an opportunity to watch as they mature and change in personality. Sam, however, seems to do nothing but whine in this book, which is somewhat annoying at times. I realize that he is the youngest of the three characters, but it would be nice to see him do something other than worry and complain (in a lot of ways, in this book Sam reminds me a lot of Bess Marvin - and all the Nancy Drew fans out there will know what I'm talking about).

On the lighter side, it's nice to see Smith utilizing other supporting cast members, such as Caitlin's father (who is the one who takes the kids hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains) and their neighbor, Mr. Haskins (who is always ready to impart some knowledge on the kids).

And I can't let it go by without saying something about the cover. Not sure who the artist is, as he or she is never identified (all the copyright page says is "Cover Design by EBookLaunch.com"), but I will admit to a smile at seeing the mansion, with the bird flying overhead. With all the blue and grey, the night sky, and the design of the mansion itself, I immediately had a flash of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? run through my mind.  It also bears some resemblance to the cover of the next Nancy Drew book coming out in January, The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane. It's nice to know the Gothic mystery covers are coming back in style!

Don't see any news about a sixth book in the series, but the author's website indicates there is an online short story available, so I supposed I'll have to check that out while I wait for the next book to be written (at least, there better be one on its way!).

RATING:  8 piercing warning whistles out of 10 for putting the "mystery" back into children's mysteries!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship

For me, the name Philip Pullman I associate with the Sally Lockhart mysteries, which were four mysteries set in London, the fourth of which barely features Sally.  They were interconnected and great reads. However, for a lot of people, I know Pullman's name is probably more recognizable for his series, His Dark Materials, from which the film The Golden Compass was based.

So, when I saw this new hardcover graphic novel on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I thought I'd give it a try. The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship is not just the story of John Blake. In fact, John Blake doesn't really come into the story until 31 pages in; the story opens with several other of our main characters - Danielle, the employee at the International Maritime Organization in San Francisco who has been uncovering an unusual phenomena regarding an alleged "ghost ship" that has appeared throughout history; Mr. Harland, a man who seems more than determined to keep Danielle from uncovering the truth about that ship; Roger, a James Bond-type operative who is digging into the activities of the Pentagram Foundation and why they are so interested in the ship, the "Mary Alice"; and Serena Henderson, a teenage girl on vacation with her parents in the South Pacific when the ship appears, causing her to fall into the ocean - - and be rescued by John Blake himself!

And that's when the story really begins...

The "Mary Alice" is a very unique ship - its passengers are not only from all walks of life and from all around the globe - they are also gathered from various points in time throughout history! Serena finds herself overwhelmed, but John quickly takes her under his wing. In the present time, Harland's men steal all of the information that Danielle has acquired over the years regarding the "Mary Alice," and she is left wondering what she is going to do now - until a friend reveals a recent sighting of the ship in Fiji, where an Australian family reports seeing their ship and their daughter missing.  Danielle heads for Fiji, unaware that Harland is watching her every move and makes plans to go to Fiji as well.

As the story progresses, readers learn not only more about the "Mary Alice" and where it comes from, but also about John Blake and why he is such an integral part of the story and of the continued survival of the ship.  Readers also discover the identity of the person pulling Harland's strings and why that person is so desperate to get a hold of the "Mary Alice" and to silence John Blake once and for all.

This story has it all - high seas adventure, secret spy machinations, danger, and above all else, an underlying mystery. While the opening pages seem a bit disjointed as they jump from one unrelated character to another, Pullman manages to weave all the stories and characters together for one final showdown that will determine the fates of not only Danielle, John, and Harland, but the entire world and the future of science!

Pullman tells a great story, and artist Fred Fordham (with whose work I am completely unfamiliar, but would love to see him do more!) brings that story to life so vibrantly. I particularly love his scenes of the ship appearing in the fog, as well as the way that he draws John Blake's expressions - such determination expressed!

This is a great book that crosses so many genres - mystery, adventure, and comics all rolled into one. There's no indication that any further adventures of John Blake are in the works, but it would definitely be nice to see Pullman and Fordham come together to tell another story of Blake and the "Mary Alice."

RATING:  9 apprators out of 10 for mixing time travel, mystery, and high seas adventure and producing a fun story to read in visual form!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Flash: The Haunting of Barry Allen

I may not have sped through this book as quickly as Barry Allen speeds through Central City as the Flash, but I can honestly say that I finished this book quicker than most! At 414 pages, I expected The Haunting of Barry Allen to take me closer to 4 or 5 days to finish, particularly during the week when about the only chance I have to read is when I'm eating lunch or working out on the elliptical in the gym at work; however, this book drew me in so quickly and had me so easily feeling like I was watching an episode of the television show that I couldn't put it down.

Authors Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith have written a number of science fiction / fantasy books, as well as some comics and young reader books. This appears to be their first time writing a novel based on a television show, but I give them total props - they managed to capture the character and essence of each and every person, bringing the television personas to life on the page. From Barry Allen to Oliver Queen and all of their supporting cast and sidekicks, the Griffiths brought just as many smiles to my face as I was reading the book as the television shows do when I am watching them!

The first part of a two-part book crossover (the second part of which is in the next Arrow novel), The Haunting of Barry Allen focuses more on the Flash. As the Pied Piper gathers a group of rogues (including Weather Wizard, Mist, Prism, and Peekaboo) with the idea of methodically wearing Central City's defenses down until it is ready for the taking, the Flash finds himself "blurring" out of phase with this reality and seeing not only his future self urging him to run faster, but all the failures from his past - including Gorilla Grodd, Ronnie Raymond, and the Reverse Flash.  As the blurs become more frequent and seem to happen at the very moment when he is about to stop the rogues, Caitlin and Cisco do everything they can to discover the source.  When all else fails, they call in some outside help.

Enter: Green Arrow and gang.

Oliver, Felicity, and John make a trip from Star City to help their friend. As Barry's health slowly declines, Oliver and John work feverishly to protect Central City from the attacks of the rogues, who are working with precision, sweeping in and out, causing the most damage to the city without ever getting caught.  And when the Piper makes the mayor an offer that could save the city but cost them millions - as well as their famed hero! - the Flash and Arrow know that their time is running out.

Dare I say it?  The story is very fast-paced, with the action never stopping; yet, at the same time, just like the TV show, there is plenty of character interaction and development and the right amount of humor to keep it from getting too bogged down with all the action.  The timing of the story is clearly after season one (as it references Reverse Flash being gone, and Iris knows that Barry is the Flash and is helping at Star Labs), but it's not clear whether it takes place after season two or not (although there is a reference to Zoom from season two). Regardless, not knowing exactly where it fit into the TV show continuity does not detract at all from the enjoyment of the story.

I would say this is a definite must-read for any fan of the show - and in case you are wondering, it does end with a mild cliff-hanger, which sets up the second part of this story in Arrow's Generation of Vipers.

RATING:  10 microscopes with slides of fly wings out of 10 for staying true to the television version of these characters and providing a Flash/Arrow fix during the summer break!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 48 - Deliver Us From Evil

Writer Aaron Lamont brings us back to the story of Sabrina Jennings and Cyrus Longworth, and ties up some loose ends involving Alfie Chapman (remember him from Beneath the Veil?) and his girlfriend, who is now possessed by the spirit of Danielle Roget. While these may seem like an unlikely foursome, Lamont weaves a well-crafted tale of pure evil and mournful regret that brings these four together for a night of pure terror.

Deliver Us From Evil opens with Amy Cunningham running into the last person in the world she wants to see - the woman who killed her brother! But when the two get stuck in an elevator together, Sabrina tells Amy the story of how she nearly brought the darkest evil into the world...


Told in flashback, this audio book completes the story that began in Beneath the Veil, with Alfie Chapman and his girlfriend, Emma Finney (who is now possessed wholly by the evil spirit of Danielle Roget, the French murderess). They are still on a killing spree, but there is more to be had. Alfie himself is beginning to have episodes of possession - episodes in which he is willing to give himself over to the son of the Dark Lord! But it seems that demon is toying with him, just as he is toying with Cyrus Longworth, convincing Cyrus that he is stronger and will eventually take over his body completely.

Meanwhile, Sabrina has found a way to rid herself of the werewolf curse - and she is determined to help Cyrus rid himself of the evil "John" that lives within him. Her deceased husband, Chris Jennings, appears to her and tells her where she needs to go to and what she needs to do.  At the same time, the son of the Dark Lord is leading Alfie and Danielle (Emma) on a trip as well - one that will ultimately lead to a final showdown as the son of the Dark Lord sets up the pieces to finally unleash the apocalypse on Earth!  It's a final battle of good vs. evil as Sabrina and Chris do battle with Aflie, Danielle, and "John" (revealed to really be the son of the Dark Lord), and should Sabrina and Chris lose, so will the whole world!

The story is chock full of the supernatural elements that make Dark Shadows what it is, and the dialogue and emotions remind us just how human these characters really are, even while facing unfathomable evil.  The writing is exceptional, as the story flows smoothly and builds dramatically to the big battle at the end, and you easily begin to care about Sabrina and Cyrus, longing to see them both released from the curse that haunts them.

With Lisa Richards reprising her role as Sabrina Jennings and Christopher Pennock returning to the role of Cyrus Longworth, listeners will definitely feel like the show has returned in all its glory.  This tale is a reminder of just how good these audio books can be.

RATING:  10 holiday shopping sprees at Ohrbach's out of 10 for bringing to a satisfying conclusion a stories begun 13 and 14 audios prior!