Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 42 - Carriage of the Damned

So, I strolled back into the world of Dark Shadows today, picking up where I left off with audio book 42 - Carriage of the Damned.

The story picks up shortly after the end of The Happier Dead, where Amy lost her latest love, Simon, at the hospital where no one was dying, no matter how horrific the injury.  Residing at Collinwood, she is asked by Sabrina to undertake a mysterious task of digging up the unmarked grave of Gerard Stiles!

I'm glad they are back to the ongoing DS saga here, and even more thrilled to have a number of original cast members - Lisa Richard (Sabrina Jennings), Kathleen Cody (Hallie Stokes), and James Storm (Gerard Stiles), as well as Denise Nickerson (although she is not playing the role of Amy Jennings, which she created back on the original show - instead, Stephanie Ellyne continues as Amy, while Denise takes on the role of actress Elspeth Gardner, who was previously seen in The Darkest Shadow).  Then, we also see the return of some minor characters, such as nurse Pauline Brown (who was in The Happier Dead) and Matthew Samuels (who was seen twice before on the trail to Collinsport in The Enemy Within and The Lucifer Gambit).  Thus, the continuity of the DS audio world continues to grow.

The writing of this story is very Dark Shadows-esque - with not only the head of Gerard Stiles (a la the head of Judah Zachary), but also the use of a crystal to track Stiles, and a spell cast to connect the lone train car with the drawing room of Collinwood.  This author, thankfully, tones down the use of expletives that seemed to overpower the last audio.  Plus, we get reminded that Barnabas and Julia are off with Professor Stokes in Egypt (which will be told in an upcoming audio story), Carolyn is still at school in Salem, and Elizabeth Stoddard is away for a month.  No word on David and Maggie, although there is reference by one of the characters towards the end as to whether Maggie will be prepared for all these guests.

I did enjoy the "mystery" of this tale - who exactly is trying to resurrect Gerard Stiles and why?  Is it Sabrina, looking for a way to end her werewolf curse?  Is it Hallie, hoping to gain revenge for what she perceives Gerard did to her all those years ago?  Is it one of the other passengers who are stuck on the train car with them?  The eccentric actress, Elspeth Gardner?  The highstrung nurse, Pauline Brown?  The gruff military major Crawford Jacobs?  Or the mild mannered train conductor, Matthew Samuels?  It really is anyone's guess until more than 2/3 of the way through, at which time it becomes clear who is really behind it all and why.

I will admit, however, there are a few places where it becomes a bit difficult to tell who is talking - Kathleen Cody and Lisa Richards at times sound very similar, and when you add Stephanie Ellyne into the mix, well, let's just be grateful they do say each other's name on occasion to keep the cast clear!

The story ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with Amy saying goodbye to Collinwood and Collinsport, vowing to never return...(of course, having listened to the Bloodlust series, we know that she later returns as Amy Cunningham, having married and now with step-children).

RATING:  9 stranded rail cars out of 10 for keeping the "creep"factor alive and well in Dark Shadows, and for maintaining a roster of background characters that show up when you least expect it!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 4 - The Mystery in the Forbidden City

Those ever-curious twins, Ethan and Ella, now find themselves in China, as their parents continue taking them on a world tour to allow their mother to write her travelogue.  Author Harper Paris opens the world of China to the twins (as well as readers) by taking a look at Beijing, one of China's popular tourist destinations.

Despite how simplistic the writing and stories are, these books for young readers are actually quite enjoyable (even if it takes less than 15 minutes to read them).  Paris captures the innocence and curiosity of second-graders with Ethan and Ella, and the awe and wonder that any 8-year old would have when visiting such magnificent cities as Venice, Paris, or Beijing.  Of course, the kids do act a bit older than they probably should when they get separated from their parents and neither one of them seem very worried (as they are more interested in solving the latest mystery that their grandfather has sent them) - but, that can be overlooked for the sake of simply enjoying the book.  After all, this is fiction.

The quest that the kids' grandfather sends them on is to find the three dragons, located somewhere within the mysterious Forbidden City, the former home of the great emperors.  The only clue provided is that the dragons could be found near the old pine tree.  Needless to say, Ethan and Ella are overjoyed at the chance to solve another "mystery" - but that mystery gets bigger when they stumble upon an old map they find on the floor.  They use the map as a means to try and locate the old pine tree, but somehow get separated from their parents and lost among the many trails and buildings within the Forbidden City.  They ultimately find the old pine tree, they find the three dragons, and they find that the old map they discovered is actually older than they thought and is a treasure that was to be placed on display in the Forbidden City.

Marcos Calo once again provides not only the cover art, but all of the interior illustrations. Since this is a young reader's book, the interior illustrations are numerous, pretty much every other page, and in some instances, spread across two pages.

I'm still disappointed that I never had this series when I was in first and second grade; however, it's great to know it's out there now for young readers as a stepping stone into the wonderful world of reading!

RATING:  9 fried scorpions out of 10 for providing kids with an easy to read mystery that is also educational and fun!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Teen Titans, Earth One - Volume Two

The "Earth One" stories continue with the second volume of the Teen Titans.  I've always been a huge fan of the Teen Titans - from the original run, definitely through the Wolfman/Perez run, and even that run with the Atom as the leader (although, honestly, the New 52 run has left a bitter taste).  So it's rather refreshing to see a brand new take on the characters and team, introducing them as science projects gone wrong rather than various sidekicks brought together by fate.

Volume Two picks up some time after the end of the first volume.  Raven and Starfire are in hiding to protect Starfire from those that are after her.  Changeling, Terra, Cyborg, and Tempest are secretly hiding in an abandoned urban subdivision, doing everything they can for Cyborg as the metal slowly takes over his body.  Meanwhile, Niles Caulder's men are searching far and wide to locate the teens and bring them back.  Enter: Jericho and Deathstroke.

Jeff Lemire writes a story of teens on the run and introduces a whole new group of "Teen Titans," in the form of super-powered agents working directly for Caulder - Kole, Impulse, and Wonder Girl.  But these are not the heroes at all that you might remember from the regular DC Universe.  As with any good super-hero team book, there is a fierce battle as Teen Titans versus the runaway Titans, and Raven and Stargirl do battle alongside Deathstroke against Caulder and his men.  Stuck in the middle of this is Cyborg, who is slowly becoming more and more metal, losing what last little bit of humanity he has left.

Andy MacDonald's art is a bit rough around the edges in places, but it's not so bad that it takes away from the story.  The first five pages (opening sequence) are probably some of the best in the book, with Terra breaking into a pharmacy to get pain pills for Cyborg, then getting caught by the police in the rain, forcing her to use her powers to escape.  Throughout the rest of the book, though, it seems he struggles with facial expressions on the characters, and more times than not, you'll find the characters scrunching their face with their eyes closed (honestly, it looks like they are trying to go to the bathroom, if you get my meaning here).  Thankfully, though, there are not many splash pages or two-page spreads.  MacDonald saves those for only the very important moments, giving them more impact and giving the reader more bang for the buck as far as story goes.

There are still several plot lines hanging, which leaves the saga open for another graphic novel, and since I love these characters, I do hope there will be a Volume Three.  Guess only time (and sales) will tell.

RATING:  8 ugly mes out of 10 for keeping the story and characters of the Teen Titans fresh and exciting and not rehashing old material again.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 3 - Ghosts of Belle Isle

Okay, while I was not entirely enthused with the previous book in this series, I can say that I found this third book to be a bit more enjoyable to read.  And while Ghosts of Belle Isle may not have had much of a mystery to it (nor did it have the treasure hunting adventures that the prior two books had), it does have something the first two books lacked - stronger characterization.

Perhaps the author, Steven K. Smith, is getting a better hold on his three main characters by this book.  Derek, Sam, and Caitlin are no longer cookie-cutter kids - instead, in this mystery, they actually read and feel very natural, both in dialogue and in action.  Which, obviously makes for a better read.  And once again, Smith provides a number of history lessons scattered throughout the story, this time involving the Civil War and the surrendering of the South to the North.  As the kids learn about Jefferson Davis and General Lee and the number of lives lost in the war between brothers, so do the readers.  Thankfully, Smith manages to integrate the history lessons pretty well into the story so that the reader does not feel like he or she is being hit over the head with it.

Now, as far as the mystery goes - as you can expect with a title like Ghosts of Belle Isle, there are ghosts.  Only, they are not the "ghosts" in the typical sense.  Sure, the kids' crotchety neighbor, Mr. Haskins, tells the boys about the mysterious lights that appear on the river that separates Belle Isle from Richmond and how those could possibly be the spirits of the hundreds of men who gave their lives for the South right there on Belle Isle.  The only problem is, the kids never really see those ghosts at all (albeit one very brief moment near the end); rather, the "ghosts" more prominently on display throughout the story are a motorcycle gang who appear to not only be rough and tough, but are also involved in some very suspicious and mysterious activities in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

I'd have to say this story is more of a typical "day in the life" type story - the kids' parents go away on a vacation, leaving them in the hands of an older cousin who pays little attention to them, leaving them to fend for themselves; they have to face bullies who are intent on making their lives miserable (although Caitlin does have the right attitude when it comes to bullies, and there is a scene at the end where the bullies get what's coming to them in a very deserving way), and having to face the consequences of their actions.  There are no really overly dramatic scenes, no big cliffhangers or foibles standard to the children's mystery genre, and no scary moments.  So, for those looking for a mystery to solve, or hoping for another "National Treasure" type adventure, this is not the one for you.  However, if you want a quick, nice little read, then you'll probably enjoy this one.

RATING:  7 Eiffel Tower snow globes out of 10 for good, clean family fun - would have preferred an actual mystery for the kids to solve, but hey - you can't have everything.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy (Amanda Lester Mysteries No. 1)

This book was an absolute JOY to read!  I had never heard of the author, Paula Berinstein, nor the books themselves, before stumbling across them on Amazon one day.  The cover was colorful, it was toted as a new mystery series, and it combined elements of Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, and Sherlock Holmes.  So, let's face it - how could I pass it up?

While there are currently four books in the series published, I bought the first one to give it a try.  Wasn't really sure what to expect - I mean, with a title like The Pink Sugar Conspiracy, what is one to think?  The moment I started reading, though - WOW!  Literally, that's all I could think.  Wow!  Amanda Lester may only be twelve, and she may have the typical tween-ager woes (problems with friends, problems with parents, problems with school), but right off the bat I liked her.  I identified with her.  I cared about her and her problems.  And by the end of the first chapter, the reader is so invested in this character that you have to know what is going to happen next.

Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy is by far one of the best first books of a series that I have ever read.  With 344 pages of story, Berinstein has plenty of room to build her story, flesh out her characters, misdirect her readers (after all, what would a good mystery be without some misdirection here and there), and provide an absolutely amazing mystery story.  Yes, there are some deaths in the book (the cook and the doctor at the school are both killed), and yes there is a bit of romance that occurs (Amanda pretty much falls head over heels for Nicholas Muffet, one of the first students she meets at her new school) - but they are all a part of the greater story - in fact, there's nothing that occurs or is said within the story that doesn't somehow play an important part.

And speaking of the school - Berinstein has created a Harry Potter-type school, only instead of wizardry, this school teaches detecting.  It even has the various "houses" for the students named after famous detectives - the Holmes House, the Father Brown House, the Dupin House, and Van Helden House.  There are also nods to a number of famous authors, via statues on the school grounds - the Enid Blyton statue, the Agatha Christie statue, the Edgar Allan Poe statue, the Dorothy Sayers statue, the Conan Doyle statue, and so on.  This exclusive, secluded school (Legatum Continuatum) is not known to the outside world.  It is hidden away just outside of London and is extremely selective in the students it accepts.  In fact, each and every one of the students has a connection in some way to a famous detective!  For Amanda, unfortunately, that famous detective is none other than G. Lestrade, the inspector that was made famous by Sherlock Holmes.  She is ashamed of that fact, viewing Lestrade as nothing more than a bumbling idiot.  She has no desire to become a detective - she wants to create and direct films!  She resents being shipped off to the school, and she expects to hate every minute of it.  Very quickly though, her attitude changes, as she makes friends with Ivy, Amphora, and Simon (as well as Ivy's seeing-eye dog, Nigel, because, yes, Ivy is blind) and soon discovers that her knowledge of film and the movie industry very easily transitions into the world of solving crime.

Berinstein offers up an unusual mystery here - the students are told at the beginning of the school year that they will have a mystery to solve throughout the semester.  They will not be told what it is, but they will know it when they see it.  Further, it will be up to them to use everything they are learning in their classes to solve the mystery without any help from the teachers or staff.  Simple enough, right?  But what happens when first, the school garage explodes, taking with it a valuable car that is the prized possession of one of their teachers; and then they discover that the cook is acting oddly, stealing pink-colored sugar and hiding it in a secret underground room on the campus grounds?  What is the real mystery?  And what is causing the sounds behind the walls?  And why are all of the desserts so bland, when there is so much sugar on the school property?  And who was flashing that mirror from behind the trees?  And how does any of that connect to Amanda's father being kidnapped?

The story moves at a great pace, taking place over the span of the entire first semester.  While Amanda grows closer to her friends, and even more so to Nick, she still has a tendency to act on her own and not include her new-found friends in on the action.  When she stows away on a delivery truck in the hopes of getting to her father, she is thrust into an unexpected (and honestly, quite humorous) adventure that takes her entirely in the opposite direction where she gets to drive a truck, gets car-jacked, gets attacked by a monkey on a train, and has the opportunity to use all of her skills to not only stop a criminal mastermind from completing a nefarious plan to take control of the world's sugar industry, but also to save her father's life.

I cannot say enough good things about this book.  The writing is excellent, the characterization is engaging, and Berinstein keeps it real by acknowledging the differences in Amanda's American upbringing and lifestyle to those of the other students, who are British.  She even manages to throw in a good Nancy Drew reference:

What was really neat about the car wasn't all that flash though.  It had a way cool rumble seat.  Amanda had wanted to ride in a rumble seat ever since she'd read the early Nancy Drew books, in which the girl sleuth had driven a blue rumble-seated roadster. (p. 102)

Interesting that she points out that Amanda read the "early" Nancy Drew books, which says the author has more than a passing knowledge of the Nancy Drew history, since it was in the original text books that Nancy drove a roadster.  In the revised editions, she drove her blue convertible.

Now, I do have to admit, I did pick up one minor discrepancy, and the only reason I mention it is because if it stuck out so easily to me, I have no doubt others will notice when reading it.  On page 101, right after the explosion in the garage, Amanda is spying on the teachers and the firemen.  She wonders if one of the teachers is injured, but realizes, "She couldn't see how.  He looked perfectly fine.  There were no paramedics at the scene and no one was paying attention to him."  Then, just four pages later, when she is joined by Nick, She comments, "It looks like no one was hurt," to which is responds, "Because there's no paramedics?"  Here, the book indicates that Amanda realizes Nick is right, as "She hadn't noticed."  Now, how could she not notice there were no ambulances, when just four pages prior, she had determined her teacher was not injured because there were no paramedics on the scene?  Does this spoil the reading of the story?  Of course, not.  One minor continuity glitch in a 344 page book, I'd say that was pretty darned great!

I so wish this author were writing the current Nancy Drew and/or Hardy Boys books - they would certainly be a far cry better and would probably be selling a lot more than what they are.  Berinstein is a superb author who knows how to tell a truly engaging story with lots of twists and turns.  And while there are two mysteries (the staged one by the school and the real one involving the sugar conspiracy and her father), both get played well.  Definitely a series I would recommend to anyone of any age - young or adult.  Can't wait to dig into the second one (The Orange Crystal Crisis - and yes, the series does focus on colors, as the old Connie Blair series of days gone by did), where, based on the last paragraph in this book, Amanda will be meeting an interesting new student at the school!

RATING:  10 gluppy things out of 10 for proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a great young adult mystery does not have to be short or simple, but can be fully fleshed out with believable characters and intricate plots!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jessica Farm - Volume 2

WTF?  Honestly, there is just no other way of putting it.  I've read some off-beat comics in my time, and the first volume of Jessica Farm was definitely unusual and not at all what I was expecting.  It was part fantasy, part thriller, part mystery.  Volume 2, however, while picking up right where Volume 1 left off, goes so far beyond the realm of absurd that I really don't know what to think or say about it.

Jessica Farm and her newfound companion, Mr. Sugar Cock (don't ask), have now met "the Smiths" - Papa Smith, Funny Uncle Smith, and Baby Smith. Only, the Smiths are not people.  They appear to be some type of fox/goat-types who happen to live within the barn on the Farm property.  And they are going to help Jessica and Sugar fight the Crangleshitters and Skrats that are tearing up the farm.  So, they leave the safety of the barn and confront the two Skrats that are outside.  Only, once defeated, they find out those aren't the only Skrats - there is a whole army of them - and on the other side, coming quickly, are the Crangleshitters!  Then, for the next thirty-five or so pages, there is nothing but fighting - and since none of these creatures are even human, it becomes a hodge-podge of a mess that is so difficult to figure out exactly what's going on, that I pretty much skimmed over the pages, saying to myself, "a page of fighting...another page of fighting...and another page of fighting," and so on, until I finally got back to Jessica and Sugar, who are searching for the secret door that will take them underground to safety of a cavern where they meet three humans - Frikk, Frank, and Fred (who, for no apparent reason, seems to be trapped inside of a dead human carcass nailed to the cave wall).  And they send Jessica on a journey to fulfill her destiny, the first place of which is a cave called The Rainbow Chamber that will allow you to hover through the air if you completely clear your mind and forget yourself.  Yeah, okay....

I won't even talk about what happens when Jessica and Sugar go into the Rainbow Room, as (a) it is not really necessary to be as graphic as it is and (b) it doesn't really serve any purpose in the story (unless Jessica is going to later become pregnant in the next book).

After reading this book, I can honestly say I have no intention of picking up Volume 3, which, by the way, is said at the end of this book to be coming out in 2024 - definitely NOT worth the wait or the read.

Don't know how long it has been since I have been completely and utterly disappointed in a comic that I've bought and read.  Sure, some may not be to my liking, and some may not measure up to my expectations.  But Volume 2 of Jessica Farm is just so completely jumbled by the art (when you try to draw that many creatures fighting each other all at once, it becomes hard to separate one from another in the melee - of course, though, now that I think about it, perhaps that was Simmons' idea in doing it), and the story has gotten so far off the beaten path that I can't say that I understand, or even want to understand, what is going on with it and in what direction it is really headed.  The oddity of it may have been intriguing in the first book, but it's just way too out there in this one to be understood.

Oh well, you never know until you try it, right?

RATING:  3 Grokk-flokkers out of 10 just for remaining faithful to his one page of story and art per month (this second volume having been created from January 2008 through December 2015).

Friday, August 12, 2016

Doctor Who (the 10th Doctor) - In the Blood

I was so excited about the news that Donna Noble was coming back to Doctor Who - yes, it was only in book form (both audio and written), but I didn't care.  Anything to fill my fix for more Donna Noble!  In the Blood, a new novel by Jenny T. Colgan, is the first book featuring the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble.  It goes without saying that I couldn't postpone reading this book, no matter how many books are in line ahead!

Sadly, I wish I had waited...

Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps Ms. Colgan just really didn't get the characters as well as she should have.  But the Doctor / Donna in this book are not by any means the Doctor / Donna I have come to love so much.  I can see that Colgan made an effort to give Donna a sarcastic, bossy edge.  I can tell that she worked hard to make the Doctor bubbly and energetic.  But quite frankly, it just didn't work.  This book read nowhere near as well as the four books and four audios that have come before, all of which captured the true essence of both the 10th Doctor and Donna so wonderfully.  For me, neither character came alive in this story.

In the Blood finds the Doctor and Donna racing against time to stop a virus - one that starts out in the internet, but manages to infect humans, feeding on their anxiety and anger, causing them to become so angry, so violent, that they die from heart failure (but not before feeling an icy finger touch their heart).  When Donna's grandfather, Wilf, becomes infected, it becomes personal.  Along the way, they meet and keep a careful eye on an alien mercenary who has been sent to find whoever is causing this infection and put an end to him.  The Doctor, however, intends to beat him to the punch, to avoid any more death.  Donna does prove herself to be invaluable, albeit uncertain and down on herself, but in the end, she comes through for the Doctor and proves once again just how important she is to the Doctor (and the universe).

It takes a bit to get into the story - it's not your typical Doctor Who tale, and there is quite a bit of death and killing in the book (considering the Doctor abhors violence and prefers peace and saving lives to taking them).  The story spans a considerable time, since they travel the globe without the aid of the TARDIS, and there are some jumps in time to avoid having to spend pages simply telling of their airplace, auto, and train rides.  The ending, though...well, the ending made me smile, and it gave me flashbacks to the last Donna episode.

I hope the upcoming books and audios will be considerably better than this - for as much as I love Donna, I don't want to see her written so poorly.  (And the author clearly is familiar with Catherine Tate as an actress outside of Doctor Who, as she throws in a couple of Easter Egg lines from Tate's variety show - when Donna talks about something being "for losers" and later, she makes the remark, "Innit."  Those familiar with one of Tate's characters from her variety show will recognize those lines immediately)

Never thought I'd be disappointed with a book with Donna Noble in it...

RATING:  5 diluted Rempaths out of 10 just for having a Doctor Who book with Donna Noble in it.