Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Stone Man Mysteries, Book One - Stone Cold

It's a mystery. And it's a comic book. Therefore, it goes without saying that I would be getting it.  Stone Cold is the first of the Stone Man Mysteries by authors Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple and artist Orion Zangara. And by "Stone Man," no, it doesn't refer to a man made of stone (such as that unique little hero in the Legion of Substitute Heroes) - no, this is referring to one of those scary looking gargoyles that seem to overlook humanity from high atop a gothic structure - whether it be a mansion, a towering business building, or, in this case, a church.

Stone Cold is more than just a mystery, though - it's also an origin story of sorts.  Yolen and Stemple manage to weave an intriguing locked-room murder mystery with a supernatural tale of a demon bound do the top of the church, burdened with the task of watching over Edinburgh.  Silex, eternally trapped to the stone roof, guards the city and has determined to use his time wisely by solving crimes throughout the community over which he watches.  To do that, though, he needs human aides, people who can be his hands and feet.

Enter Craig McGowan - a young boy who is prepared to jump from the roof of the cathedral, ready to end it all - until he finds himself talking to what he mistook for a stone gargoyle.  He is soon called into service, along with Father Harris, who has been the servant of Silex for longer than he cares to remember.  Craig's first case is to find out what happened to Angus McFearsome, Earl of Stockbridge, who was found dead in his bedroom - his throat slashed and a knife with a black handle shoved into his chest. The bedroom door was locked, so who could have killed him?  And what do the two large feathers found under the bed have to do with anything? And how is this murder connected to the other two people who have been killed recently?  And why was each murder victim stabbed with a black-handled knife, even though that was not the cause of death?

For Craig, the mystery seems impossible to solve. But even the smallest, most insignificant piece of information could hold an important clue for Silex - the Stone Man.  So Craig, like Father Harris, does his duty, inquires of the townsfolk, pokes his nose where it doesn't belong, and reports everything he sees, hears, and finds to Silex, who sifts through it all to discover the truth.  Along the way, he reveals to Craig who he really is and how he came to be bound to the roof of the church.

Orion Zangara provides the art for this book, and the black and white images maintain a very gothic feel to the story.  Lots of shadows, lots of rain, and lots of gloom - it's a gothic-lover's nightmare (which, in this case, is a good thing!). While so many artists today try and use some "stylistic" way of rendering people as a means of making their mark, Zangara keeps his art realistic, with very vivid drawings of the characters - panel 2 of page 31 is such a beautiful image of Craig, you can literally see right into his eyes the way you would a person in real life - it's captivating!  While I've never heard of this artist before, I have no doubt we'll be seeing more of his work soon!

Here's hoping these three continue the series and that a book two will be forthcoming!

RATING:  8 Dirk Symbols of Scottish Freedom out of 10 for keeping the gothic alive and not only readable, but enjoyable as well!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Frat House Troopers - A Brandt and Donnelly Caper, Case File Number One

So, what do you do when you're a cop, you're straight, and you're asked to go undercover - as a male model on one of those "frat boys" website for gay viewers? That is question Officer Ethan Brandt has to ask himself when his superiors tell him he's going undercover - Brandt just never expected that undercover would turn into "under the covers"!

Xavier Mayne's first book in the Brandt and Donnelly Caper series not only introduces his two protagonists, Officer Ethan Brandt and his partner (work-wise) Officer Gabriel Donnelly, but introduces readers to a whole world of unique characters - such as Donnelly's sister, Chris; a fellow officer, Jimmy Walters; the flamboyant clothing store employee, Bryce, and his co-worker, Nestor; and a house full of frat boys and their too-good-to-be-true boss, Drake. Set in a non-specific state, Mayne (a pseudonym for an English professor at a university in the Midwest) gives readers an interesting premise - Brandt is sent undercover to get the goods (so to speak) on this online porn site, as the Attorney General wants to see the house shut down for good, utilizing tax evasion as the means to doing it.

I bought Frat House Troopers based upon the plot described on Amazon, thinking this might be another great detective / mystery series with a gay protagonist (yes, no big spoiler there - Brandt and Donnelly may claim to be straight in the beginning of the story, but it's quickly apparent that they are both closeted, and it takes this undercover mission to bring them both out and into each other's arms). The opening chapters even gave me some hope that this could be a great mystery - the characters are interesting, the dialogue natural, and the camaraderie between Brandt and Donnelly felt very real.  And while I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre, I admit to hoping the spark between the two men would eventually ignite into a relationship for them.

Sadly, though, once Brandt gets to the frat house, Mayne devolves into what most writers of gay stories seem to do - he starts pushing the explicit sex scenes.  Had there just been one, done tastefully, I might have been able to overlook it.  Had there been maybe just two scenes, I might have skimmed over them and kept going.  Instead, Mayne seems to have felt at that point that the only way he could keep readers interested was to have it one scene after another, with just a bit of story in between each scene.  While the first scene at the house might have had some actual import in the story, since Brandt was going undercover for purposes of setting up a sting to close the shop down, many of the other scenes were unnecessary (at least, there was absolutely no need for the explicit nature of the scenes) and added nothing to the story.

To make it even more sad, Mayne provided a great mystery, and he went in a completely different direction than I was expecting with the resolution - I certainly did not see that coming!  The man definitely knows how to throw in a twist that not only gives readers a surprise, but a very satisfying solution to the mystery.  His writing is really good, he can plot the heck out of a story, so why burden it down with the unnecessary explicitness of scenes that do not add anything other than "sex sells" to the book?

I will likely give the second book a chance in the hopes that Mayne tones it down a bit and starts to focus more on the mystery and the story itself - but if the second book has the same or even more scenes like this one, there will be no more on my shelves.

RATING:  3 Closet Busters out of 10 for throwing in that surprise twist at the end, which is the only thing that saved this book from being a total failure

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Friday Barnes, Big Trouble

"Something sneaky is going on at Highcrest Academy, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it." (p. 236). While this statement sounds like something Nancy Drew might say when getting ready to get to the bottom of a mystery, it's actually the declaration made by twelve year old Friday Barnes in her latest mystery, Big Trouble.

Author R.A. Spratt takes readers on another fun-filled, sarcastic-spouting, mystery with her child genius, Friday Barnes. Picking up immediately after the ending of the last book, Friday finds herself face-to-face with her father, Dr. Rupert Barnes has come to Highcrest Academy in search of his daughter's help - his wife, Friday's mother - the "other" Dr. Barnes - has disappeared! Of course, in typical Barnes fashion, nothing is quite what it seems, and soon enough, Friday uncovers the truth behind her mother's disappearance (much to the chagrin of the local police department) and must return to school, with her father in tow.

From there, the mysteries just keep on coming...

Spratt is a master of spinning an over-arching story that has numerous sub-plots, yet all without confusion, but with plenty of character development and Friday's blunt, no-holds-barred attitude. The main mystery involves the continuing thefts throughout the school campus - first, it's the headmaster's watch; then, a valuable letter written by Marie Curie; and the thefts continue, with laptops, jewelry, bond certificates, and even golf clubs going missing. Friday is on the case, but she finds herself constantly being pulled into other situations - such as helping her archnemesis (a/k/a her boyfriend?) Ian Wainwright's mother locate the jewely her prison-bound husband his before he was arrested, as well as helping two other students discover the source of the mysterious cries for help that they hear every night coming from the attic.

And, lest we forget, the school has welcomed two new students into its doors - the beautiful Norwegian princess, Ingrid, and the short, dowdy brown-haired girl who shares her dorm room, Debbie. These two girls play an important part of the overall story, particularly when the Binky, the brother of Friday's best friend, Melanie Pelly, falls head over heels for Debbie (yes, that's right - he's not interested in the beautiful princess - he's much rather have the frumpy one). Can Friday and Melanie help him talk to her? And can they help the princess protect the invaluable Haakon Stone?

It's a roller coaster ride of mystery, wise-cracking, and fun that just about anyone will enjoy. Each book gets better than the last, and I'm looking forward to the next book, Friday Barnes: No Rules!

RATING:  10 rhinestone-studded dog collars out of 10 for giving us big trouble, but an even bigger and better read!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Heroine Complex - "I Am Not A Superhero"

Being a superheroine is hard.
Working for one is even harder.

The tagline on the back cover of Heroine Complex probably describes the story of Evie Tanaka better than any words I could say. Author Sarah Kuhn has written a fun superhero romp through the streets of San Francisco, telling the story of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to San Francisco's premier (and only) super hero, Aveda Jupiter - better known to Evie as Annie Chang, her childhood friend with whom she grew up. Evie does everything for Aveda: she documents her adventures, she cleans up after Aveda's adventures (making sure Aveda's outfits are stylish and spotless), and she puts up with her boss's tirade of temper tantrums behind closed doors. And she does all of it with a smile on her face, because handling all of this helps her keep a check on her own problem - Aveda isn't the only one in town with super powers.

Kuhn opens the book right in the middle of all the action. Aveda is fighting demon-possessed cupcakes (yes, you read that right!) in a local cupcake store in San Francisco. Evie is present, doing a live video feed of all the action for Aveda's countless fans. Also present is Lucy Valdez, Aveda's bodyguard and personal trainer (as well as weapons expert). Kunh provides plenty of action in that first chapter, but at the same time, readers get a bit of the history that has led to this moment - the fact that portals from the Otherworld have been opening lately throughout San Francisco, and the demons that come through basically take an imprint of the first thing they see, then legions of that particular item, demon-possessed, suddenly start attacking. To date, Aveda Jupiter has been able to handle each and every portal attack with precision and crowd adoration - until today, when the filming of her adventure reveals a horrifying secret - Aveda Jupiter has a zit!

And that pretty much sets the tone for the book - there's plenty of humor, but a good mix of drama and super-heroics as well. Kuhn gives readers a well-rounded group of characters - and while some are more or less background supporting cast (such as Lucy, as well as Evie's sister Bea and Evie and Aveda's longtime friend, Scott), readers get a great deal of background on Aveda and Evie, as well as eventually Nate (the group's resident scientist). There is some unresolved tension and issues between Bea and Evie ... Between Scott and Aveda ... between Evie and Nate ... and even some unspoken tension building between Evie and Aveda - - and when Evie is forced to assume Aveda's identity and pretend to be the superhero that everyone adores, all of the stress and tension that Evie has kept under wraps and in control for so many years comes to the front - and literally explodes in a ball of fire!

While the demon-fighting and the in-house squabbles certainly stays to the forefront, there is an underlying mystery of who is opening those portals, what do the mysterious stones they keep finding after the portals close mean, and how in the world can they get rid of that annoying blogger, Maisy Kane, who claims to be Aveda's biggest fan and "best friend," yet seems to always cause them more problems with each blog post? And, of course, we can't forget the boiling (literally!) love story that blooms between Evie and Nate - who make a good pair, by the way - and how that is impacted when Nate's past comes back to haunt him.

Of course, as well with any good book, the resolution not only brings out the identity of the one who has been opening portals (and it's not at all who you would suspect!), but it also sees Evie come to terms with who she is and how she interacts with the people around her and opens the door for a world of new adventures for Aveda Jupiter and Evie Tanaka!

As you can see, this book has a lot of story packed into its 376 pages, and it's definitely well worth the read.  I am normally a fan of series books, not single, one-offers - but this one caught my eye on the shelf, and after passing it by several times, I finally picked it up with a coupon I had, and boy, am I glad I did.  A part of my hopes Kuhn eventually does a sequel to this; but, if she doesn't, it's still one book that will stay in my collection.

RATING:  10 bowls of Lucky Charms (without the purple marshmallows) out of 10 for giving readers a book that has it all - super-heroics, adventure, sci-fi, romance, mystery, and demon-possessed cupcakes, statues, and movie screens!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire - Volume 05

It doesn't matter whether it's book or video game or film or comic - when it comes to Resident Evil, there's always a great story that ends with a bang! And this final installment of the Manga series, The Marhawa Desire, is certainly no exception. Writer and artist Naoki Serizawa has done a truly outstanding job with this five-book series, and although it took a bit for me to get use to the right to left reading (honestly, still not fully adept with it - have to keep reminding myself as I look at each page to start on the right top and work my way left, then down), the story enthralled me so much that it did not affect my enjoyment at all.

This last volume picks up right where the previous one left off - the hooded woman kneeling over Ricky, getting ready to inject him with deadly T-virus. Then, out of nowhere, Nanan appears, knocking the hooded woman away, thereby saving Ricky's life. And that's when the fun begins...

Serizawa does something that few comic artists these days are able to do - tell a thoroughly engaging story more through the art than the actual dialogue!  It seems many comic artists today are very adept at splash pages, pin-ups and poses - but actually telling a story through only the images, so much so that the reader gets more than just the picture out of the scene, that is not an easy thing to do. Yet, Serizawa does it with apparent ease, as this final chapter of The Marhawa Desire is told more through action, expression, and visuals than through the dialogue or thoughts of the characters. In fact, I don't even think I realized there was so little dialogue until I was nearly half-way finished reading the book!

Storywise, Serizawa kept the surprises coming. Nanan's sudden appearance and saving Ricky gave me hope that perhaps her human side was coming back in control - but alas, that didn't last very long. And the last minute saves, the bloody battle as the small group of survivors try to escape by helicopter, the revenge of Bindi, the shocking revelation of the identity of the hooded woman (and trust me, you'll never see this one coming!) - and that one saddening death of one of the survivors. This one has everything. And it even has an epilogue that sets up the Resident Evil 6 video game (which, I've never played, let alone even seen it). But the epilogue does allow readers to see what happened to the three survivors after they escaped the horrors of Marhawa Academy.

Now that I've finished this series, there's a part of me that wishes they would turn this into an animated film - the story has so many cinematic aspects to it - characterization, action, a tiny bit of romance - I know I would buy it!

RATING:  10 swarms of infected students out of 10 for providing a more than satisfying conclusion to yet another great Resident Evil story!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Creepella von Cacklefur No. 3 - Ghost Pirate Treasure

The mystery and the horror return (for all ages, of course) in the third Creepella von Cacklefur novel for early readers, Ghost Pirate Treasure. Someone is lurking around Squeakspeare Mansion at night. There are holes all throughout the yard! Legend has it, there is a treasure hidden somewhere on the property - and quite possibly, the ghost of the pirate who buried it there might be coming to take it back!

If it sounds like the making of a great Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew adventure, that's because this mystery actually has some of the elements that made those mystery series so popular. Sure, it is written with very simple sentences and easy to read and understand words, but the mystery is still there, as is the plotting, the clues, the red herrings, and, of course, the "scares." The real author is not identified - the copyright page merely reveals that the series is translated from its original Italian manuscript, with illustrations provided by Ivan Bigarella (pencils and inks) and Giulia Zaffaroni (color). That's just one more way this series is similar to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and countless other children's mysteries, who never reveal the actual author of the books (instead, utilizing a pseudonym as the series' author).

In Ghost Pirate Treasure, Creepella's friend, Billy Squeakspeare finds that someone is vandalizing the grounds of his estate by digging hundreds of holes. While Creepella is getting ready for the upcoming Melancholy Grand Ball, she takes time out to help her friend solve this mystery. They head up to Shivery Arts Academy, where they discover that not only did that ol' pirate, Morgan Blackwhiskers, leave a treasure somewhere on, in, or around Squeakspeare Mansion, but he was also known to forget where he hid things! This leaves it up to Creepella, her niece Shivereen, and Billy to figure out who is looking for the treasure and find it before they do!

It is rather fun to watch Creepella and her friends search out clues and follow the path they lead to find not only the identity of the thieving vandals, but also the treasure itself!  And, in true Nancy Drew fashion, when the treasure is found, Creepella convinces Billy to donate it to the school rather than keep it for himself.

Yes, I will admit, this series is a guilty pleasure - it's definitely way beneath my reading level (maturity level?  hmmm, that's another story), but they are fun, quick reads that bring a smile to my face when I read them - and isn't that what reading is all about - an enjoyable escape, even if only for a few minutes?

RATING:  7 monstrously moldy cheeses out of 10 for keeping the mysteries fun and simple, yet thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The First Veronica Speedwell Mystery - A Curious Beginning

A Curious Beginning, indeed!  I am not familiar with the author, Deanna Raybourn, at all, but this book had such great reviews, and - well, let's face it - I'm a sucker for a mystery series with a strong female protagonist. And, it seems lately, I'm also becoming a fan of female detective stories set in the 19th century - first there was the Lilly Long series, then the Change of Fortune series, and now the Veronica Speedwell series.  So long as these authors provide such enjoyable reads like this, I'll continue to be a fan!

From the very first chapter, it was clear that I was going to absolutely love Veronica Speedwell - not just the book itself, but the character.  Raybourn provides readers with a very outspoken, blunt, and undeterred young lady who is set upon making her own destiny and will not allow anyone to try and change it.  This becomes quickly apparent in just the first eight pages when Veronica must confront the unwelcome plans of the vicar's wife.
"Oh no, Mrs. Clutterthorpe.  I never mean to shock anyone.  It simply happens.  I have a dreadful habit of speaking my mind, and it isn't one I look to curb..." (p. 7)
And that one simply quote pretty much sums up Veronica's nature.  Of course, considering the fact that just as she loses her last aunt, the only caretaker she had left, she finds her home ransacked, she is nearly kidnapped, she is whisked off to London by a man she doesn't know, she is thrust into the care of an ill-tempered historian, and she suddenly finds herself the target of person or persons unknown, that rather impudent disposition of hers definitely serves her needs time and time again.

Raybourn spins a really intriguing mystery of who killed the Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach (you gotta love these character names in the book!), why did they kill him, how does it connect to Veronica and her past, and why, oh why, do they now want to kill Veronica?  It seems it is up to Veronica and her new comrade-in-arms, Stoker (a/k/a Revelstoke Templeton-Vane) to figure it all out before it's too late.  But, they find themselves on the run, hiding out in the most unlikely of places (including a traveling oddities show of which Stroker used to be involved).  While both Veronica and Stoker's pasts are shrouded in mystery, as the story progresses, Raybourn reveals bits and pieces.  And the budding friendship (possibly more?) between Veronica and Stoker definitely provides plenty of tension throughout the tale, as they never know whether to scream at each other or take the other in his or her arms.

The ultimate resolution of this mystery is just a bit of a stretch, but it does make sense in a very fictional sort of way.  And Raybourn is careful not to reveal all of her characters' secrets, leaving her readers wanting for more (which I am sure will come in future books - A Perilous Undertaking is already out in hardback, but my cheap self will wait for the paperback to hit the shelves).  This book is clear evidence of why Raybourn is a New York Times bestselling author.  The story is perfectly paced, with plenty of action and characterization to pull readers in and keep them engaged in the story, and the mystery is well plotted, with clues scattered throughout if you know how to recognize them (plus, knowing a bit of history helps, since the author manages to utilize some real historical facts mixed in with her fiction).

A Curious Beginning is just that - a beginning!  I anxiously await to see where Veronica and Stoker will go next!

RATING:  10 butterfly nets out of 10 for proving that even in the 19th century, a woman can be intelligent, independent, and utterly incorrigible - and still be enjoyable to read!