Thursday, March 22, 2018

Death at First Sight - the first Bay Island Psychic Mystery

A young woman becomes embroiled in a mystery and can't help but follow up on clues and question suspects until she stumbles upon the solution - and along the way, she gets a threat or two.  She has two best friends: one is ready to jump to her aid and do whatever is necessary; the other is timid, afraid, and loves to eat.  People have a tendency to come to this young woman with their problems, in the hopes that she will help them out.

Now, most people who know me will automatically assume that I am talking about the world's greatest teen detective, Nancy Drew, and her friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  I mean, let's face it - the descriptions match almost perfectly! However, they would be, and even I was, surprised to find out that I'm actually talking about Cass Donovan and her two friends, Stephanie Lawrence and Bee Maxwell from the Bay Island Psychic Mystery series.

I recently picked up the first three books in the series (wow, just like Nancy Drew, who started back in 1930 with a three-book set of books!), figuring I loved mysteries and I loved psychic tales, so the combination should make for an enjoyable read.  And it did, no doubt there.  I just was not ready for the strong similarities to Nancy Drew and friends that I found - author Lena Gregory must be a fan, as I can't imagine all of it to be pure coincidence.

The underlying premise is somewhat traditional - young woman moves away from small town, her parents die, she returns to her hometown, but things have changed.  Cass Donovan, however, is a psychiatrist who now runs a psychic shop on the boardwalk of Bay Island, just off the New York coast.  While she doesn't see herself as a true "psychic" per se, she is quite intuitive and is often able to help others in a myriad of ways.  But there is a shadow looming over her, something that happened back in the city that she doesn't want to talk about and is the reason she left her psychiatric practice behind.  But what happens when that shadow follows her to Bay Island in this first book, Death at First Sight, and she suddenly finds herself faced with the same choice?

Cass is helping here friend Bee stage the annual fashion show on Bay Island.  But Cass comes across something unexpected when she arrives early to the theater and discovers a body - that of a woman with whom she just had a rather loud, and public, run-in.  Although Cass calls the police, she quickly finds that she is the prime suspect!  Bee and Stephanie are on her side, of course, but it seems the entire island, where news travels fast, suddenly believes she is a murderess!  She has to prove her innocence before she is locked behind bars for a long time.  But who killed Marge Hawkins?  Was it her timid daughter, Ellie, who disappears shortly after the murder?  Or was it Ellie's abusive husband, who Marge discovered to be cheating on her daughter?  Or was it, unthinkably, Bee, who has his own hatred for Marge? Or could it be that dark-haired stranger with the sexy Southern drawl, who has more secrets than anyone and carries a gun hidden under his shirt?

Gregory provides plenty of twists in this story, that's for sure.  I honestly believed I had it figured out (from some very obscure clues - at least what I thought were clues - that pointed to a not-so-obvious person as the killer), and I was so proud of myself for having caught on.  The only problem is, those "clues" were nothing more than red herrings, if that, and Gregory pulled the rug out from underneath me with the final reveal of the killer.  Of course, it made sense once the reveal occurred, but that didn't take away from the suspense as Cass was not only taken captive by the killer, but also forced into a deadly game of cat and mouse in a dark woods.

Once again, I was extremely fortunate to pick up a series that drew me in and made me love the characters and story right from the get-go.  While I'm not usually a fan of the so-called "cozy" mysteries, this series is a definite must-read on my list now!

RATING:  10 big, furry, lovable Beasts out of 10 for a well-crafted murder mystery and a Nancy Drew-worthy protagonist and friends!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 16 - Stolen Identity

When I'm doing a play, it is so hard to find free time to read - usually my free time is spent learning lines, running lines, at rehearsal, or actually performing once the play opens.  But I do manage to sneak some time in here and there to get some reading done, and that's how I was able to finally read the latest Hardy Boys Adventures book.

Stolen Identity provides readers with something refreshingly different. The brothers are drawn into a new mystery as someone toys with them, planting stolen evidence on them at every turn, forcing them to not only hide that evidence, but work extra hard to avoid police capture.  They are bring framed, but they have no idea by whom or for what reason. And with the police chief out of town and a visiting chief putting them on notice to not get involved in any mystery, it's going to be tough for Frank and Joe Hardy to solve a case without letting anyone know they are investigating!

The author draws readers in to the story pretty quickly, with the manuscript pages of the original Arthur Conan Doyle mystery being discovered stolen by the end of the second chapter.  From there, things happen quickly - missing pages turn up in the boys' lockers at school just as a surprise inspection by the police takes place. Next, two more missing pages show up in menus at the local diner where the brothers are being interrogated by the lieutenant taking the police chief's place. Then, missing pages show up in the back seat of Frank's car.  The author plays on the whole Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty comparison throughout the story, as the Hardys begin to believe they have their own Moriarty playing games with them.

Could it be a former villain they helped get locked away?  Or was it someone connected to the museum where the Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript was on display when the theft occurred?  Or perhaps it was even the new lieutenant, who was trying to pin something on the Hardy Boys to impress the out-of-town police chief?  The game is afoot, as the famed detective would say!

The story is fun, and following the brothers through the twists and turns, the red herrings and the misdirections, keeps readers on their toes trying to figure out whodunnit. It's just a shame (once again I find myself saying this) that Simon & Schuster seems to now allow the writers of both this series and the Nancy Drew Diaries series to flesh out the characters a bit more.  The supporting cast come across very stiff and stereotypical, filling a particular need for a moment, then off the scene.  I mean, let's face it - in the original Hardy Boys books, Chet Morton was a major supporting character throughout the years.  In this book, we see him for barely a few pages, and he is no more important than any of the other friends of the Hardy Boys who appear in the book and then disappear just as quickly when they are no longer needed.  Imagine how intriguing this book could have been if it were longer than just 117 pages (which is not much longer than many early reader books these days!).

That being said, the story is pretty satisfying - although I wish there had been a few more clues, regardless of how subtle, as to the identity of the culprit prior to the big climax at the end. However, that didn't take away from the enjoyment of the mystery, so I'll have to give this book a thumbs up.

RATING:  8 grind boxes out of 10 for keeping the mysteries fresh and unique, and not depending on sabotage to sell another mystery.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Misfit City TPB, Vol. 1

When Boom! Studios first solicited Misfit City as a monthly title, I was curious and considered picking it up - however, due to the numerous (and I do mean NUMEROUS) monthly titles David and I already buy on a monthly basis, I decided to pass and see if the trade paperback caught my eye.  Well, I missed ordering it through Previews, so when I happened across it at Barnes & Noble, and I had a coupon, I figured now was my chance.

Definitely well worth the purchase!

Now, before I start in, I have to admit - I have never seen the movie, The Goonies.  I, of course, have heard of it, and I've seen previews of it, and I've heard people talk about it, about how great it was, and how it was a true treasure of the '80s.  For me, though, it just wasn't my thing.  Back then, I was watching either Star Wars, Superman, or Friday the 13th.  So, although this book as advertised as an homage to The Goonies (heck, the story is based upon a city where the treasure-finding movie, The Gloomies, was filmed!), that did not give away anything for me, nor did it fill me with any pre-conceived notions about the story or the characters.  Which was a good thing, because for me, these first four chapters were fresh, and fun, and thoroughly enjoyable to read!

Wilder is the sensible one - but she's tired of the dull life that is Cannon Cove, and she's even more tired of all the "Gloomers" (as the fans of "The Gloomies" movie are called) who come to the town hoping to see all the sets and props from the movie that put the town on the map.  Karma is the charismatic one - she moves as the spirits move her, and she knows a good aura when she sees one.  Nancy is the tough one - she doesn't back down from a challenge, nor does she put up with the nonsense of all the Gloomers.  Dot is the bookworm - she's got the book-smarts and never lets a puzzle outsmart her.  And then there's Pip - the dog.  Yeah, that's pretty much all she is.  Well, she is a pretty clever dog, so there is that...

Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith and Kurt Lustgarten know how to tell a fun adventure story, there's no doubt.  Their characters are diverse and believable, the mystery is engaging, and the action is fast paced and keeps the pages turning.  Honestly, I didn't even realize this was more than a four-issue story until I reached that last page and said, "Oh, no, wait!  You can't leave it hanging like this!"  But, I suppose, that's good writing that leaves you waiting breathlessly to see what happens next.

Naomi Franquiz' art is a little rough and cartoonish in style, but it's not outlandish or unrealistic, and she is able to make each character so unique from the others, that even the side characters who only appear in a few panels have their own character to them.

And, yes, I had a geek moment when Wilder says "Holy Goldie Vance!" (making reference to the Boom! Studios series about a young girl sleuth).  Does it say something about me that I'm more excited by the one Goldie Vance reference that by all The Goonies references?  Makes me wonder if these characters are in the same "universe" as Goldie Vance, or if perhaps Wilder enjoys reading girl detective stories?  Hmmm.......

Misfit City is now on my must-read list, and I've already added Volume Two to my Amazon watch list so I can get it as soon as it comes out.  After all, I have to know what happens next!

RATING:  9 poker-playing dogs out of 10 for proving that four young women can have just as much fun, adventure, and mystery as a group of boys can!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Doctor Who - Plague City

The second Doctor Who book featuring Bill Potts as his companion was even better than the first!  Author Jonathan Morris truly captured both Bill and Nardole (although, admittedly, I'm not a fan of Nardole - never really saw any purpose for him in this last season with Peter Capaldi), although at times, I think Morris' Doctor was a bit harsh.

Plague City returns the Doctor and his companions to Earth, albeit in the 17th century. And, wouldn't you know it, but they arrive right in the middle of the plague, which is taking lives left and right.  But something is amiss (as is often the case when the Doctor is involved) - there's a Night Doctor who pays a visit to those houses where someone is dying.  A dark, mysterious stranger in a black cloak and hat, wearing a bird mask with an elongated beak.  But who is he, and what makes the Doctor think there's more to his nightly counterpart than there appears?

It's a good, ol' fashioned Doctor Who tale as the Doctor and his companions stumble upon some strange goings-on that are somehow the result of an alien presence.  Edinburgh is suffering the affects of a horrific plague, and it seems anyone who is visited by the mysterious Night Doctor is doomed to die.  But for one family - Thomas and Isobel - their daughter was not only visited by the Night Doctor, but the next night, she was taken away by him, never to be seen again.

Until her ghost appeared ... along with the ghosts of everyone else who had died from the plague in this small Scotland community.  But the Doctor knows better.  He knows these astral projections are not ghosts.  They are a sign of something far more insidious, and with the help of Bill and Nardole, he's going to get to the bottom of it - ultimately offering his help to the alien presence that has been trapped under the small town since the Ice Age.  But there are grief-leeches that seem determined to stop him - for if the Doctor puts an end to the death, it will put an end to the grief, and they will not have anything left to feed on!

A perfectly-paced story that easily reads like I was watching an episode of Doctor Who.  There are support characters who are quickly likable (on, in a couple of instances, not-so-likable), and as the Doctor begins to put his plan into action to end the alien menace of the grief-leeches, clues spread throughout the book suddenly begin to make more sense, and I found myself smiling and saying, "A-ha!" a few times.  Morris expertly ties everything together, even placing some time-travel moments that are very reminiscent of things like "Bad Wolf" of the early seasons, or the election of season three.

It is truly a shame that Bill Potts will not be returning for the next season of Doctor Who, as it pretty much confirms that these three books (Diamond Dogs, The Shining Man, and this one) will be the only ones with her as a companion.  Although Donna Noble has managed to come back in some books and audio stories, so perhaps we will see more of Bill yet!  I hope so!

RATING:  10 flagons of cloudy brown ale out of 10 for perfectly executing a time-travel story that throws in some timey-wimey twists to surprise the reader!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 4 - The Singing Trees Mystery

Ted Wilford is back in the saddle in this fourth book of the Ted Wilford mystery series.  While the last book found Ted's older brother, Ronald, off solving the mystery, this one finds Ted and his best friend, Nelson, trying to figure out who is vandalizing the local Y camp, where they will be serving as junior counselors for a week.  Could the answer lie in a treaty signed by a prior property owner many years ago with the Indians of the area, a treaty that has been missing for too many years?  Or does the answer really lie in a missing inheritance that has led many people to believe the fortune still lies somewhere on the Y camp property?  And just how does a serpent rock and a forest of singing trees factor into all of this?

Author Norvin Pallas weaves yet another satisfying tale with The Singing Trees Mystery.  While the actual singing trees play very little part in the overall mystery, they do make a unique background story that leads a young boy at the camp to disappear not once, but twice (leading to a very daring rescue in a snowstorm at night near the end of the book).  Ted and Nelson certainly have no intention of becoming involved in yet another mystery, but fate has other plans.  When they arrive at the Y camp, they discover that a number of the cabin's windows have been shattered, mattresses have been sliced up, and the canoes have been damaged beyond repair.  What is odd, however, is that nothing has been stolen.  All of the supplies that Mr. Blair (the director of the camp) and Mr. Krillman (the manager of the property) had brought into the camp was untouched.  Nelson believes it was simply the act of some juvenile delinquents; but Ted is not so sure.

Of course, when you factor in the appearance of a ghost in the middle of the night, as well as a warning message that appears and disappears and an air raid siren that sounds unexpectedly, it quickly becomes apparent that something else is going on.  When Mr. Krillman finds his office files rifled through, Ted is certain that some is looking for something in the camp.  An intercepted message meant for Ted's rival, Ken Kutler, confirms Ted's suspicions, and with Mr. Krillman's help, Ted and Nelson make several efforts to capture the ghost vandal.  Ultimately, though, it is young Joey, a rambunctious boy with a penchant for telling tall tales, who leads Ted to discover the who and why behind the vandalism and clear up a mystery that has been left unsolved for many decades.

Pallas continues to age his characters, as Ted and Nelson are now seniors, preparing to graduate and enter into the working world.  While not integral to the immediate mystery, but definitely a part of the ongoing tale of Ted's emerging reporter status, Pallas throws in a confrontation with Carl Allison, the reporter who took over Ronald Wilford's job when Ron moved to the big city.  There is also some development of the friendship/rivalry between Ted and Ken, who try to remain friends even while competing for the same stories for their respective papers.

One thing that definitely makes this book a product of its time (the mid-1950s) is the reference to "trailerites" and the transient nature of people who life in trailers.  In fact, one of Ted's fellow classmates is not allowed back in school due to his status as a "trailerite," which leads him to do some devious acts (which are not quite criminal, but definitely not in good fun).

And while I'm happy that Wildside Press is reprinting these books, I do wish a bit more care was taken in the editing and printing process.  The synopsis at the front of this book, while indicating it is The Singing Trees Mystery, gives a description of the next book, The Empty House Mystery.  Further, the acknowledgement at the front of the book still thanks Steve Romberger, "whose copy of The Secret of Thunder Mountain was ultimately used to create this edition...", despite the fact that Thunder Mountain was actually three books ago!  Of course, neither of these things actually affect the story itself, so I suppose I can't get too worked up over it.

I hope that Wildside continues to reprint more of this series, as I currently have only been able to obtain books 1 through 7, and book 11.  I'm not sure why books 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 15 have yet to be reprinted.  Only time will tell...

RATING:  9 broken treaties of friendship out of 10 for giving readers a very likable protagonist who has believable self-doubt, but at the same time, a heart to help others!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Blake Harte Mystery, Book 1 - Untouchable

A man is thrown into a shed and locked inside.  There is only one door in and out.  There are no windows and no trick doors.  The man was alive when he was thrown into the shed.  When the shed is opened, he falls out, dead with three gunshot wounds.

It is the ultimate "locked room" mystery, and author Robert Innes weaves a superb tale of secrets, pain (both physical and emotional), and new beginnings in his first Blake Harte mystery, Untouchable.  I had this book on my Amazon watch list for quite a while, and a few months ago, I finally took the plunge and bought this first book.  I figured if it wasn't any good, I could pass it on and not buy any more.  Well, that is certainly not the case by any means, and I have already ordered the second book and can't wait to read it!

Innes' protagonist, Blake Harte, is a believable, caring Detective Sergeant who has just moved to the small town of Harmschapel.  He's hoping to get away from a bad break-up, and a new job, a new house, and a new community might just be the fix.  But, immediately upon his arrival, he finds himself thrust into a domestic violence call that turns deadly.  Harrison Baxter is a young gay man who thought he found his true love - but can true love withstand physical and emotional abuse?  Just as he finally gets the courage to break things off with his boyfriend, Daniel, things go from bad to worse - his father catches Daniel attacking him, so he throws Daniel into the shed behind their house, locks him in there, and calls the police.  The only problem is, when the police arrive, they open the shed to find Daniel dead, from three gunshot wounds!

Harmschapel (gotta love that name!) may seem like a quiet, quaint little town, but it is harboring some deep, dark secrets of its own.  A bitter detective who makes no bones about the fact that he wanted the job Blake got.  An abusive boyfriend, whose father died in a drunk driving accident and whose mother can't stay sober enough to see what her son is doing.  A mother and father who have a strained relationship, to the point that Harrison has to listen from his room to the abuse that goes on each night.  And a new Detective Sergeant who hasn't quite gotten over the fact that he caught his ex-boyfriend cheating on him - with a woman!

How did Daniel get shot in a locked shed?  Who killed Daniel?  And how can Blake solve this mystery when all the evidence points to the one person he is sure is innocent?  I will say this - while I did manage to figure out the identity of the killer before the reveal, I can honestly say the secrets this person was keeping and the motive behind the murder were not at all what I was expecting.  Which, makes me happy, because it means Innes was not only creative in his plotting, but he creatively keeps the reader guessing with misdirection and red herrings so that the solution to the crime is not so easy to figure out!

And Innes rounds the story out with a large supporting cast, all of whom I grew to love pretty quickly.  Inspector Royale, Sergeant Mandy Darnwood, Sergeant Gardiner, P.C. Patil, and P.C. Billy Mattison make up the police force in Harmschapel, while the barkeep, Robin, at the local pub, provides the information contact that knows pretty much everything that goes on in that sleepy hollow.  Although probably not as much as Blake's landlady, Jacqueline, who is quite the gossip and more than a bit smitten with Blake (too bad she's barking up the wrong tree!).  Each of the characters are well-rounded, with their own set of quirks, and give the book a grounded sense of reality.  They also provide plenty of contrast to Blake's normally calm, caring demeanor.

And, if the end of this first mystery is any indication, Blake might not be on his own much longer...

Definitely a superb start to a series, and I am looking forward to following Blake as he solves more crimes in his new home town of Harmschapel.

RATING:  10 butting billy goats out of 10 for kicking off a mystery series with a twist-and-turn murder and quickly lovable characters - it's got me hooked!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Normandy Gold - a Hard Case Crime Comic

Titan Comics seems to be have a big hit on their hands with its "Hard Case Crime" line of titles.  I gave it a shot with the Peepland mini-series, which turned out to be really good, so I took a chance with a second mini-series, and I have to say - I was just as impressed with this one.

Set in the '70s exploitation style of writing and art, Normany Gold is not only the title of the book, but it is the name of the title character.  Normandy is a small town sheriff who heads to Washington, D.C. to find her missing sister.  When her sister turns up dead, murdered, Normandy takes it upon herself to search for her sister's killer, even if that means going undercover as an escort for Washington's most respected (and used) madame.  She quickly finds out that Washington is filled with a lot of secrets, and that a lot of high-powered men will do pretty much anything to keep those secrets hidden - even if it means killing!

Writers Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin provide a really great murder mystery with a tough-as-nails protagonist who will do anything to get the job done. They manage to give the reader the feel for the '70s, with the macho men who are sexist pigs to the end, strong-willed women who are still trying to gain that equal footing, and the government wheelers-and-dealers who seem to live conscience-free and throw money wherever it is needed to maintain their power.  Despite her tough exterior, Normandy is a character the reader will not necessarily identify with, but you will definitely feel for her and will be rooting for her to catch the killer, despite the things she has to do in order to get there.  And believe me, some of it is NOT pretty!

Steve Scott's art is absolutely gorgeous.  The people are real, the clothing and backgrounds are time-period appropriate, and each page flows so smoothly, it comes across nearly cinematic.  The expressions he captures on the characters' faces are spot on, and about the only complaint I actually have is the fact that there are a number of scenes with full female nudity, yet with every scene where a man is nude, Scott conveniently finds a way to "shelter" the reader from actually seeing any full frontal male.  It's the double standard that seems rampant in our society - yet, I can be forgiving, since the comic is told in a '70s style, and let's face it - back then, female nudity in these type of films and/or books was the norm, and seeing a man naked was simply not done.  So, I suppose, it actually keeps the book on par for its intended goal.

I will say that Abbott and Gaylin kept me guessing through most of the story as to who the murderer would turn out to be - and when the ultimate reveal is made, it does come as a bit of a surprise.  But, it makes sense, and like with any good exploitation film (is that an oxy-moron) from that era, the ending is anything but happy or tidy; rather, it resolves the mystery, but it leaves the characters in a state of limbo (as well as the reader, who has to wonder, just what happens to these characters next?).

I do hope that Titan Comics continues to publish more of these type of crime noir stories, as they are not your typical continuity-heavy, super-hero comic tales, but rather, they are stories with a lot of meat and really make you think.

9 poison-filled syringes out of 10 for taking us back in time and reminding us that even 40 years ago, women could be tougher-than-tough when they needed to be!