Monday, September 26, 2016

Friday Barnes, Under Suspicion

Friday Barnes and her classmates may only be 11 years old, but their actions, their dialogue, and their whole demeanor more accurately portray the older teen set of today's society - - leading me to wonder, why didn't the author simply make them older and place them in high school?  Of course, let's face reality - there aren't really any young adult mystery series any more that feature older teens.  It seems authors only want to use 10 - 14 year old to solve their mysteries.  Even Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have suddenly been given ambiguous ages (whereas they used to be 16, then 18, and now no age is given....)

However, I can easily overlook this for the simple matter that these Friday Barnes books are ABSOLUTE FUN!

Friday Barnes, Under Suspicion picks up exactly where the first book ended - with poor Friday being arrested in front of the entire school. An 11-year old an international terrorist?  That's what the police think, thanks to a tip they received and a suspiciously hollow hockey sticks that contains some very unique beans.  Of course, in true Friday Barnes style, she quickly points out to the police that the beans are common beans used in every day cooking and that she was being set up.  Once she is proven right (of course!), she quickly discerns that her love interest/nemesis, Ian Wainscott, was behind the whole plot...

...but not before she meets a man at the police station who was accused of stealing an expensive sapphire bracelet - and not before she takes the police on a visit to the woman's house and shows them exactly how and why the man (who begrudgingly tells her his name is Malcolm) is innocent.  As a result, Friday gets the $10,000 reward for returning the bracelet to its owner.

From there, R.A. Spratt takes readers another roller coaster of fun, as Friday solves one insignificant mystery after another - from the case of the missing calculator (which reveals another mystery involving an unbeknownst twin), to the mystery of the perfect quiche (which begs the question, what happened to the dead cat?), to the mystery of the not-so-kidnapped student (who ends up in the dump), to the mystery of the holes appearing everywhere on the grounds (and into which teachers and students alike seem to fall and hurt themselves), to how someone managed to steal a map of the school from a locked room (the answer involves a wet string and some of Friday's own saliva - don't ask!).  Of course, there's an over-arching mystery that concerns an escaped convict, an unconscious groundskeeper, and a secret that dates back all the way to 1987!  (Yeah, right, like that's really so long ago.....).  And with her usual finesse - or, actually, lack thereof, Friday manages to stay right in the thick of things and solve the mystery that even the police can seem to solve (or really, even care about).

And just to give you a taste of the kind of humor Spratt sprinkles throughout this series, below is one of my favorite scenes from the book...
"What's this?" asked Mrs. Cannon, holding up a thick novel.
"Les Miserables," said Melanie.
"I can see that," said Mrs. Cannon.  "Why on earth are you putting it in here?"
"It's painfully boring, ma'am," said Melanie.
"That's true enough," agreed Mrs. Cannon. "There are good bits in there, eventually. But you have to wade through so much blather before you get to the love triangles and barricades.  You're much better off going to see the musical.  But you can't put the book in the time capsule-there's not enough space."
"What if you burned it first?" asked Melanie. "Ashes would take up less room."
"Good point," said Mrs. Cannon.  "I like your lateral thinking.  Be sure to give yourself an A for this assignment."
I admittedly laughed out loud when I read this scene (and trust me, there's more where this comes from scattered throughout the book).

Spratt leaves us with another "To Be Continued..." at the end of this book, so you've got time to run out and buy the first two books before book three hits the stores early next year.  Trust me, it doesn't matter how old you are, you'll get a kick out of these books!

RATING:  9 pinto bean-filled hockey sticks out of 10 for making me laugh and reminding me just how enjoyable reading can be at times!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Flagler's Few, Volume 2 - Lost Souls of Savannah

Writer and artist Andre Frattino takes a quick detour from his Flagler's Few regular cast to spotlight the ghost that was seen in the first book - Victor, the guitar-playing ghost.  Frattino provides a rather detailed backstory for Victor - not necessarily his life, but rather his death and his after-life.

Lost Souls of Savannah tells the story of Victor's journey - his journey to find a way to get his life back, but also his journey of self-discovery and the darkness that resides within him, now that he is dead.  While the first graphic novel brought together the team of ghost-hunters through mishaps and a bit of fun, this one takes a more serious turn.  Victor is told by a Hoodoo priestess that he can regain his life if he first collects five souls that haunt the streets of Savannah, Georgia.  Desperate to become solid again, Victor agrees to the deal.  With the help of the priestess's son, a would-be writer, and a young photographer, Victor tracks down the five souls that will give him back his humanity.

Or will they?

Frattino provides a few twists along the way that will make the reader question the characters and reminds readers that inside of everyone there's both good and bad - it's up to each individual to choose which path he or she will take.  In fact, there are two huge twists as the story winds down, and they provide a very satisfying ending to Victor's backstory.  The story is a nice change of pace following the action packed first graphic novel and definitely showcases his talent as a writer.

The art actually feels a little less refined than the first book - and I wonder if that isn't because Frattino brings in inker Ryan English to "bring his pencils to life," as he indicates in his introduction to the story.  Personally, I think Frattino's art already shined; however, perhaps writing, drawing, inking, and lettering a book like this might be a bit taxing for one person, so I can forgive the fractional depreciation of the art. And maybe English is a very talented artist in his own right; I just don't think their combination necessarily works so well together.

I bought this book (as well as the third one) at the same time as the first book, so it also has a personalized drawing in the front, with the creator's autograph - this time, depicting me holding the all-important lantern (you have to read the story to understand what the lantern's significance is).  While the books can be bought online, I'd suggest finding Frattino at a convention so you can get them personalized this way - it makes them all the more special.

RATING:  7 union sharpshooters out of 10 for telling a good ol' fashioned ghost story from the ghost's point of view!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Knightly & Son - Book One

The British invasion of series books here in America seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.  This new series, Knightly & Son, can now be added the list.  And, just like with the British television shows that I have found I enjoy, so I can say the same thing about the series I've picked up, including this one.

In this first book of the series, author Rohan Gavin introduces us to Darkus Knightly (and yes, that name definitely gets him made fun of in school), a not-so-typical thirteen year old boy whose father, London's top private investigator, has been in a coma for the past four years.  Darkus has spent the last four years visiting his father in the hospital and doing everything he can to learn all he can about his father - including memorizing every bit of information on the cases his father had stored on his hard drive.  Each case has its own unique name, such as the "Curious Case of the Amber Necklace."  And while Darkus spends his visits with his father going over those cases, little does he realize the importance that knowledge is going to play...

In 313 pages and 29 chapters, Gavin provides enough twists and turns to keep the most curious minds intrigued, and the mystery itself - how in the world is a mysterious book called The Code driving otherwise sane people to commit crimes? - is quite frankly the first one in a while that had me stumped up until the end.

Of course, as is typical with most young adult and children mystery series, Darkus come from a broken home.  His mother and father are divorced, and his mother has remarried a more stable man (as opposed to Alan Knightly, whose conspiracy theories led to the demise of his marriage) who is a widower that comes with his own daughter, Tilly.  The family dynamic is certainly the "norm" by today's standards, but Gavin keeps it fresh with the interaction between Darkus and Tilly, and by the unique relationship that Darkus shares with his father.  There are also several supporting cast members who are just as fun to read - Mr. Knightly's secretary Bogna; Inspector Draycott, who has little time for Mr. Knightly's ideas; and Uncle Bill, who is not really an uncle, but an agent of Scotland Yard.

The mystery begins with a young boy in a bookstore becoming absorbed by what he is reading in The Code, only to find himself being attacked by a horde of bugs coming out of the book - bugs that only he can see.  Transition to Darkus sitting by his father's bedside, praying his father will one day come back to him.  Then, as fate would have it, as soon as he leaves, the nurse turns on the TV, and upon hearing the word "combination," Alan Knightly wakes up from his four-year nap!  The chase is on from that moment forward, and Darkus, as well as his step-sister, get caught up in the game, and before you know it, everyone's in danger!  A chip off the old block, Darkus puts his observational skills and powers of deduction and reasoning to help his father figure out exactly what is going on, who is behind the seemingly supernatural events, and how they can stop the villains before they destroy society as a whole!

And throughout the entire book, Darkus tries to keep away from emotions that will only get in the way of his crime-solving; however, he can't keep fighting the desire to win his father's approval and love, something he has been missing so desperately for the past four years.  It creates a tension between the father and son that readers will actually feel and want resolution before the book ends!

Mystery!  Conspiracy!  Humor!  Family drama! This one has it all, and it kept my attention page after page after page.  All in all a fun read that makes me want to run out and buy the second book now!

RATING:  8 abandoned tube stations out of 10 for providing a brand new take on the children's mystery genre - a father and son detective team!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The First Lucius Fogg Novel - Deadly Creatures

I honestly can't remember how I fell upon this series.  Perhaps I happened across it while browsing Amazon, or maybe it was one of those "recommendations" that shows up on my Facebook page from time to time, or it could have even been a series someone mentioned to me somewhere.  Regardless of how I found out about it, I am glad I did.

What's interesting about this book (and possibly the series - won't know until I read the next books) is that although it is toted as a "Lucius Fogg novel," Mr. Fogg is not the protagonist.  Rather, Fogg's assistant, Jimmy Doyle, is the main character in the book.  Described as "an honorable man who took a bullet for his country," Doyle returns to New York City and becomes a private investigator.  Through various circumstances, he has come into the employ of the enigmatic Lucius Fogg and discovered a world beyond that which every day people like you and me see.

Author Dan Wickline creates an instantly likable character in Jimmy Doyle.  He is part pulp-detective, part hired-gun, and part occult-investigator.  He takes the strange goings-on around him in stride, although admits that when he first came to work for Fogg, it was all a bit overwhelming and hard to accept.  He genuinely cares for those around him, as is evidenced when he actually leaves Fogg's employ to chase justice for a client who was killed.  Lucius Fogg, on the other hand, is mysterious and reserved, and the reader only gets hints and teases as to who and "what" Fogg is.  He never leaves the house, and he only meets with clients after 9 p.m.  Is he a vampire?  A ghoul?  A cursed soul?  Wickline keeps the mystery of Fogg's identity under wraps for now - in some ways, it reminds me of the mystery surrounding Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the opening years of Dark Shadows - she hadn't left the house in 18 years, and no one quite knew why.

 This first foray into the world of Lucius Fogg, Deadly Creatures, starts with an odd mystery involving young women who are being murdered by men who have never owned a gun, never fired a shot in their life, do not know the women they are shooting, and afterwards cannot explain what they have done.  The police are stumped, and for the first time, Detective Sebastian "Sea Bass" Lee comes to Fogg and Doyle for help.  Within the first 70 pages of the book, this mystery is resolved by Fogg, revealing demonic possession created by a man who became jealous of his best friend (love interest?)'s sudden involvement with a mysterious woman.  Doyle and Detective Lee have a showdown with the man and his demon, and ultimately, they take him down.

But that's not where the story ends...

Doyle can't shake the feeling there is more to the story.  And there is.  It turns out that one of the richest men in New York, and one of the most powerful, is hosting tournament fighting, but instead of normal men, he is utilizing werewolves.  There's only one problem - all of the night creatures, including werewolves, reside within Old Town, and they are protected under a pact made many years ago. So, then, where is Ravenstorm getting his fresh meat for the fights?  When one of Doyle's clients is turned into a fighting wolf, and then killed, Doyle has to seek justice, even if it means he has to give up his job with Fogg.  The stakes are high, a woman is involved (isn't there always?), and Doyle sacrifices his humanity to mete out justice for his fallen client.

Wickline provides a fast-moving, intricate web of deceit story where everything is not always what it seems, and those who may seem villainous at first may not be as bad as one initially thinks.  There are moments where you are not quite sure whether you should like a character or hate him/her, and then Wickline surprises you by suddenly proving your thoughts on the character wrong.  A number of supporting cast members have definitely been set up in this introductory story.  I particularly liked Tiny, who was a bouncer for a particular vampire club in Old Town.  If you read the book, you'll understand why.

I know Wickline has currently published three books in this series, and I hope there are more to come.  Definitely a series I would recommend for fans of the supernatural and mystery genres!

RATING:  9 messenger crows out of 10 for opening up a whole new world of supernatural mysteries for me (and others!) to enjoy.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire - Volume 03

The Resident Evil saga continues in Volume 3 of this series of graphic novels that totes itself to be the prequel to Resident Evil 6.  Writer and artist Naoki Serizawa has created a unique take on the zombie outbreak genre, this time involving an isolated school, along with a teacher and a student, both of whom harbor some very deadly secrets.

The action is definitely escalated higher than it would seem possible in this volume, as the story picks up directly from the "surprise" ending of Volume 2, which revealed that the thought-dead student Nanan Yoshihara is actually alive and transformed into a hideous T-virus monster!  The three-page color prologue only whets the readers appetite for what is to come in the pages ahead.  And while I like the color art, I must admit, the story definitely lends itself better to the black-and-white pages, which truly keeps the mood with Serizawa's art.  The blood, gore, and violence that is rampant throughout this story becomes somehow more horrific in B&W, almost like watching a horror film from the '50s.

Little Ricky (yeah, not that one!) finds himself facing danger at every turn, from the first page to the very last.  From his fight with Nanan in the opening scene, to his battle with the last person he would ever think started the whole virus at the school, to watching a friend be eaten by a group of students-turned-zombies, to an all out last ditch effort to fend off a horde of attacking zombies - and just when Ricky thinks the end has come, and he holds a gun to his own head so he doesn't face the fate of being eaten alive, the cavalry shows up in the form of Chris Redfield and his team!

Yes, as indicated above, readers finally learn exactly who started the spread of this new strain of the T-virus at Marhawa Academy and why.  What started out as an attempt to save a friend's life turned into an unexpected and uncontrollable hunger and disease that has destroyed the school and nearly everyone in it.  It's a sad twist that shows just how far some people will go to save a friend - at any cost!

No matter how much violence and gore rips through the pages, Serizawa manages to maintain the human side to the story.  This keeps you not only interested in the characters themselves, but gives you a vested interest in their survival against the virus-infected monsters that are roaming the school.

My Resident Evil habit satiated for a moment, I can't wait to get to the next two volumes in the series - to keep my hunger satisfied until the new movie comes out in January!

RATING:  9 shady outsiders out of 10 for keeping humanity alive, even amidst the disease-infected world of Resident Evil.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 2 - The Locked Safe Mystery

For someone who has never enjoyed reading mystery series with boy protagonists, I readily admit that the Ted Wilford series is holding my interest.  Author Norvil Pallas writes some fairly complicated mysteries, considering the age level at which these books are aimed, but the resolution at the end is always logical, believable, and somewhat obvious once revealed.

This is yet another series that I would highly recommend reading in order, as each story clearly builds from the one before.  The first book in the series found Ted's older brother being offered a job out of town, forcing up to vacate his reporter position with the local newspaper.  In this book, Ronald is already settled into his new job at the big city paper, and not only is Ted filling his shoes as editor at the Forestdale High School Statesman (the school newspaper), but he's also been offered a chance to write some articles now and again for the local newspaper.  Additionally, the young boy that Ted helped in the first book, Tim, has had the surgery necessary to allow him to walk, and school is starting for the new year.  Time clearly moves forward in this book (such as in the Judy Bolton series by Margaret Sutton), and the characters age and change.  And as much as I enjoy the Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and other ageless series, I have to admit, the fact that the characters grow and mature is a nice change of pace.

In The Locked Safe Mystery, Pallas once again puts Ted into the thick of things.  Ted is put in charge of ticket sales for the fall fundraising event at Forestdale High - but when the event is over, the cash is missing, and the assistant principal has skipped town, Ted feels a responsibility to find out what really happened.  Everyone, including the police, believes the assistant principal absconded with the money, but Ted feels otherwise.  He is determined to prove Mr. Clayton's innocence, and he even enlists the aid of his brother's former competitor, Ken Kutler (who is a reporter for another paper), to help uncover the truth.

What is interesting about this series (so far) is that the lead character, Ted Wilford, is not the one who puts together the clues and solves the mystery; rather, he simply follows along as others make the necessary connections and make the deductions to reveal the solution to the crime.  In this book, while Ted is determined to prove to everyone that Mr. Clayton is innocent, it is actually his brother and Ken Kutler who uncover the final clues that reveal what actually happened the night the money was stolen from the safe. Yes, Ted works hard, and he even sneaks out at night (twice!) to follow up on mysterious phone messages that lead him first to Thunder Mountain, and later to a train station in the dead of night - - and while he continues to seek evidence that will exonerate Mr. Clayton, it isn't until his brother brings Mr. Clayton home and Kutler reveals a secret he has been hiding during the entire story that the truth comes out.  Oddly enough, though, the fact that Ted doesn't actually "solve" the mystery does not at all detract from the enjoyment of the story - in some ways, it leaves the reader feeling a lot like Ted, being along for the ride, hoping desperately that somehow, in some way, Mr. Clayton's innocence will be shown!

Something I noted while reading the book is that the author is either very knowledgeable or has done some great research during his writing of this book.  The football games described in this book are very detailed, in the plays, the type of throws, etc.  And while I am the farthest thing from a football fan and (admittedly) skimmed some of those paragraphs, I have no doubt that readers who love the sport will find those potions of the story entertaining.  What I did find fascinating, though, were the courtroom scenes in chapters 19 and 20 were some of the most accurate portrayals of a courtroom decorum that I have ever read.  Even so-called "legal thrillers" always sensationalize the courtroom action to include unrealistic testimony and attorney tactics; Pallas, on the other hand, gave a very believable and honest depiction of the courtroom.  Pallas portrayed the objections properly, even going so far as to show Ted having to leave the courtroom when the attorneys argued over his cross-examination on the stand!  Having worked for lawyers for more than 20 years now (hard to believe!), I am excited to see such an accurate portrayal.

It goes without saying that, at this point, I am hooked on this series.  I have the next three books that have been reprinted, and I probably need to check on Amazon to see if any more have been reprinted.

RATING:  8 short combinations out of 10 for keeping it real, even in a book of fiction, and appealing to readers from all walks of life!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Haunted Mystery, Book Three - The Smoky Corridor

This series is by far one of the most enjoyable ones I've been reading. It is one that definitely must be read in order, as the first book, The Crossroads, introduces us to Zack Jennings, his father, stepmother, and dog - and introduces us to his ability to see and speak with ghosts.  The second book, The Hanging Hill, not only furthered his abilities to communicate with the dead, but helped Zack to grow and confide in others (his stepmother being one) about his ability.  Now, in the third book, not only must Zack face ghosts, but he must also deal with the reality of zombies!

With The Smoky Corridor, author Chris Grabenstein opens the door wide to pretty much any supernatural creature to exist in Zack's world.  The previous two books took place over the summer, but now fall has arrived, and Grabenstein introduces Zack (and readers) to the school setting, as Zack begins his first year at Horace P. Pettimore Middle School.  Needless to say, the school holds many ghosts within its walls, but the ghosts are not the only one harboring secrets.  The custodian has discovered some very interesting things behind the wall of his "office" in the basement.  The new history teacher seems to be a little too interested in Zack's welfare as a new student.  The assistant principal holds a grudge against Zack for no apparent reason.  And Zack's ghost friend, Davy, has appeared in Zack's locker to warn him.  To warn him to not only be wary of the Donnelly brothers who died many years ago in a school fire - but watch out for the zombie, as well!

Grabenstein once again provides engaging characters, and it's fun to watch Zach interact not only with fellow "nerds," but also how he stands up to the class bully (who just happens to be the older brother of the boy he embarrassed in the first book).  In fact, it's refreshing to see how his standing up to the bully encourages his newfound friends to also have courage.  What is a bit unrealistic, however, is how suddenly Zach, who is not so outgoing and who is a nerd, suddenly becomes so popular simply because his fellow ghosts help him solve some problems for his fellow students (like where a girl left her homework, how a boy with a heart murmur should not be doing physical activity in gym, etc.).  First, I think his fellow students would start to wonder how he could know all of these things and start to get suspicious.  And second, even if he did help them, somehow it's doubtful that they would all suddenly gravitate towards him.  I know this was a plot device for Grabenstein that comes into play towards the end, when the students show up at the most inopportune time for the villains in the story - but it just felt rushed and too "Afterschool Special"-ish.

Other than that, the actual mystery this time was quite well done.  The Donnelly boys accidentally set fire to themselves in a locked hall, also killing a teacher who tried to save them.  Their story has been told for years, but Zack, in his interactions with the ghosts - and his stepmother, through her research at the library - finds out that things aren't always what they seem.  Good ol' Horace P. Pettimore was rumored to have buried some gold he had stolen from the South during the Civil War somewhere on the school property.  And, as luck would have it, Horace is still hanging around, trying to find a way to get a new boy, which he can only do through a blood relative, thanks to voodoo magic he had performed years before.  At first, he thinks Zack might be the one, but it ultimately turns out that it is one of Zack's friends, one he is determined to save from the ghost's machinations.

And if that weren't enough on its own, there's always the truth behind the Donnelly boys, how that truth connects to the new history teacher, and just what is going on with that zombie (and what happens when the custodian comes into contact with and gets bitten by that zombie!)?

The books reads easily and smoothly, as the story flows naturally without feeling too rushed.  It's interesting to notice that in all three of these books so far, it is Zack and his stepmother.  Zack's natural father seems to only pop in now and then - although, at the end of this mystery, we do learn a secret that Zack's father has been keeping from him, something that changes everything - and leaves me wondering what's in store in the fourth (and final) book in this series!

As I know I've said before, I definitely recommend this series for anyone who enjoys young adult mysteries, as well as those who enjoy ghost stories.  They are fun, they are engaging, and a great way to escape the world in the rapture of a book for a while!

RATING:  10 bloody marys out of 10 for ever-broadening the world of Zack Jennings and leaving me longing for more - much more!