Saturday, April 21, 2018

Flash - the YA Novel Book 1 - Hocus Pocus

The star of one of CW's best shows hits the young adult section of the book store in this all new series!  While I've never actually been a fan of the comic book character, The Flash, I really do love the television show.  The stories are well-written (albeit a bit long with these season-long storylines), and the acting is superb.  They have an amazing cast, who seem to really gel and have natural camaraderie.  So, I bought this first young adult novel with the anticipation that it would be just as fun as the show.

And, for the most part, it was!

The Flash: Hocus Pocus tells the story of what might have happened had Iris prevented Barry Allen from going into the past to save his mother.  The timeline did not change due to Flashpoint, and Barry and all of his friends maintain their status quo.  Life seems idealistic, and everything is running smoothly ... until Caitlin and Cisco happen across a street magician who appears to have the ability to make his audience do what he wants - adore him!  This man who calls himself 'Hocus Pocus' is able to control his audience, making them applaud and praise him for even the simplest of tricks.  Lucky for the citizens of Central City, that control is only temporary and eventually fades.

But what happens when he gains control of the Flash, and the control doesn't fade?

Author Barry Lyga takes readers on a fun little "what if?" story, showing what Flash would have been like if he had not gone back in the past and tried to save his mother.  Of course, that doesn't mean he won't face a maniacal villain.  And it certainly doesn't mean he won't make mistakes that will get him, and possibly his friends, in trouble.  But, it does mean that Caitlin is not Killer Frost ... yet.  It does mean that Cisco's brother is not necessarily dead ... yet.  And it does mean that Barry Allen may have an entirely different set of problems to deal with at work - such as Captain Singh deciding he has had enough of Barry's numerous absences, unexplained tardiness, and, even though he always gets his work in and does an excellent job, his multitude of excuses.  You see, in this book, Barry is put on leave until the department decides whether they are going to keep him on with a warning or terminate his position.

And just when Hocus Pocus has come to town and begun controlling people, making them do exactly what he wants.  Is he a meta?  Or is he simply so technologically advanced, he has a device (say, a wand) that allows him to reach into the minds of those around him and cause them to bend to his will?  Or, and this is the one that Barry and his crew have a hard time swallowing - is it truly magic?

Once Hocus Pocus gets a hold of the Flash, he doesn't intend to let go!  Suddenly, the Flash finds himself at the beck and call of this attention-starved madman!  He cannot touch him, he can't defeat him, and when he is forced to rob a jewelry store in front of hundreds of Central City citizens, he finds himself the target of the Central City Police!  Cisco and Caitlin cannot figure out how he is doing this, and H.R. seems only concerned with the Flash's marketing.  How are they going to stop Hocus Pocus, restore the Flash's reputation, and get Barry his job back?

And what is it with these odd bodies that are turning up dead with missing organs?  Does it have anything to do with something that is living down in the sewer?

A definitely episode-worthy story of The Flash, and a book well worth the read for any fans of the television show!

RATING:  9 inverse transmitting neuralgic transformers out of 10 for a well-crafted tale and for bringing Madame Xanadu into the CW television universe!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

It seems superheroes are the big thing right now, which means there are plenty of superhero-related books coming out.  Thankfully, Wonder Woman is the first in this new line of young adult hardcover books published by Random House.  So often, Batman and Superman take the front seat, while Wonder Woman barely gets a notice.  Now, for once, Wonder Woman is leading the pack (as it should be!).

Author Leigh Bardugo provides readers with an "untold" tale of Diana's past - back when Diana was still a teenager, determined to prove herself, yet still somewhat unbridled and unsure.  And Bardugo takes Diana from her safe little world on Themyscria and throws her, as a teenager, into the world of today, with cell phones, computers, violence, and war.  Yes, it's another "fish out of water" story, and while the writing is quite dense, the overall story was actually pretty good - better than a lot of the drivel we are getting in the comics.

When a ship goes down just beyond the veil that hides Themyscria from the rest of the world, Diana happens to see a young girl struggling to survive.  Knowing the law of the island that forbids outsiders, Diana dives into the water and rescues the girl. But the rescue has some unexpected consequences, as the island itself fights to remove the cancer that is the girl.  Diana, keeping her a secret, seeks the aid of the mysterious Oracle to guide her choice - save the girl's life and return her to man's world (with the possibility of exile if her mother finds out), or allow the girl to die, thus saving the island and keeping the island's secrets from outsiders.

Diana, being who she is, does the only thing she can do - she saves the girl's life.

Alia Keralis lived what she thought was a normal life.  Yes, she was black, so she faced discrimination.  Yes, her family was wealthy, so she faced hatred for her so-called privilege.  And yes, she always had this nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right.  But nothing in the world could prepare her to learn that she is actually a Warbringer - and that the only way to save the world is to allow Diana to take her to a fabled spring that may or may not exist that would put an end to the long line of Warbringers, or to be killed!  She does not like either choice, but the more she hangs around with Diana, the more she begins to realize there are a lot of things in this world that are more real than she ever dreamed!

Thus, Bardugo pits Diana and Alia on a race against time, as they, along with Alia's brother, her best friend, and the boy she likes, head for salvation, all the while trying to avoid the army that seems determined to kill Alia and put an end to the growing violence and war in the world.  Alia finally realizes the stakes and forces Diana to make an oath - if they can't get to the spring on time, Diana will need to kill Alia to prevent what is to come.

And for an Amazon, an oath means everything...

The book is not exactly fast-paced, and at over 350-pages, it can feel cumbersome to read.  However, it definitely has its moments, and Theo and Nim are some of the best supporting characters I have seen in a while.  Plus, Bardugo stays very true to Diana's character, as someone who values peace, but isn't afraid to fight for the ones she loves.  And don't try to figure out where this fits in with the continuity of Wonder Woman's history - it doesn't fit with the movie continuity, the television continuity, or any of the comic versions - so if you read it with the goal of enjoying a good Wonder Woman story, then you'll be satisfied.

I will be curious to see if DC proffers up any other Wonder Woman novels in the future.

RATING:  8 golden lassos of truth out of 10 for reminding us all of what type of hero Wonder Woman really is.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Curious Cat Spy Club, Book 5 - Dog-Gone Danger

I have been enjoying this series since the first book a few years back.  Yes, it takes some adjustment getting used to the stories being written in present tense; but, the stories are well-written and engaging, and the characters are fun and believable, so you quickly overlook the awkward verb tense (well, at least what I feel to be awkward - and it's funny, because I find myself automatically switching the verbs to past-tense as I read, since that is what I'm used to reading). Plus, the author is a big children's mystery and Nancy Drew fan, so she not only knows how to write a good children's mystery, but she pays a wonderful homage to those old series books in each and every one of her mysteries.  And while this fifth book as been a while in coming, it is finally here.

Dog-Gone Danger presents Kelsey and her friends with a couple of brand new mysteries - who abandoned a young dog in an abandoned barn and who kidnapped Kelsey's mom?! And, just like every good children's mysteries of days-gone-by, the mysteries ultimately come together and have a connection.

Now, here's the quandary - if a young teenager tells you something awful has happened to her mother, but all signs point to her mother simply taking off for a few days because of the harsh realities she is facing, who do you believe?  Before you answer, take into consideration that this young teenager and her friends have already proven themselves not only resourceful, but also insightful, by solving four prior mysteries where no one even necessarily believed a mystery existed.  Would that give her concerns for her mother and belief that she's been kidnapped a little more weight?  What would you do?  Give her the benefit of the doubt, or sit back and see if the adults' belief that her mother simply ran away from the hardships of life rather than face them was true or not?

Well, author Linda Joy Singleton proves that her young protagonist is not going to let the unbelief of her father, grandmother, sheriff, and friend's mother deter her from finding out what really happened to her mother.  Kelsey Case knows in her heart and in her gut that foul play is involved, and that it has something to do with a dog trafficking ring that she was investigating.  The only problem is, no one will believe her.  Becca and Leo believe her, and so once again, the Curious Cat Spy Club is on the case!  Which means the mystery of where the cute little pug they found in the abandoned farm came from will have to wait...

Singleton provides an interesting and sometimes tense mystery, with a lot of ups and downs and some surprising revelations about Kelsey's family and her parents' history.  Plus, let's face it, with chapter titles like "Risky Business" (Tom Cruise anyone?), "Blackberry Lane" (Judy Bolton's cat), "Larkspur Lane" (the 10th Nancy Drew book), and "Peggy Lane" (the 8-book series about an aspiring actress from Grosset & Dunlap back in the day), how could this not be a winner?  Plus, with comments from the sheriff like "Don't get any ideas about playing Nancy Drew" (p. 74) and finding out that a purebred dog's name is "Duchess Delphina of Snowship Songs" (p. 169 - look up the Susan Sand series for the Snowship Songs reference), it just adds to the children's book series geek's enjoyment of the book!

And, for what it's worth, page 119 of this mystery holds a very special honor for me, and while I'm not going to say what it is, let's just say it almost makes me wish I did have a dog named Mera (grin).

The conclusion of this mystery leads the CCSC to an old bed and breakfast described in true mystery style - Victorian with gables, turrets, and fancy trim around the windows, with an air of abandonment - grime-covered windows and weeds strangling the lawn. Which is another thing Singleton is good at - providing great descriptions to give the reader a clear picture without overloading you with too many adjectives or redundant details.

All in all, Singleton has another hit with this book - now to sit back and patiently (yeah, right) wait for the next book, where Kelsey and her friends will be on The Trail of the Ghost Bunny!

RATING:  10 Poly-Truth 2.0 pens out of 10 for another great mystery about a teenage detective and her two best friends who will follow her into any adventure!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cleopatra in Space - GN Book One - Target Practice

I first met comic creator Mike Maihack some years ago at a comic convention because a friend of mine loved his strip, Cow & Buffalo, and wanted me to get his autograph for him.  I started chatting with Mike, and I picked up a preview of his upcoming creation, Cleopatra in Space.  The art was unique and definitely cartoonish in a lot of ways, but it was appealing to the eye, and the story was just plain fun.

Fast forward to 2017 at MegaCon in Orlando, where I caught up with Mike again (although I had seen him a number of time at various conventions over the years), and while I was having him do some art in one of my sketch books, I started flipping through not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR volumes of his Cleopatra in Space series, which is now being published through Scholastic.  Definitely impressed at how far this "indy" creator had come through hard work and dedication, I picked up the first four volumes for me, and also a set for my good friend, Kevin (the one who asked me to get Mike's autograph all those years ago...)

"Target Practice" is the first volume in the series and provides a quick origin story and starts young Cleopatra down the path to becoming the savior of the Nile Galaxy.  But as with any good story, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the past, young Cleopatra had her lovable cat, Kosey; in the future, she finds her mentor-of-sorts to be none other than Kosey's descendant, Khensu. In the past, she had her friend Gozi to have fun and get into trouble with; while, in the future, she makes new friends with Akila and Brian.  In the past, Cleopatra longs for action, something to take her away from the hum-drum boring life of a destined-to-be ruler; in the future, Cleopatra finally gets to realize that action for which she has been longing!

Taking a historical figure and throwing them into the future is not necessarily a new concept - the "fish out of water" tale has been done so many times. But Maihack takes the idea and fills it with lots of comic super-battles, an undercurrent of subplots, and a whole heck of a lot of fun with a lovable character who the reader can easily tell is going to lead her poor mentor into a world (or, in the future universe, worlds) of trouble! Not everyone is human, not everyone can be trusted, and not everyone is looking out for Cleopatra's best interests - but every page is enjoyable, and if this first story is any indication, every book is going to fun to read!

While "Target Practice" is a self-contained story, it has plenty of lead-in for future tales. Why is the council determined to test Cleopatra so much? Who is this tyrannical Xaius Octavian who is fighting to take over the galaxy? Will Cleopatra fulfill her destiny as the savior of the Nile Galaxy? And probably most important - just who does Brian really like - Akila or Cleopatra? (Oh, and there is that lingering question of whether Cleopatra will stay in the future or return to her own time, but we'll save that for another time...)

Maihack has a hit on his hands with Cleopatra in Space, and I'm overjoyed that his work is being taken mainstream by Scholastic - it deserves to be noticed!

9 death trap field trips out of 10 for a brand new space adventure with a diverse cast of lovable characters!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Wait for Dark - a Bishop / Special Crimes Unit Novel

I have truly enjoyed seeing the characters in Kay Hooper's Special Crimes Unit world grow and change over the years.  When I picked up her first three books (Stealing Shadows, Hiding in the Shadows, and Out of the Shadows) back in 2000, I never imagined that nearly twenty years later, these characters and this world would still be going, and that I would love them as much as I do.  Each set of stories is a trilogy, with the titles connecting by a word or a letter, and while some the characters appear in only one or two stories, others come and go throughout all of the books (particularly Noah Bishop, who created the SCU and is, along with his wife, Miranda, head of this federal group of psychic investigators).

Wait for Dark, the second book in the "Dark" trilogy, brings back Hollis Templeton and her partner, Reese DeMarco, and introduces readers to two new psychics - Kirby Bell and Cullen Sheridan.  The four are sent on a mission of uncertainty - is there a psychic involved in these murders in small-town America, or isn't there?  In Clarity, North Carolina, the sheriff is unsure exactly what is going on.  There have been four accidents, all seemingly random, but all extremely gruesome - a woman swerves to avoid hitting a boy in the street and dies when her car crashes into a light pole; a man grilling for his family dies when the grill explodes; a bride-to-be dies when an elevator on which she is riding crashes violently to the ground; and a farmer dies brutally when he falls into the turning thrashers of his own harvester.  No one in the small town thinks anything unusual, except how odd it is that four people have died recently, so tragically, when there have been no accidents such as this in Clarity for decades.  But Sheriff Malachi Gordon senses something is wrong.  Particularly when he makes one connection between the four individuals that no one else knows.  Just before their deaths, each of the four victims received a text message on their cell phone that said three simple words.

Wait for dark.

Hooper gives readers another suspenseful tale, particularly since the time-table for this story moves at a very fast past (pretty much just two or three days after the SCU arrives in Clarity, they have caught the culprit).  Hollis is still dealing with a lot of uncertainty about herself and her past, particularly after events from prior books have revealed that her powers are in a constant state of flux as she grows and evolves.  While Reese tries to reach out and help her, Hollis pulls away due to an uncertainty she has - something is off, and she can't quite figure out what it is.  While Kirby and Cullen are involved in the story and do assist in their own ways, this tale definitely belongs to Hollis and Reese.

And Hooper surprised me with the villain in this story. In past books, the SCU members have always faced down psychic villains in some form or fashion; but in this story, there is an ambivalence as to whether the killer is psychic or not.  Even though, as in prior books, the reader does get inside the head of the killer from time to time as he/she prepares for her next victim, there is no clear-cut answer as to whether the killer has psychic abilities, or whether the psychosis is something else entirely.  It isn't until the big reveal in the end (an it was not who I thought it would be!) that the reader gets an idea of the true motives behind the killer's actions.

I am amazed that the author has been able, for 18 years now, to not only continue to provide fresh, unique stories in each and every book without repeating any plots, but also to keep straight all the various characters, their various psychic abilities, and their histories that are continually built-upon in each story within which they appear.  And while I hate the length of time between books these days, I'd much prefer to wait and have well-written, original stories than to have rushed books with less than suspenseful tales.

RATING:  10 red high-heeled shoes out of 10 for keeping the SCU moving forward and always providing fresh takes on the psychic mystery genre.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

DC Super Hero Girls: Harley Quinn at Super Hero High

Harley Quinn has come a long way since Paul Dini first introduced her in the Batman animated series way back when. She has gone through countless costume and personality changes over the years, but currently, she's sort of a crazed anti-hero, not quite a villain, but sometimes yes when the mood strikes her - and she has gone back and forth with her delusion of being the Joker's girlfriend.  She is not really a character I have ever cared for, although I do admit that Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti did make her somewhat readable in recent years.

Lisa Yee, however, with her latest DC Super Hero Girls novel, has actually made the character fun and likable for me!  Harley Quinn at Super Hero High introduces the world to an entirely different Harley Quinn - one who loves attention, one who can't seem to find time for her friends, but most surprising of all, one who is a hero at heart.

While the previous four books in the series all had a mystery element from pretty much the get-go, this one's mystery at the beginning turns out to be nothing more than a prank by Harley Quinn - something to get more ratings for her Harley Quinntessentials internet channel!  While she finds it amusing, particularly her friends' reactions, the other heroes at Super Hero High do not find it quite as humorous - particularly Principal Waller, who puts her in detention.  But does that deter everyone's favorite prankster?  Of course, not!  In fact, all it does it start Harley on her path to finding a way to garner even more viewers for her channel by hosting a Dance Contest!

Of course, true to Harley Quinn form, the Dance Contest doesn't quite turn out like she expected (although it does increase her viewership) - so she does the only thing she can - Harley creates the next big thing with a Battle of the Bands to take place at Capes & Cowls! The heroes, the villains, the surrounding communities, the other countries of the world - heck, even some bands from outer space all try to make the final cut so that they can be a part of this big event!  But, as can be expected, the battle doesn't finish, because all of the animals at the local zoo are suddenly on the loose, and it's up to the heroes to capture them and return them to the zoo.

As a final attempt to boost viewership beyond anything the world has ever seen, Harley decides to film live at the Krazy Karnival that is coming to Metropolis.  But something is not quite right about the Karnival, and it soon becomes obvious to Harley, as well as Miss Martian (the shyest of all the heroes) - and Harley finds herself in a real predicament:  help save her friends and the city, or push Harley Quinnessentials into the stratosphere with more viewers than any other website in all of the internet history!  Which will it be?

These DC Super Hero Girls stories are not the standard versions of the characters you will find running around DC Comics today.  They are younger.  They are not quite as experienced.  They are definitely not quite as dark and villainous.  But, most importantly, they are fun!  Sure, they do battle against villains wanting to take over the world.  Of course, they sometimes battle each other by mistake or out of misguided fear.  And certainly, they make mistakes and have to account for their actions.  But they are light-hearted and enjoyable reads, something I haven't seen in DC Comics (or Marvel Comics, for that matter) in a long, long time.

Author Lisa Yee has remained consistent, more or less, with her storytelling of these characters, and each book builds upon the last (and yes, in case your wondering, there is a sort-of cliffhanger at the end that provides the identity of the next DC Super Hero Girl to be spotlighted in the next book - but don't think I'm going to tell you here - you'll have to read the book to find out who it is!).  This is a series I would whole-heartedly recommend for comic fans of any age.

RATING: 9 uneaten pieces of lemon cake out of 10 for making me wish DC Comics would let Lisa Yee write their comics in the same manner as she does this book series!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Generations - a Graphic Novel

I read this graphic novel while waiting backstage for the curtain call of the play in which I just finished acting.  I've heard of life imitating art and so forth, but quite frankly, reading this graphic novel, I was stunned.

In the play, I portrayed a young gay man who was a Christian, but fell in love with an athiest, all the while struggling to keep his homosexuality a secret from his parents - until he is in an automobile accident that leaves him in a coma, with his parents and his partner to make some tough decisions...

In real life, I just lost my mother last December, and I've been dealing with the emotions of that loss, as well as helping my father and coping with the sudden loss last month of a friend...

Then, to start reading this graphic novel about a young man who returns to his hometown, still hiding his homosexuality, afraid to face his father, and living with his grandmother, three aunts, and very pregnant cousin with no job, no prospects, and no future in sight...

What do these three things have in common?  They all deal with the harsh realities of life and learning to depend on, and trust, and never take for granted, the time you have with your family!

Generations, by Flavia Biondi, is the first graphic novel of this creator to be translated into English.  It tells the story of Matteo, who comes back home after a horrible break-up with his boyfriend, and chooses to live with his grandmother and three aunts than to return to the father he believes wants nothing to do with him because he is gay.  Matteo is in a funk, and he can't seem to climb out of the ocean of self-pity in which he finds himself drowning.  With no job, no friends, and no hope, Matteo simply sits on the couch and watches television with his aunts.

Until one night, he comes to the realization that he isn't the only one in his family to have struggles.  He isn't the only member of his family to face despair and fight to survive.  It dawns on Matteo that his grandmother, his aunts, his cousin - heck, even his father! - all of them have stories, struggles that they had to overcome to reach the point in their lives where they are.  It is a turning point for Matteo (and for the reader), as he determines that the only one who can help him is himself!  The next morning, he takes over as caregiver for his ailing grandmother.  He takes her, in her wheelchair, for outings, where he faces former friends and old faces, and discovers that it was not the horror he imagined.  No one looked down on him.  No one glared at him.  Life was moving on, and he had to move with it, or he'd be left behind.

And, of course, he meets Francesco, an aide who comes to assist at the house.  The two become friends, and they even go out for walks.  For the first time since coming home, he has hope.  He sees the sun shine.  Until he discovers that his ex-boyfriend is asking about him.  Until he realizes that there are still things that need to be resolved.  And, for the first time, instead of running away to hide, Matteo decides to confront them.

Generations is not a coming-out story.  It's not really about the fact that Matteo is gay.  His homosexuality is, really, not the focus of the story.  Generations is about family.  It's about relationships.  It's about understanding the importance of those around you, their experiences, and appreciating them for who and what they are.  It's about loss, about growth, about life, and about death.  This book is a powerful and insightful story, and it hits home regardless of your age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or anything else that society uses to separate us.  It's about us.  ALL of us.

I think Biondi summed it up nicely with what she says Auntie B. always says:

"We're all apples.
And families are like trees heavy with fruit
When we're ripe, we just fall off and leave."

What Matteo learns throughout this story is that even though the apples may fall from the tree, the tree lives on...

RATING:  10 cream pastries and a coffee out of 10 for taking a slice of life and really giving it meaning and making it so worth reading!