Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 13 - Bound for Danger

Frank and Joe Hardy are back, and this time the mystery isn't stolen treasure or missing relatives or international smuggling - heck, it's not even about sabotage (pay attention, Nancy Drew writers - not every mystery needs to be sabotage!) - nope, this time around, the boys find themselves smack dab in the middle of ...


Yes, you read that right.  The Hardy Boys are now solving a crime involving the ritual that always seems to make the headlines with frat boys, sorority girls, and sometimes even sports teams.  For Frank and Joe, it's their basketball team at Bayport High.  Only, they don't know that when the Principal without warning informs them that they are both being put on the basketball team in order to earn more "extracurricular" credits for school.  It's not until they are grabbed from behind, have bags pulled over their heads, and taken to a dark basement do they realize that something very sinister is going on.  The robed, masked individuals who threaten and torture them to leave the team don't realize that their actions have just the opposite effect on the Hardy Boys - all that does is make the brothers more determined than ever to find out exactly what is going on.

With only 138 pages of story, the mystery moves rather quickly.  And while I admit that I wasn't overly thrilled with the idea for this mystery, by the time I finished the book, I found that I actually rather liked the plot.  I do wish, however, that the author had been a bit more creative with the villain behind the hazing.  It came somewhat out of the blue and was just a little too convenient for my taste.  However, I do like the fact that there are a number of red herrings throughout the story in an effort to throw off readers from figuring out who the culprit really is, so I guess I should give the author some credit for that.

I have to wonder what this story would have been like if it had been more fleshed out, and if the boys were out of high school and posing as college students to address hazing within the college setting?  It might have actually made for a much more intriguing story, one more worthy of the original Hardy Boys heritage.  I also have to wonder where Chet Morton and the Hardys' other friends are hiding these days.  For a story set in the boys' school, one would think their regular chums would be right there with them, but I guess they are another thing of the past...

And while the cover art is not really mysterious, it's definitely adventurous (albeit falsely so, as in the book, it is only Joe that is hanging from the helicopter, as Frank is being held captive inside the 'copter).  I guess since this is "Hardy Boys Adventures," the more adventurous the cover, the more in line with the series title it is.

With the next book titled Attack of the Bayport Beast, I can only assume that S&S is continuing its move away from the "Mystery" and "Secret" and "Clue" in the titles once again, which is a shame, as that is part of what always made Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys stand out among children's mystery series.

RATING:  6 servings of Aunt Trudy's turkey meat loaf out of 10 for at least providing some variety in the types of mystery-adventures being told.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lilly Long Mysteries, Book 1 - An Untimely Frost

I've somewhat fallen behind in my reading due to the rehearsal schedule on the play I am in ("The Murder Room," which opens the first weekend of November) - but that doesn't mean I'm not reading. In fact, I just finished reading the first book in a new series!  A titian-haired young female detective out of the Midwest must find out what happened to a missing preacher and his family, who is accused of stealing funds from the local parishioners. Along the way, she must face men who belittle her ability as a female detective, she faces threats warning her to drop the case or else, she is nearly run down by someone who wants her off the case, she finds a secret room that holds the solution to the mystery, and she ultimately faces off against the most unlikely of culprits in a nice little twist.

A new Nancy Drew series, you ask?

If Nancy Drew were set in the late 1800s, and if she were an actress whose husband took advantage of her, stole her life savings, and left her destitute ... but instead, it's Lilly Long, the creation of author Penny Richards. It's very clear that Richards loved Nancy Drew in some fashion, as this first book so obviously pays homage in so many ways to the pop culture icon.  Only, in this world, Lilly is an accomplished actress (the book titles come from various stage plays) whose marriage turns out to be little more than a con, when she finds her husband threatening her adopted mother. He takes off with Lilly's life savings, setting Lilly on a brand new journey that puts her acting skills to use in a whole new way - as a detective!

While An Untimely Frost is definitely a mystery of a serious nature, Richards is not afraid to throw a bit of humor in here and there, where appropriate.  One of the best scenes in the entire book occurs when Lilly is first trying to gain employment with the Pinkerton detective agency.  Chapters 6 and 7 provide a rather intriguing scenario of interviews - first, Lilly interviews for the position, and while she impresses William Pinkerton and his father, Allan, she is told she is too young for the position.  Over the next several days, the Pinkertons interview several more women for the position, each of whom has peculiarities or eccentricities that keep them from being a good candidate.  One, however, manages to catch the Pinkertons' attention - and when they call her back, she reveals to them that she is actually Lilly - that, in fact, all of the interviewees over the past several days have been Lilly in disguise (remember, she is an actress!).  While Richard Pinkerton is put off, Allan Pinkerton approves and hires her on a trial basis.

Thus begins Lilly's first adventure, tracking down a missing preacher and his family for a client who wishes to buy their homestead that they left behind.  Lilly finds much more than she bargains for, though, from a town who refuses to provide her any information willingly and who are desperate to have her out of town.  A search of the actual property reveals that there is something more sinister afoot, and there are definitely darker secrets being hidden - from the bloody sheets to the unmarked grave in the backyard to the secret room in the attic.  And what of that rather dashing but brash boxer who seems to always popping up everywhere Lilly goes?

And beneath all of this mystery and secrets lies another mystery that will clearly be an ongoing subplot in this series - who killed Lilly's mother?

Richards provides a well-written mystery with some extremely interesting characters that I look forward to getting to know better in future books (the second book, Though This Be Madness, is set to come out next year).  She engages the reader from the get-go, and she definitely keeps your attention from page one to the very end.  Definitely a must read for mystery-lovers and Nancy Drew fans everywhere!

RATING:  10 mail-order brides out of 10 for providing a brand new mystery heroine with all the spunk and determination of Nancy Drew and the rich, vivid writing that brings the characters and story so easily to life!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown, Book 4 - The Ghost Ship

I had put off reading this book, as I knew it was the last book in the series and, well, quite frankly, I didn't want it to end.  I have grown to really like the characters and the writing - Vicki Lockwood has created a very engaging world of mystery and supernatural intrigue that makes me long for the days when authors actually wrote stories about characters they loved and nurtured (rather than simply churned out stories for a profit like some do today).  But, as they say, all good things must come to an end...

For this mystery, Lockwood takes Lizzie and her "family" of circus performers to the English seaside, where they set up a very special circus for the Maharaja Duleep Singh.  The Maharaja enjoys the circus and has paid Fitzy well to provide free entertainment to the seaside locals in hopes of endearing them to him.  The only problem is - the locals have a ghostly secret.  The townspeople are fearful of a ghost ship that appears in the harbor, for people have disappeared, never to be seen again whenever the ship appears.  Naturally, Lizzie and her friends are thrilled at the idea of another mystery to solve, but when Lizzie starts experiencing visions again, this time not just about the ghost ship, but also about her friends and about the Maharaja's lady friend, she begins to wonder whether she can trust her own sight.

The mystery itself centers around some stolen jewelry.  The groundskeeper for the estate where the circus has set up shop believes that Lizzie's friend, Hari, is responsible, as he does not trust foreigners.  Lizzie knows he is innocent, but Hari's actions begin to lead her to question her own certainty.  Then she has visions of Nora with the very necklace that was stolen from the Maharaja's lady friend!  Can she trust her own friends?  And what of that ghostly, green ship that she sees in the harbor?  Is that a harbinger of more bad things to come?

The Penny Gaff Gang (as Lizzie and her friends call themselves) set off to solve the crime.  Lockwood throws in a lot of suspense and some dangerous foibles (a rampaging elephant, a dark tunnel, a near drowning, and a climactic battle on the sea) that will definitely keep the reader's interest.  Like the other three books in this series, this is a hard one to put down - you'll want to finish it in one sitting!

SIDENOTE - this is most definitely the third book in the series - as the Maharaja and the missing ruby are the very things that Lizzie mentions in The Fairy Child,  It would be helpful if they actually numbered the books, or at the very least, provided the listing of books in the front or back, so that readers can know what order to read them in.  Nevertheless, reading them out of order did not lessen the enjoyment of the book one bit.

It's a shame Lockwood did not write any more Lizzie Brown mysteries, but I am glad she wrote the four she did - this is one series I would highly recommend to all lovers of mysteries!

RATING:  10 jet necklaces out of 10 for providing a twist ending as far as the culprit goes and strengthening the bond between Lizzie and her new "family."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Wonder Woman Graphic Novel - The True Amazon

Back in the late 1980s, when George Perez took the reigns to the new Wonder Woman ongoing comic book series following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, nothing could have pleased me more.  Perez is probably who I consider to be one of the most talented comic book artists out there, so to have him not only drawing Wonder Woman, but also writing her tales, I was ecstatic!  While Perez remained the writer for five years or so, he did not do the art the entire time.  A new artist, of whom I had never heard, by the name of Jill Thompson took over the art chores.  The style of art was a far cry from the magnificent details of Perez, so for me, it was such a startling change, that I immediately took a dislike to her art.

Fast forward to the current decade.  Dark Horse Comics put out a few mini-series about the Beasts of Burden, a group of neighborhood cats and dogs who get into all kinds of adventures.  Thompson did the art for the various series, and quite frankly, her art style fit perfectly with the stories.  I loved it.

Now comes The True Amazon graphic novel.  While I am always excited to see one of my favorite comic characters get more attention and more comics, I will say I was less than pleased to hear that the book would be both written and drawn by Jill Thompson.  My memories of her art on Wonder Woman remain with me, so it was with a bit of trepidation that I bought the book.

I’m so glad I did.

This hard cover re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origin is an entirely new take, giving readers a young Wonder Woman (Wonder Girl, perhaps?) who is so doted upon as a child that she grows into a spoiled, self-centered little brat.  It is interesting to see how entitled she feels as the daughter of the queen, and how she simply expects everyone to love and respect her.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is likely what I’d expect to see happen when an island full of adult women have only one child, and all of them favor and give in to this young child’s every whim.  This Diana gives new meaning to the term “entitled,” and when she finds one Amazon who does not bow before her, it’s almost fun to what how she works so hard to prove herself worthy of Alethea.  For a brief time in the story, the reader can almost believe this is how Diana will redeem herself.  Thompson, though, does not follow any expected path; instead, she gives readers an entirely different “contest” for Diana to win – one that she wins at a very high cost, both to her and the Amazons as a whole.  And instead of leaving Themyscria to return Steve Trevor to man’s world, Diana is forced to leave, exiled due to her actions in the contest.
The art is definitely still Jill Thompson, the people drawn in the same manner as they were back when Thompson first drew Wonder Woman back in the day.  However, the art on the pages appears more like painted panels, rather than simply pencils, inks and colors, and as such, it gives it a more vibrant feel, giving the characters more life than simple comic book pages do.  Her facial expressions are so vivid, you can actual feel what the characters feel!  All in all, the story was intriguing and the art was more appealing, and I would definitely love to see more stories set in whatever universe this Wonder Woman resides.  Will we see more?  Only DC knows the answer to that question...

RATING:  9 silver serpent horns out of 10 for providing a fresh take on the age-old tale of Wonder Woman’s origin and making a hardcover graphic novel well worth the price.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 5 - The Mystery of the Lion's Tale

Another “guilty pleasure” series that I read when I want something quick and fun.  So far, Harper Paris (the author) has yet to disappoint with these books as the twins, Ethan and Ella, travel around the globe with their parents and discovery a mystery to be solved in each of the locales.  In The Mystery of the Lion’s Tale, however, the mystery is nearly as elusive as the lion the family is hoping to see.

Paris takes the Briar family to Kenya in Africa for this book, where the kids are treated to an exciting safari.  Their guide tells them they should keep an eye out for “The Big Five” while journeying across the plains – the African elephant, the Cape buffalo, the leopard, the rhinoceros, and the king of the jungle himself, the lion.  Ethan and Ella keep their eyes peeled, and manage to find the first four animals, but as their stay in Kenya is about to end, they are desperate to see a lion!

The search for the lion does not make for much of a mystery, even by early reader standards.  Sure, a “missing” will or emerald or painting or pretty much anything that has been stolen or secreted away somewhere makes for a fun mystery.  But simply searching for an animal that is there but hasn’t been seen yet is not quite as exciting.  In fact, it’s a bit of a let down, since the prior mysteries actually involved the twins finding clues, following up on leads, and actually “solving” a mystery.  Here, they see glimpses of what might be a lion’s tale and ultimately are shown the lion by a scientist that their grandfather once knew.

As with the prior books, Paris does provide plenty of details about Kenya’s wildlife and natives, and Ethan and Ella even meet a local brother and sister with whom they make friends and exchange gifts before leaving the country.  Whereas prior books used a number of foreign words, defined in the back of the book in the glossary, this book only provides one word and one phrase in Swahili.

Marcos Calo once again provides the art, with the black and white interior illustrations bringing to glorious life the story Paris tells.  The animals, the natives, the houses and plains are all shown in such detail, it’s likely that any young reader who picks up this book will take away with it a fairly good idea of what it would be like to actually see Africa.

With only five books remaining in the series, I’ve reached the mid-way point, and I hope the rest of the books go back to actual mysteries for Ethan and Ella to solve.  I’d hate to see the series end on a low note.

RATING:  5 beaded necklaces out of 10 for providing young readers with an enjoyable way of learning more about the world beyond the borders of the United States.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Creepella von Cacklefur No. 2 - Meet Me in Horrorwood

When a hurricane hits and your power is out, what is there to do?  Read!  But not just anything – I wanted something to take my mind off of everything, something silly and fun; so, what better series to read than the next book in the Creepella von Cacklefur series!  (I mean, let’s face it, just saying the name alone is fun!)

Meet Me In Horrorwood finds Creepella playing matchmaker for the monster in the moat, Gorgo.  The only problem is, Gorgo’s love, Blobbina, is a famous movie star and she has gone missing!  It’s up to Creepella to find the missing star and cure the heart-sick Gorgo before he completely gives up on life (such as it is for a blob in a moat).

But there’s a lot more to this story than that one mystery – there’s a side story (that, quite frankly, I’m not sure why it’s there, unless it is simply to pad the story and add enough pages to make for a full-length book) about good ol’ Billy Squeakspeare (who readers met in the first mystery in this series).  Billy get an invite to the Rattenbaum Mansion for a special dinner and a wedding (little does he know – the wedding is his own!).  There are four chapters right in the middle of the story that deal with Billy and his invitation – and the story does not revert back to Creepella and her search for the missing starlet until Billy receives a call from Creepella asking for his help.

There’s a gloomy old castle and an abandoned amusement park (called, aptly enough, “Nightmare Park”), and Creepella and Billy must brave all the dangers of the park in order to rescue Blobbina and unite her with the lovestruck Gorgo.  There are plenty of illustrations throughout the book, including wonderfully fun illustrations of the Rattenbaums’ decrepit mansion, the overcrowded and bustling movie set, and the decaying room that holds “The Book.”

Sometimes, simple stories that are simply fun are the best reads to get your mind off of everything going on around you – and with rain and wind beating down on your house, no electricity, food spoiling in your refrigerator, and a cell phone slowly losing its charge, there’s nothing better than a quick visit with Creepella von Cacklefur to put a smile back on your face.

RATING:  6 invisible dinners out of 10 for reminding me that even the most gruesome of monsters can find love – doesn’t matter if you live in a moat or a mansion that’s falling apart!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 13 - The Ghost of Grey Fox Inn

I know the old saying is “Never judge a book by its cover” – but let’s face it, how many of us do it all the time?  I will readily admit that I have been guilty of it ever since I was a kid.  I can remember going into the Waldenbooks or Woolworth’s growing up and running over the section where all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and other series books were.  I would spend my entire time there combing through the books, looking for ones that had the most exciting or mysterious covers to them, as I just knew that these books had the best stories.  And, admittedly, I still do it today every time I’m at Barnes & Noble or scrolling through Amazon.

So, it’s without a doubt that this cover would lead me to believe that The Ghost of Grey Fox Inn would be giving me a spooky ghost story, something this series desperately needed.  It’s been a long time (and I mean a looooooooooooooooooooong time) since the Nancy Drew series has had a good, old-fashioned ghost story.  And I give this ghostwriter credit, he or she got the story off to a great start.  Stories of hauntings at the inn that go back hundreds of years.  A glimpse of a dark figure in the mirror that isn’t there when you turn around.  A mysterious figure in an old Civil War uniform standing at the end of Nancy’s bed.  Doors slamming, all by themselves.  Books, flying off the shelves, with no one there to move them.  The perfect set up for the perfect ghost mystery.

“Nancy, maybe this is crazy, but it feels like someone is trying to ruin my wedding.”

And there you have it.  We had such a wonderful set up for a spooky ghost story, and the author had to go and ruin it by giving us yet one more in a long line of stories about sabotage.  Sabotage, sabotage, sabotage!!!  Why does it always have to be about sabotage?!  Has creativity when it comes to mysteries simply gone out the door, and “sabotage” is now the easy go-to for mystery writers?

Ah, well, that being said, I won’t say this mystery was a total loss.  The author did provide some nice little nods to the original books, starting with the old stand-by, “Bess and George may be cousins, but they couldn’t be more different.”  And with the haunted inn comes the secret panels and hidden walkways behind the walls (which, of course, was the manner in which the “ghost” was getting into and out of locked rooms).  The writer also gives some rather flowery descriptions of Charleston and many of the buildings therein – such vivid details that have been sorely missed in recent years.

The culprit, of course, was pretty clear from the beginning – the author made it too obvious with the actions and dialogue of the guilty parties.  But, overall, it wasn’t a totally bad read, and with 168 pages of story, there was a little bit more fleshing out of the characters than in some of the prior books.  If the series continues to head in this direction, even with the first-person point-of-view, perhaps it might finally return Nancy Drew to her glory days of storytelling and mysteries and revive the popularity that Nancy Drew and her fellow series sleuths once had!

RATING:  7 hunting knives tied with a yellow ribbon out of 10 for at least attempting to return Nancy Drew to her roots with a (sort-of) haunted mansion tale.