Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Aunt Claire Presents (Book One): The Automobile Girls at Newport

There is a reason why, when I go to a bookstore, I will stroll up and down the aisles of the various genres - mystery, science fiction, graphic novels, young adult, and children's.  Sometimes, as I stroll down the aisles and let my eyes wander across each of the shelves, I will (a) see a cover of a book or a title that catches my eye; (b) see something new that I was not even aware was going to be published; and (c) see a book that really gets me excited about reading.

All three of those reasons are why I picked up Aunt Claire Presents... The Automobile Girls at Newport.  Now, to be completely fair, this was not the first book I noticed.  The first one I noticed was actually Aunt Claire Presents...Grace Harlowe's Freshman Year at High School.  My eye caught the name "Grace Harlowe" in the part of the title on the spine on the bottom shelf at the store, and I immediately knelt down and pulled the book out.  I am fully aware that Grace Harlowe was a series of vintage children's books written nearly 100 years ago, so my first thought was that they were doing an updated version, or that possibly it was a pure coincidence that the name was the same.  Those ideas were quickly dispelled as soon as I saw the cover and read the back of the dust jacket.

"These are the series books that American girls read for fun a century ago.  They are not only fast-paced tales of friendship and adventure, but also pieces of history that reveal many interesting things - good and bad - about the time in which they were written.  Look under the book jacket to see the original front cover from 1910!"

Reprints!  These were surprising reprints of series books from the early 20th century, books that I never imagined in a million years they would actually reprint.  And just as the back of the dust jacket said - under the dust jacket, the cover to the book is a reproduction of the actual cover of the 1910 edition of this book (although it is not cloth, it gives the appearance of cloth and age, even with what appears to be shadowed stains here and there, which any collector will tell you appears on pretty much any of those old series books).  There is a frontispiece, and there are illustrations throughout the book - although not glossy, they are indicated to be copies of the original illustrations from the 1910 version of these books.

Needless to say, I quickly picked up both the Grace Harlowe and the Automobile Girls books (and a quick look at Amazon.com reveals a second Grace Harlowe book is set to come out, along with a reprint of the first Girl Aviators book).  I couldn't wait to tear into these (not literally tear - I would NEVER do that to a book!!!!), so I started with what is indicated to be the first one "Aunt Claire" reprinting, The Automobile Girls at Newport.

This book begins the adventures of Barbara Thurston; her younger sister, Mollie; their friend, Grace Carter; Grace's friend, Ruth Stuart; and Ruth's aunt, Aunt Sallie Stuart (who acts as a chaperone for the girls on their trip).  Pages 7 to 18 provide an introduction (aptly titled "A Note from Aunt Claire"), which gives young readers an introduction to the book and provides information on the time period, the characters, the ideals of the day and age in which it was written, the style of clothes, etc. It also gives a snapshot of the various titles in the 6 book series. It even provides illustrations of magazines, advertisements, and photographs from the era to help enhance the reading and understanding of the book.

The story itself was very enjoyable to read.  Barbara and Mollie are lower middle-class girls who help their mother in their modest cottage.  Their father died, and although he was partnered with his wife's brother in a lucrative business, their uncle, upon their father's death, claimed there was little money left on their father's part, as he lost a great deal on speculations (although, frankly, there are subtle hints that this is not the case, and I hope that later books in series revealed the girls were not as poor as they thought...).  As with any good series book, something unexpected happens in the first chapter that gets the mystery and adventures started, and in this case, it is sixteen-year old Barbara stopping a runaway carriage.  The inhabitants of the carriage happen to be none other than their friend, Grace, and her friend, Ruth - as well as the Thurston's rather uppity cousin, Gladys Le Baron, and her companion, Harry Townsend.  As a reward for her help, Ruth invites Barbara and Mollie (much to Gladys's dismay) to the hotel in town for a special luncheon the next day - where she invites the two girls to join her and Grace on a great adventure:  travelling by automobile to Newport!

Now, this is where one has to remember the time period in which this book was written.  First, automobiles were not something everyone had.  And those who did have them did not allow women to drive them.  Of course, Ruth, much in the vein of Nancy Drew, lost her mother at a young age, has an indulgent father, and is a determined young woman who accomplishes whatever she sets out to do.  And just so the automobile journey is approved by her father, Ruth's Aunt Sallie has agreed to accompany the girls.  It is only natural the girls are able to join them for the ride, and Mrs. Thurston even provides the girls with a little extra money that she has been saving up for them so that they can buy the proper clothing for riding in an automobile (remember, most roads were not paved back then, if any where, so driving along stirred up quite a bit of dust and dirt!).  The mystery, though, begins when two 20-dollar gold pieces that Barbara and Mollie had earned are discovered to be missing after Grace, Ruth, Gladys, and Harry leave.

The author, Laura Dent Crane (pseudonym or real?  good question...), writes a fun and engaging story of friendship, jealousy, accusations, mystery and mishaps, and adventures that girls back in 1910 would find exciting and perhaps a bit tense.  In today's day and age, a flat tire on the side of the road is nothing; however, in 1910 - without cell phones, without easy equipment to jack and replace the tire - a flat tire for five young women could be a near catastrophe, particularly when it starts raining, and Barbara gets caught "borrowing" a horse for a nearby farm house to race to town to get help!  But I do give Crane credit for keeping the mystery subtle at first, but slowly building it throughout the story as there appear to be thefts at every stop along the way, with big-ticket thefts occurring at the parties the girls attend in Newport!  And while I new who the culprit was pretty much from the get-go, it was fun to watch how Crane weaved the story and had the characters slowly figure it out.  Plus, the fact that Barbara did figure it out and make an accusation that caused her to basically be ostracized from the group - only to be vindicated later when the truth came out - made for some great tension among the characters.

All who know me know that I love the vintage children's series, and this is one that I have taken a great liking to - I hope "Aunt Claire" presents some more titles from this series - would be a manageable (and affordable!) way to collect the series and read them!

RATING:  9 diamond butterfly pendants out of 10 for bringing back a classic tale and introducing it to a whole new generation of readers!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sugar & Spike: Metahuman Investigations Trade PB

Sometimes, something you read truly surprises you, and in a really good way.  That is exactly what happened with Sugar & Spike.

Comic fans of an older age may recall that Sugar & Spike was a comedic comic book about two toddlers who always seemed to get themselves into a variety of scrapes.  The series ran from 1956 to 1971, and was created, written, and drawn by Sheldon Mayer, who did quite a bit of work for DC Comics back in the day.  It seems he was the only person to ever work on the title, and when his eyesight started to fail, rather than replace him, DC cancelled the series.

Flash-forward more than 40 years later, and in 2016, DC Comics published a 6-issue mini-series anthology title called Legends of Tomorrow (likely to cash-in on the new television show that also featured a hodge-podge of DC lesser-known characters).  The anthology featured stories starring Firestorm, Metal Men, Metamorpho, and...yup, you guessed it - Sugar & Spike.  Only, the Sugar & Spike in these tales were not toddlers, and they did not talk in baby-gibberesh.  In these six, single-issue adventures, Sugar & Spike are adult investigators, doing work for the superhuman community that the heroes want kept...well, let's just say, under the radar.

Such as finding and recovering those multi-colored Batman costumes from that age-old issue of Detective Comics.  Or finding out what is happening on that Superman-shaped island from the silver-age issue of Superman.  Or how about those green, monster-type people that are hiding in plain sight, one of whom Wonder Woman nearly married way back in that early issue of Wonder Woman?  Then, there's that problem with Colonel Computron (does anyone really remember him from The Flash?).  Of course, we can't forget Green Lantern's friend Itty (the silver age of comics really did come up with some oddities). And finally what happens when three eras of Legionnaires show up to try and prevent something that they already prevented?

The fact that these stories are written by Keith Giffen should have been my first clue that they were going to be good.  Let's face it, his run on Legion of Super-Heroes...his work on Justice League International and Justice League 3000/3001...his recent work on Blue Beetle - they are all shining examples of what a stellar writer he is.  The man knows how to take serious, interject just the right amount of humor into it, and make it thoroughly enjoyable!  The art by Bilquis Evely and Ivan Plascencia fits perfectly with the characters and stories.  Plus - c'mon, taking two toddlers from the early silver age, making them grown-ups and private detectives to boot - and giving them just the right amount of tension (plus dropping hints here and there about parts of their lives that we have yet to see) - it truly has the makings for some great tales.

And the final element that made these stories to wonderful - 20 page stories all done-in-one!  That's right, no 6-part epic to make it fit into a trade.  No "to be continued" at the end of each story.  Just 20 pages of story and art that has a great, fun story with characters you get to know pretty quickly, and action that is fast-paced, but no so fast that it blurs by you (no offense, Flash).  How many writers and artists in today's comic realm can you say have the ability to do that any more?  Not many!

Of the four tales put forth in Legends of Tomorrow, I honestly had no intention of reading Sugar & Spike.  I was aware of the comic from the '60s, and so figured this would just be some "dark knight" version.  Man, was I ever wrong!  This turned out to be my absolute favorite from the series, which is why I bought the trade and re-read the stories.  Now, if DC would only take a hint and give us a regular, ongoing series written by Keith Giffen - then I would be a truly happy camper!

RATING:  10 Tiffany Trueheart dolls out of 10 for some of the best comic stories of the decade!  Don't stop now, Giffen - give us more Sugar & Spike!!!!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wonder Woman - the Official Movie Novelization

When a hurricane comes through and you have no power, trust me when I say - it gives you plenty of time to read!  And what better way to spend the time than reading the novelization of one of DC's greatest superhero films since Christopher Reeve's Superman!  The official novelization of the Wonder Woman film is, by far, one of the best film novelizations I have ever read.  It didn't just stay true to the film - it was the closest I've ever seen to a book matching the film exactly!

Author Nancy Holder adapted the film nearly flawlessly (and the reason I say "nearly" you'll see in just a bit...).  With every page, the descriptions so vivid, the dialogue such a match, that I could visualize with no difficulty the scenes from the film.  In fact, while reading the novel, I pretty much felt like I was the watching the movie again!  Every scene, every bit of dialogue (at least, to the best of my recollection), every character, every action, everything!  Yes, we did get some inner dialogue here and there from the characters, particularly Diana - but it fit the characterization, and I could easily see Diana and some of the other characters thinking these things as they acted the way they did in the movie.

I am not sure if Holder adapted this from the original screenplay, a later revision, or if she simply took it from the film itself (the last seems totally plausible, since there are no scenes in the book that aren't in the movie, and there were no scenes omitted as was what happened with the junior reader novelization), but regardless of how she did it, I am impressed with her capture of the film.  It's not often you read a book and you can actually feel the innocence of Diana as she arrives in Man's World - or feel her betrayal and anger when she thinks Steve has lied to her - or feel her determination and loss when she battles Ares after ... well, I won't say that, as I don't want to spoil anything for those who may not have seen the film yet.

Now, the reason the book is only "nearly" flawless and not perfectly flawless is because of the number of editing snafus.  It's a shame really, since I just finished making comments about the lack of editing these days in my last review (of the second Boxcar Children Great Adventure book).  Yes, as I turned page after page, I was stunned at how many grammatical errors there were, or instances where words were simply missing from the sentence, or the wrong spelling of the word.  Do books even have editors any more? Or have we become a society so dependent on technology, that we think the computer will catch any errors and we don't actually have to read the drafts prior to sending to print?

Yes, I realize to err is human - however, when I'm shelling out hard-earned money for the books, I expect the product that I receive to be a bit more professional.  One or two mistakes in a 280 page book I can probably overlook - but when there are one or more mistakes in every other chapters, it becomes annoying, as it immediately takes me out of the story, ruining my full enjoyment of the book.

But enough about that.  This is Wonder Woman.  This is the Wonder Woman that I have been waiting years and years to see brought to life on the big screen.  This is the Wonder Woman that I absolutely love seeing brought into the limelight where she belongs.  Outside of the editorial errors, this is an engaging, action-packed, smooth read that made me smile, made me tear-up, and made me wish more and more and more that this was the kind of story DC Comics would publish in their comics these days.

Thank you, Holder, for taking the feature film and making Wonder Woman just as successful in print!

RATING:  8 golden lassos of truth out of 10 for, well, simply put, bringing more Wonder Woman to the public at large!

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Boxcar Children: Great Adventure 2 - The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll

Authors Dee Garretson and JM Lee continue the world-traveling adventures of the four Alden children - Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny - as they seek to return a number of valuable objects to their rightful owners.  In celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Boxcar Children, Albert Whitman & Company is offering up this four-part "mini-series" of sorts that has the Alden Children aiding the Reddimum Society returning historical artifacts and other priceless memorabilia  to owners from whom they were stolen.  This "Great Adventure" began with the 146th book in the series, Journey on a Runaway Train (although the book is renumbered as "Great Adventure No. 1"), and continues now in this second book, The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll.

Again, I'm not sure I like the idea of the renumbering.  Both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have done this recently (and of course, back in the '70s, the Dana Girls played that same game).  I like having a series that is high in numbers, particularly well over the 100+ mark, as it gives the series a sense of history.  This whole idea these days that people want a "new number one" for their series - - well, that just isn't me!

Aside from that, the story in this book is a step above the previous book.  Yes, the four kids, all under the age of 15, have way too much freedom as they hop from one country to another, and it is rather unbelievable that so many adults would place such trust in these kids and leave them on their own to handle as many situations as they are forced to do; yet, it is rather fun to watch Henry, Jessie, Violet, and even little Benny work so hard to figure out the riddles left for them in order to solve the puzzles that will lead them to the return of the next treasure.

In The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll, readers get to see not one, but two different treasures returned.  The first takes them to the deserts and Great Pyramids of Egypt, and such is the source of the title of the book.  The second quest takes them to Stonehenge in England, where they are nearly thwarted on their mission by the nefarious Anna Argent. Along the way, the four children have to use all of their wits (and the help of the Internet) to solve some rather unique riddles that provide the necessary clues to unlocking the packages they are delivering.  Now, being honest, the riddles were fairly easy to figure out for me (as an adult); however, for the target age group for this series, I'd say the authors did a pretty good job at providing a fun way to figure out the codes and the next destinations.

What no one seemed to do, however (and not really sure any more whose job it is in the publishing world), is edit the story.  Normally, I can overlook one, or even two, editorial misses - however, this book had some very obvious, glaring errors that could easily have been caught if someone simply read the actual story.  Examples include:

p. 17 - "I had to attend in meeting in Cairo."  Clearly, it should have read "I had to attend a meeting in Cairo"

p. 42 - "A camel's gait is not a smooth as the way a horse walks..." Here, it obviously should have read "A camel's gait is not as smooth as..."

p. 60 - Rania says, "I'll stay with the car." Yet, on the very next page, it says the Aldens and Rania walk over to the professor. Then, on page 65, it says that Violet ran over and got Rania, and they followed Ken. However, on page 70, when the children come out of the pyramid, it says that Rania and one of the Egyptian policeman stood outside, waiting for them. There is a plain case of continuity error here that should not have been missed.

p. 76 - "They ... went through the airport where was a car waiting to take them..." The mistake this time was the omission of a word, as the line should have read "where there was a car waiting to take them..."

It concerns me that editing on books these days has become a real issue, particularly in children's books, as they are the ones who are learning how to read and write - and what do glaring errors such as these teach our children?

I suppose we'll have to wait and see what the third book in the "Great Adventure" holds...

RATING:  6 shy and hungry giraffes out of 10 for searching for ways to keep a series that is 75 years old fresh and accessible to today's readers (just work on the editing!)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Jackaby, the Second Novel - Beastly Bones

This series has quickly jumped to the top of my "most enjoyable books to read" list.  The Jackaby series is a mix of mystery and supernatural, with some well-written banter and underlying subplots that would work well in a soap opera.  Simply put, the Jackaby books are a near substitute for the Dresden Files, which series has seemingly stayed on hiatus until such time as Jim Butcher can get in the mood to write more!

In Beastly Bones, the second Jackaby novel, author William Ritter delves a little more into the past of our two protagonists - R.F. Jackaby and his assistant, Abigail Rook (from whose perspective the books are told).  Rook finally gets an opportunity to show her knowledge of archaeology when she and Jackaby are asked to assist an old friend (and former love interest of Rook!) with regards to a mysterious death - one that has a strange connection to a seemingly unrelated death right in Jackaby's hometown.

Ritter provides his usual brand of humor and quirkiness as Jackaby follows his own path of investigation upon arrival, and Rook is forced to do everything she can to not only keep up with him, but to soothe the natives who don't understand Jackaby's ways.  Something is attacking the farm animals in Gad's Valley, and someone ... or something ... is stealing bones from a rather odd archaeological find - the skeleton of what at first appears to be a dinosaur.  But the bones were found too close to the surface, and when they uncover bones that would indicate wings, there is question as to whether it is a hoax.  While the two famed archaeologists fight it out, Jackaby and Rook come to a completely different realization - it's not the skeleton of a dinosaur at all - rather, it is a dragon!

As with the first books in this series, nothing is ever quite what it seems.  From the first chapter, when Jackaby and Rook are called in to look at a woman's cat who has inexplicably turned into a fish, to the bones of the "dinosaur," to the unseen creature that keeps attacking the livestock in Gad's Valley - there is always something that is just not right; something that just does not properly fit.  And ultimately (as with any good mystery), the elements eventually tie together and lead to a very explosive finally (in this book, literally!).

Ritter throws in a number of supporting cast, some of whom are extremely likable, some of whom the reader will detest and want to knock onto their kiester.  The big trapper, Hank Hudson, is a Hagrid-type character - lovable, huge, and with a soft spot for Jackaby and Rook.  The reporter, Nellie Fuller, is definitely a go-getter - determined, strong, and unwilling to let any man hold her back.  And then there are the two archaeologists - Owen Horner, who is a bit of a prankster and never takes himself seriously, and Lewis Lamb, who is such a tyrant when it comes to his work that he is seen as a curmudgeon - who are competing for the right to study the bones found in Gad's Valley and making it very difficult for Jackaby and Rook to investigate.

One never knows quite what to expect with a Jackaby adventure, and this book is certainly no different.  There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader on his/her toes, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed Rook being reunited with the shape-shifter, Charlie the Cop.  It is interesting to note that despite the time period of the novel (late 19th century), Ritter portrays Rook as a very independent woman capable of her own thoughts, conclusions, and determination, and her impulsive decision near the end of the novel definitely had me cheering!

While the conclusion is satisfying, it still leaves some unanswered questions, which, along with the underlying sub-plots concerning the mysterious man in black and the unanswered questions of the past of Jenny, the resident ghost at Jackaby's house, leave one wanting for the next book in the series (and thankfully, I already have it in hand, so I don't have to wait long to read it and find out what happens next!).  This is most certainly a series I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a good read, regardless of what genre you like.

RATING:  10 rare Stymphalian birds out of 10 for filling the gap left by the lack of Dresden Files books with well-written, smile-bringing stories of mystery and supernatural.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 49 - Tainted Love

Back from DragonCon, and the travel time gave me the opportunity to listen to yet another Dark Shadows audio tale.  As I close in on the 50th story, I find myself loving how interconnected the stories have become, and this one seems to tie into quite a number of the audio tales so far.

Tainted Love finally tells the story that I've been waiting years for - the love triangle between David Collins, Amy Jennings, and Hallie Stokes.  When the show was originally on the air, obviously they were all too young for any kind of romantic entanglements; however, after the show ended, and I continued to think about the show over the decades, I honestly wondered which girl David would eventually end up with.  As much as I loved the character of Hallie Stokes, I still had a soft spot for Amy and hoped he would eventually end up with her.  But, when Amy returned to Collinsport over the course of these audio stories, and she was married and had two children, I realized that there was no chance of her and David getting together.  And then her husband was killed.  Leaving her a widow.  And single.

Enter Hallie Stokes.

This audio story picks up shortly after the events of the Bloodlust mini-series, as David and Amy are coming to grips with all that has happened.  David still feels guilty, even though he was possessed and had no control over his actions, and Amy is still trying to figure out how to raise two growing boys on her own.  Then a stranger shows up, accusing them of having his wife, of hiding her from him.  Just as he attacks, however, someone appears and utterly destroys the man.  That someone is Hallie Stokes, returned to Collinsport as a bona fide demon hunter.

Yeah, okay, that sounds kind of hokey, but when you remember that this is Dark Shadows, where the supernatural is common place, perhaps it is not quite as ludicrous as it sounds.  As the story unfolds, we discover that a demon is trying to crossover, using individuals who have lost something important and are completely obsessed with recovering whatever was lost, and, as misfortune would have it, all roads lead to Collinsport.  Specifically, that cave at the bottom of Widow's Hill where Angelique was living during the Bloodlust min-series.  But as David and Amy grow closer, Hallie seems more and more intent on driving them apart.

It's pretty obvious from the outset what direction the story will take.  The writer, Daniel Collard, does not in any way try to downplay or use subtlety with regards to the "villain" of this tale.  However, Collard does nicely connect this tale to a number of other audios - as this picks up shortly after Bloodlust; Hallie references meeting Amy on a train, which occurred in Carriage of the Damned; Amy mentions her meeting with Sabrina Jennings, which occurred most recently in Deliver Us From Evil; and there is talk of Maggie Evans' marriage to Joe Haskell, which is part of the plot in the upcoming 50th audio story.

Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending was not what I was expecting, nor was it something I particularly liked.  I realize that stories in soap operas like this will not always go the way I want them to, but this one just seemed too much out of character and left me wondering why they chose to go in this direction.  I assume as I continue to listen to the ongoing stories, it will eventually all play out and I'll (hopefully!!!) have an explanation.

Overall, I would have to say this was not one of their better stories.  Yes, I enjoyed the characters together again, and yes, it was great to actually see Amy and Hallie come face to face after all these years; but the story seemed a bit forced and contrived, almost as if it was written only for the reason of reaching the specific conclusion it did.

RATING:  6 hidden strips of bacon out of 10 for bringing together the youth of the original Dark Shadows for a story that resolves (??) the question of who will end up with David in the end...

Monday, August 28, 2017

DC Super Hero Girls: Katana at Super Hero High

So, after the disappointment of the recent DC SuperHero Girls graphic novel, I figured I may as well read Lisa Yee's most recent DC SuperHero Girls novel and see how it compares.  And honestly - it's almost as different as night and day!

Katana at Super Hero High is definitely a refreshingly good read.  In fact, I'd say this is the best DC SuperHero Girls book written to date.  Not only does it highlight some of DC's lesser known characters (and I'm not just talking about Katana, because Miss Martian also plays a larger role in the story, as does Big Barda), but it actually has a nicely plotted mystery to it that gives readers the opportunity to learn all about Katana's past, her family, and her heritage.  Instead of the normal teen angst or obvious super villain battles, Lee provides readers with a quest of sorts.

First, there's the sudden appearance of 100 mysterious swords in an underground tunnel.  Then there's the constant chittering sounds that suddenly appear throughout the school, with Katana as the focal point.  Then there's Liberty Belle's history project for the students to look into their heritage and report what they find.  Katana is surprised as she begins to learn that all three things are connected, and their impact will forever change her point of view about her life as a hero!

Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl - all of whom played large parts in the previous three books - have only supporting roles in this story, which really gives Katana and Miss Martian a chance to shine.  Yee may be writing these stories for the pre-teen age kids, but she treats the characters in this book with respect and does not dumb-down the story at all.  While Katana has some self-doubt and there is a bit of teen angst, it is not overplayed, and it flows nicely with the story.  There is a natural progression as Katana looks into the secret of the 100 swords, as she and Miss Martian learn how to deal with the ghost-crabs, and how she and her fellow super hero students must face off against a villain from Katana's past.

Something else I will mention, and not just about this book, but about the series as a whole, is the treatment of Harley Quinn.  Instead of the dark psychopath that DC has made her in recent years (with the exception of Palmiotti/Conner's take), Yee allows her to be a free-wheeling, high-spirited, fun-loving, hyper-active teen who simply seems to enjoy life.  And, of course, this is clearly a different reality, as these characters were not all teens at the same time, and most of them were not "heroes" in their teen years; however, it's nice to see the author really just having some fun with the characters.

As with the previous books, the epilogue in this books features the set up for the next book scheduled to come out - featuring, who else?  Harley Quinn!

RATING:  8 cryptic haikus out of 10 for combining female super heroes, the comic genre, and prose novels, and making it fun to read.