Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Doctor Who: Tales of Terror

Most days, I still can’t believe what a fan of Doctor Who I’ve become.  From those days of listening to my best friend talk about it (and me sitting there letting it go in one ear and out the other), to now, when I know all about the different incarnations of the character, the actors who have portrayed him, all his various companions, and the villainous creatures he has faced over the years.  It’s definitely surprising, but in a good way.

This newest anthology of stories, Doctor Who: Tales of Terror, I purchased for one reason and one reason only – it has a story where Donna Noble is the Doctor’s companion.  As soon as I saw her name on the pages of the 10th Doctor’s story, I knew I would be buying this book.  But, since I bought it, I was determined to read all twelve stories, not just the one about my all-time favorite companion.  And while the tales may have been written to terrify the readers, they did the exact opposite for me – they thoroughly entertained me.

From the 1st Doctor’s face-off with the Toymaker (with the help of Steven and Dodo), to the 2nd Doctor’s battle with a dark creature from the time vortex (alongside Ben, Polly, and his latest companion, Jamie), to the 3rd Doctor and Jo Grant’s encounter with one of the Doctor’s oldest enemies. Sarah Jane and Harry find themselves in danger that only the 4th Doctor can save them from, while Tegan and Turlough are saved from the Mara by the 5th Doctor’s genius nature.  The 6th Doctor finds himself haunted by his past, and the 7th Doctor and Ace confront a haunting in the past.  The 8th Doctor discovers that everyone is not who they seem onboard a pleasure cruise, and the 9th Doctor reveals where everyone that has disappeared from a travelling circus have really gone!

Then there’s the 10th Doctor and Donna Noble.  The story I was waiting for.  The sole reason I bought this book.  And author Richard Dungworth did not let me down.  The Doctor-Donna team play a deadly game with the ever-vicious Family of Blood, who have discovered they no longer need the Doctor to find immortality, but rather, his TARDIS.  Dungworth captures the clever dynamic that make the Doctor-Donna so enjoyable to watch and read, and I could almost hear Catherine Tate’s voice speaking the somewhat put-off, never one to be put-down lines of Donna every time she thinks the Doctor is getting the better of her.  And her snipes to the Family are spot-on!  Of course, it goes without saying that they outwit the Family and reunite them in a fitting punishment before the dynamic duo head off for their next adventure…

Leaving the 11th Doctor to dispel the purple haze that nearly places a family in mortal danger at the hands of the Weeping Angels, with the 12th Doctor rounding things out as he puts an end to Nestene’s attempt to raise an army of autons to take over the Earth!

Each story has a pen and ink illustration that highlights the “monster of the tale,” so to speak, and while some do include and Doctor and his companions, sadly, the Donna story does not – we simply get a taste of how innocent real horror can be when it wants to be!  Although I’ve finished these twelves tales of terror, I know it won’t be long until the newest Doctor hits the small screen (and if I can’t wait, well, I still have a few more Doctor Who books that I haven’t read yet to tide me over until then…)

RATING:  10 games of twenty questions out of 10 for reminding readers that no matter which Doctor you like, ultimately, there’s no villain too terrifying for the Doctor and his companions to defeat!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Green Lantern, Earth One - Volume One

Three volumes of Superman.  Two volumes of Batman.  Two volumes of Teen Titans.  One volume of Wonder Woman (with another on its way).  And now, DC has added a  new character to its realm of "Earth One" graphic novels, and that is the Green Lantern.

Now, from what I can remember when DC first decided to do these "Earth One" graphic novels, they were supposed to be written and drawn by big name creators.  Superman was.  Batman was.  Teen Titans was.  Wonder Woman was.  With Green Lantern, however, I'm surprised to see the creators are Gabriel Hardman (co-writer and artist), Corinna Bechko (co-writer), and Jordan Boyd (colorist).  Do you recognize these names?  I sure don't!  I had to go online and do some searching to figure out who these people were.  It appears Hardman has done some writing and artwork for Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse, as has Bechko.  However, I am not seeing anything stand-out or long-term runs on any titles that would, in my opinion, define the as "big-name creators."

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this first volume of Green Lantern: Earth One. Never have been much of a fan of Green Lantern; however, Hardman and Bechko's take on Hal Jordan (or Harold Jordan, as the case may be in this particular version) is pretty unique and not predicated on the whole "man without fear" thing.  Jordan, in this story, is more of a loner, having walked away from not just the people he knew, but the whole planet!  Interestingly enough, Jordan has been working for Ferris Galactic, mining asteroids, and has not returned to his home planet for nearly ten years.  And just when he thinks he has hit another dead-end with a dead asteroid, he uncovers something completely unexpected.

A spacecraft.

From that point, Hardman and Bechko build a story of adventure, space, and self-realization as Jordan becomes aware of the fact that there is more to the universe than his own little isolated circle of self, and it a true hero's journey.  There's no fancy light constructs, there's no rhyming oath to be said - there are, however, secrets, lies, and ulterior motives that leave Jordan questioning everyone and everything.  Ultimately, though, he sees the light (pun intended!) and makes the choice to save lives, no matter what the cost.

Hardman's art is a bit rough, which, in turn, gives the characters (particularly Jordan) an edgy feel to them.  It works for the space scenes, and it almost has a Joe Kubert-style to it.

There are plenty of plot threads dropped throughout the story that foreshadow things to come, so hopefully this one sells well enough for them to follow up on those.  I'm glad DC is not rushing these Earth One stories, but letting the creators take their time with them, so that readers get really good stories and some fantastic art.  Quality is definitely more important that quantity in my book!

RATING:  8 alien skin grafts out of 10 for showing how to re-imagine a character and story and do it right!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 10 - The Mystery of the Secret Society

Italy, France, China, Kenya, India, Peru, Australia, Alaska, and now Greece - these two young twins, Ethan and Ella Briar, have certainly traveled the globe with their parents, as their mother continues her assignment as a travel writer for their local hometown paper, the Brookeston Times.  And, since this an early readers' mystery series, it seems at every port, the twins stumble across a new mystery.  This last book in the series is certainly no different.

And yes, you read that correctly.  This tenth book in the "Greetings from Somewhere" series is the last book to be published, having come out in March 2016.  Not sure why the series ended - if it was because of poor sales, or perhaps the author just ran out of ideas, or what.  It's a shame, really, as these were great early reader books that could certainly have been a stepping stone into the world of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  But, alas, the series is gone, and I haven't seen them on the shelves at Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million in quite a while.

Nevertheless, if the series was going to conclude, The Mystery of the Secret Society was certainly the way to do it.  The Briar family visits Athens, Greece this time around, and while the parents are helping Dr. Pappas with an archaeological dig, Ethan and Ella are pretty much left to their own devices (doesn't every pre-teen wish they had such freedom?!).  Before they can even leave the dig site, they stumble across a hint of the mystery to come - two images on one of the ancient walls - a hawk and a globe.  Ethan immediately recognizes them as the same images on the two sides of the coin their grandfather gave him wayyyyyyyy back in the first book of the series.

Is there a connection?  If so, what does it mean?

Enter: Dimitrios, a volunteer at the dig.  At first, he is gruff, but within moments, he warms to the children and leads them out of the cavern in which they had become lost.  The twins aren't sure what to think of him, but back at the hotel, they are more concerned about telling their grandfather about their find.  They e-mail him right away, hoping to get a response.

It soon becomes clear that there is more to the images than they first thought.  Dimitrios makes more and more appearances, leaving Ethan and Ella to wonder if he is following them.  Their grandfather is remaining unusually silent, with no e-mail responses, which is unusual for him.  Then, there is the strange crack in the wall with the two images.  And when Dimitrios volunteers to have the twins sit in on a Greek-language class he is teaching, they discover what type of person he really is, for instead he leads them back to the dig site, demanding they show him what they found!  The only problem is, they haven't found anything.  Or have they?

Author Harper Paris rounds out this series with a great little mystery that, in some ways, ties the books together in an unexpected way and a final farewell statement as the Briar family "headed out into the bright, sunny day.  A day full of mysterious possibilities."

As usual, Marcos Calo provides illustrations throughout the story, and as much as I hate to do it, I have to be nit-picky with one of the drawings.  On page 42, the text indicates that Greece is seven hours ahead of the Briar's hometown of Brookeston - yet, in the drawing of the two clocks at the top of the page, Greece shows the time as a little past 1:00, while Brookeston shows the time as a little past 8:00 - which is only five hours behind!  However, with 10 books and literally hundreds of illustrations, I suppose I can't blame him for one snafu!

I'll miss this little series, and it's a shame that young readers won't get to enjoy any more adventures of Ethan and Ella Briar as they travel 'round the world.  Bon Voyage, my little friends, and thanks for the mysteries you did share!

RATING:  8 broken statues of Greek gods out of 10 for making the fun of mysteries accessible even to the early readers!  (Greetings from Somewhere, you will be missed!)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Samantha Wolf Mysteries, Book Four - The Heiress of Covington Ranch

This series grows on me more and more with each book I read.  I still do not like the "present tense" writing style, but I'm gradually getting to the point where my mind is automatically changing it to past tense as I read it.  Not sure why some of the current authors are writing in present tense these days, but for me, it's distracting from the story and forces me to concentrate a bit more on the words and verb tense as I'm reading, rather than simply enjoying the flow of the story.

Aside from that, this fourth Samantha Wolf mystery is by far the best in the series so far.  The Heiress of Covington Ranch definitely hearkens back to the days when children's mystery stories told the tales of secret messages, hidden clues, and missing relatives.  Author Tara Ellis continues the timeline for her aging characters, as summer is over and Samantha ("Sam") and her best friend, Ally, begin middle school.  As I'm sure all of us can remember, starting a new school, where we may know a few kids from the previous school, but having to be in separate classes from our friends, the fear of finding classes and making new friends - well, that is an experience in and of itself.  But Sam and Ally quickly make friends with newcomer Cassy, who is a lot less fortunate than her classmates - she wears the same clothes, her lunches brought from home are not as healthy or filling as everyone else's, and she is very reserved, not letting anyone else get close.  Until Sam and Ally convince her that none of that matters - and particularly when Sam stands up to some girls who try to bully Cassy.

As with any good mystery, what starts out innocent enough soon reveals secrets and a long-kept mystery that Sam can't resist sticking her nose into.  One of their new teachers, Miss Covington, is seen crying in her car - and after a football game, she is seen fighting with a man in the parking lot.  Sam's mother warns her not to get involved, but when has any good sleuth followed her parent's warnings?  Soon enough, Sam discovers that Lisa Covington is the heir to the Covington estate, which includes a valuable jewel, the Eye of Orion.  But the Eye was stolen years ago, and Miss Covington was accused of playing a part.  She claims she is innocent, that she was duped by her boyfriend - but that, and the fact that she was adopted and her formal adoption papers could never be found, prevented her from claiming her inheritance, which included the now abandoned Covington Ranch at the top of the hill where Sam and Ally have grown up riding their bikes and following trails.

This mystery definitely has it all - the missing adoption papers, the lost family heirloom, the looming loss of the family homestead, a greedy uncle intent on taking it all away, a desperate search to save Miss Covington's legacy, and a surprising secret that affects more than just Sam and Ally's teacher!  And Sam is her determined self, doing whatever she needs to in order to help Miss Covington - and her quick wits and riddle-solving mind are put to the test with this one, that's for sure.  I do love, though, how she stands up not only to bullies at school, but also to Miss Covington's overbearing uncle and the bad buys at the end.  She may be a middle-schooler, but Samantha Wolf definitely has the makings of a fine Nancy Drew-esque detective!

If it hasn't been clear before, I'll make it abundantly clear now - I would highly recommend this series to any fans of Nancy Drew and similar series - Ellis certainly honors those series with this one!

RATING:  9 brown bag lunches out of 10 for keeping the traditional children's mystery series concept alive and well without resorting to "sabotage" as the trope of choice.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Viv and Charlie Mystery, Book Two - Homicide for the Holidays

This book made me realize exactly why it is I love "series" books so much, rather than just stand-alone stories.  It's because, no matter how long between each book, the minute you pick up the next book in a series and start reading, it's like catching up with old friends.  And while it took me a while to pick up the first book in this series, The Darkness Knows, after reading that one, I didn't hesitate to buy the second book the moment it hit the shelves!

Homicide for the Holidays brings back radio celebrity Vivian Witchell and private detective Charlie Haverman, this time to solve a crime that hits close to him for Viv.  This time around, Viv does not stumble across a dead body - instead, she find a key, that leads her to a locked drawer, that opens up to reveal an envelopes stuffed with cash ... and a threatening note!  Viv's father passed away some some time ago, so why did he have an envelope full of cash in a locked drawer of the desk in his study?  And who would threaten him?  Or was he threatening someone else?  The mystery deepens even further when the envelope, cash, and note disappear - but yet another key is discovered taped to the backside of the drawer!  What does it all mean?

Author Cheryl Honigford provides a mystery full of twists and turns, constantly flipping the readers thoughts on what kind of man Arthur Witchell was.  We follow along as Viv traces the last few weeks of her father's life, trying to uncover the truth, no matter how horrible it may be, and as every layer is pulled back, it seems that there are more and more secrets to be unearthed - not just about Arthur Witchell, but about his law partner, his clients, and the secret life that he kept from his family.  Of course, it's not all fun and mystery-solving for Viv - remember, she's a big radio celebrity now, starring in that radio show, "The Darkness Knows," with Graham Yarborough, the radio channel's big star.  Plus, the public at large knows how close Graham and Viv have become - the only problem is, it's all for show.  Viv still yearns for Charlie, who has been conveniently absent over the past few months since they solved the murder in the previous book.

Before you know it, Charlies comes back on the scene to help Viv track down the truth about her father - but he keeps her at arm's length because of her relationship with Graham.  Viv wants to tell him the truth, but can't because if it gets out the relationship is a fake, it could ruin both her and Graham's career, not to mention the station's number one rated show.  Of course, what Viv doesn't know is that Graham has a secret of his own - one that made him a suspect of the murder in the last book, and one that, if it comes out, could very well spell his end in this one!

And if all of that is not enough to whet your appetite for a good mystery, let's add into the mix a nosy housekeeper, a lovestruck brother, a determined reporter wannabe, an old crush who returns to the scene, and a legal secretary that unwittingly holds the secret to unraveling the truth about Viv's father's death, and suddenly you have a story worthy of a daytime soap opera - or in this case, a radio serial!

It's so enjoyable to step back into the past (the 1930s in this case!) and see just how much simpler things were back then.  No cell phones, no computers, no technology to control our lives.  People talked, they went to dances, they held impromptu parties, and for mysteries like this, they find themselves in danger with no way to text or call someone!  Footsteps following behind on a darkened path ... coming home to find your house ransacked ... a car screeching around the corner just as you step off the curb ... and accidents made to look like accidents when they aren't really accidents.

All in all, book two in the Viv and Charlie series was even better than the first!  That definitely sets the bar high for book three, due out later this year...

RATING:  10 Kewpie dolls out of 10 for taking radio drama mystery and bringing it to life so vibrantly!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Aunt Claire Presents (Book Three): The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airship

Vintage series books are always fun to read, as the language is so rich, the dialogue and actions usually reveal a lot about the time period in which the book was written, and the stories are ... well, they are so innocent and naive in a lot of ways.  Thus, I am truly enjoying this Aunt Claire Presents series of reprints, as they allow me to escape the confines of this media-heavy, technology-addicted century that we live in and enter a world where simple things such as airplanes and automobiles are things of awe and wonder!

The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airship is the third book in the Aunt Claire Presents series, and it is also the first book in The Girl Aviators series from the early 1900s.  Originally published in 1911 (wow! more than 100 years ago!), the story follows Peggy Prescott and her brother, Roy, as they attempt to save their home from a greedy bank manager intent on foreclosing their home if they won't sell him the airplane that their father began to build and the two youngsters finished.  But, as with all series book protagonists, these two teenagers are not that gullible, and so they refuse the offer and work to make their "Golden Butterfly" the best it can be, so as to win an upcoming air show, with a grand prize of $5,000!  (Can you imagine the worth of $5,000 back in 1911???)

The mystery from which the title is derived stems from a mysterious airship that Peggy and Roy see in the night sky when they are fighting the wind - the strange craft seems impervious to the winds, and although they can only see the red and green lights, it is clear the airplane is far superior to their own as they are nearly blown out to sea.  Interestingly enough, however, that is the only appearance of the "phantom airship," and no other real mention is made of the mystery.  Instead, the greater mystery seems to involve the theft of their friend Jess's wallet of jewels (including a family heirloom ruby) valued at ten thousand dollars!  Throughout the entire book, Peggy is curious as to who took the jewels, and although she suspects it is Fanning Harding, the son of the banker who is determined to prove he can build a better airplane than Roy Prescott.

But even the mystery of the missing jewels takes a backseat to the thrill and danger of flying in up in the clouds and the excitement of the upcoming air show.  It is interesting to note the varied reactions to Peggy and Roy as they fly into various places - the excitement and wonder of Jess and James Bancroft, the apprehension of the older doctor, and the fear and uncertainty of the lighthouse keeper.  Plus, author Margaret Burnham clearly has her own thoughts on women's rights, even back in the early 1900s, for although Roy is thrust into the limelight when it comes to the airplane, it is truly Peggy who often saves the day, and even their friends Jess and James (or "Jimsy" as Peggy calls him) recognize the large contribution that Peggy puts into it.  Of course, flying is a man's territory, so Peggy tends to stand back and allow her brother to take the spotlight (even though it's clear the author believes women are just as capable, if not more so, than women).  An interesting example of this occurs when the villains in the story kidnap Roy and he ends up trapped at the bottom of a well, and Peggy is forced to disguise herself as her brother and take flight in the contest to avoid having to forfeit their chance at the $5,000 cash prize!  This is quite the switch, particularly for those days, since it was usually the female character who was in trouble, and the male lead had to rescue her!

The internal illustrations are reproduced in the book as well, which add some nice flavor to the enjoyment of the book, and the hardcover to the book reproduces a facsimile of the original cloth cover board, including "stains" to give it a true vintage feel.  As with the prior two, "Aunt Claire" provides an introduction to the story, giving a background as to the time period, the subject matter, and the biases and stereotypes found within the story.  I can certainly see these books used in a classroom for educational purposes - not only do they make for a fun read, but they could certainly provide opportunities for students to study the history of our nation through series fiction!

I without a doubt recommend these books and hope that the series is selling well enough to warrant more reproductions (as there are currently only four books out - two in the Grace Harlowe series, one in the Automobile Girls series, and this one in the Girl Aviators series).

RATING:  7 silvery-bearded hermits out of 10 for a rather tame mystery but an exciting glimpse into the past awe and wonder of air flight!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Short Lived Comic Series #7 - The Prospector

As I've said before, and as those who know my affinity for comics are aware, I am a huge fan of independent comics and their creators.  Indy comics are not tied down to decades of continuity, they aren't forced to fit into company cross-overs or specific political correctness that permeate the Big Two publishers of comics today.  Simply put, the indy comics of today usually have much better stories, much better art, and all around much better comics.

The Prospector, by writer Darren Neely and art by Philip Burnette, proves my point.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Neely at MegaCon last year (2017), and he was so enthusiastic about his comic that I couldn't help myself.  I picked up all five issues of the series and just recently had the chance to sit down and read them.  I honestly wasn't sure what to expect, as it has been more than a year, and quite frankly, I could not remember anything about what the story was about.  So I went into this totally blind, and I walked away from it with a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction from a story well told, both in aspects of the writing and the art.

A university professor.  A small town old-timer.  A hidden secret in an old cave.  An attempt to make that first contact.  All the makings of a great X-Files tale, and quite frankly, by the end of these five issues, I felt very much like I had just read an X-Files story, minus the Mulder and Scully, but with some great storytelling and plenty of twists and surprises.

Professor Betsy Dunn of the Ancient Studies Department is just trying to figure out what's going on.  Why did Jeremiah Tally use dynamite to destroy a cave that could have housed any number of ancient artifacts?  Who is creeping around campus in all black, using the Professor's ID badge to get access to the school?  Why did Tally invest so much money into the university's first fully-integrated radio and optical telescope array?  Are we truly alone in the universe, or is the university's president correct in her belief that there is life out there?  Who, or what, was "The Society" who founded the institute?  And just what in the world is Tally keeping in his basement?

And, the all important question - why does Professor Dunn not remember any of this?

As the X-Files so aptly put it, the trust is out there, and Professor Dunn is determined to find it.  Tally is keeping secrets, and Professor Dunn knows it is something big.  But what she ultimately discovers in this five-issue tale is that nothing is ever quite what it seems, and she ultimately finds herself allies with the old-time, prepared to protect his secret at all costs!

Neely has an interesting way of telling the story, alternating between present, distant past, present, recent past, and so forth - sometimes with clear transitions, and other times it is left for the reader to discover that there has been a shift in time (the characters don't shift, the story does) - so that the reader only gets bits and pieces of what is going on, but it definitely all pays off quite nicely in the end.  Plus, the first issue is told from Professor Dunn's point of view, while the second issue is from Tally's point of view, and thus, the reader learns quite a bit from the two characters, all leading to pretty much the same point by the end of each issue, so that by issue three, you have a feel for the two protagonists and the story can really get moving.

The art is a bit rough, but frankly, it creates the mood for the story, giving the characters and the setting a very western feel to it.

Overall, it was a great read, and I'd more than recommend it for someone wanting an out of the ordinary comic to read!

RATING:  9 alien pick axes out of 10 for taking a chance with an unusual tale that mixes several genres but definitely keep the reader's interest - and leaves just enough plot threads for more story to come (hopefully!)