Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Missing Millie Benson - The Secret Case of the Ghostwriter and Journalist

Since I just finished the most recent Nancy Drew book, figured it was only appropriate that I go ahead and read the biography for young readers that was written on the earliest ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series - Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson.

For those who don't know (and in today's modern age of instant information at our fingertips, I can't imagine anyone not knowing), the author of the Nancy Drew series is not, nor has it ever been, Carolyn Keene.  There is no such person as Carolyn Keene.  Well, there probably are some girls and women with that name, but they never authored a Nancy Drew book.  The "Carolyn Keene" whose name appears on the Nancy Drew (and Dana Girls) mystery stories was simply a pseudonym, created by Edward Stratemeyer so that this children's mystery series could be written by numerous ghostwriters, yet appear to the world at large as being written by one woman.  And the first ghostwriter hired by Stratemeyer for the Nancy Drew series was none other than Millie Benson (although at the time she first wrote the series, she was Mildred Wirt).  As the author of this biography points out, Millie wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books that were published (before they were later revised).

Julie K. Rubini presents the story of Millie's life as it centers around her writing and her involvement in the Nancy Drew series.  She provides a number of interesting photos that depict Millie in the various stages of her life, with her parents, her first husband Asa Wirt, her second husband George Benson, and in her career as a journalist.  It was a treat for me to see these photos, some of which I had never seen before, and to get a glimpse of this author's life outside of Nancy Drew.

Rubini mentions a number of high points in Millie's life - from her first published story, to her college life, to her response to Stratemeyer's ad for writers, to her two marriages (and her husbands' deaths), to her career as a journalist, and to her testimony given at the now-famous trial between the publishers of Nancy Drew books.  Rubini interviewed a number of experts, as well as spoke with surviving family members, in her attempt to flesh out Millie's life.  Unfortunately, without all the details, Rubini was left to speculate as to a lot of things that Millie did, the choices she made, the places she visited, and her reasoning for doing the things she did.  These speculations can be easily identified, as Rubini starts them off with phrases such as "Millie had to have been..." or "Millie might have found..." or "Millie must have been..."  So, while the book offers a number of facts about Millie (some well know, some not-so-well known), it also strays into a bit of supposition about the prolific author and journalist.

While the book is about Millie, it does offer some other insightful information.  There is a bit of history on the Stratemeyer Syndicate, its founder Edward, and his daughters, Harriet and Edna, who took over the business when he died just shortly after the Nancy Drew series debuted in 1930.  There is information about the first female flyers and the Powderpuff Derby, as well as the Nancy Drew Conference held in 1993 at the University of Iowa, where Millie was honored for her work.

Rubini clearly put some effort in the book; however, there were a couple of glaring errors that were more than noticeable.  When discussing Edward Stratemeyer and the beginnings of his Syndicate, she references his creation of the Bobbsey Twins in 1904, describing them as "Bert and Nan were twelve years old, Freddie and Flossie were six" (p. 35).  While the twins were these ages in the later, revised editions of the series, when the books were originally written after the turn of the century, they were actually eight years old (Bert and Nan) and four years old (Freddie and Flossie).  Later, when discussing the plot of the first Nancy Drew book, she wrote that it "involved the missing will of a character, Josiah Crowley, that had been stashed secretly by members of the wealthy and cruel Topham family" (p. 50).  This is inaccurate, as it was Josiah himself who hid the will in the clock.  And although this biography is aimed at young readers, I would still have to say that factual inaccuracies such as this should have been caught and corrected before the book saw print - otherwise, misrepresentations may be fostered and furthered by those who look to use this book as any sort of reference material for future writings.

That being said, overall, it was a good, simple read and provided a basic overview of Mildred Benson's life and career.  Now that we've read about this ghostwriter, I wonder when we will see some tales about the other authors who wrote Nancy Drew (such as Harriet Stratemyer Adams herself!)?

RATING:  7 typewriter keys out of 10 for sharing information about an amazing woman whose literary works and career have touched so many.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 11 - The Red Slippers

I will be the first to admit - the title of this "mystery" did not inspire much hope in me.  Even the cover did little to entice me to believe that there was a "mystery" involved in this book.  Then there's the description - someone is trying to sabotage Maggie Rogers' career as a dancer before it even begins.  Yet another case of sabotage in the Nancy Drew series.  Can Simon & Schuster not come up with any new ideas for a mystery?  Whatever happened to haunted houses?  Missing wills?  Lost jewels?  Long-lost relatives?  Stolen paintings?

Then I read the book.  And for what it is, it's not half-bad.  The plot itself (ignoring the fact that this is the 11th out of 11 Nancy Drew books that deals with sabotage) is somewhat interesting.  Someone is targeting Maggie Rogers, who is in River Heights with her dance troop to perform a lead role in "Sleeping Beauty."  Her wig goes missing, and her understudy has to go on.  Someone puts an app on her cell phone that causes her to be late for a rehearsal, which nearly leads to her understudy getting to take over the role. Someone has the hotel front desk making wake up calls every two hours through the night, causing Maggie to be too exhausted to finish a show, and her understudy has to step in.  See a single thread?  Of course, anyone who reads mysteries on a regular basis would guess right away that the understudy is too obvious a suspect, and they would be right.  But that begs the question - who is targeting her and why?

The author leads readers on a wild-goose chase through a number of potential suspects - the choreographer who pushes the students too far to get perfection from them; the father who would do anything to see his son not perform in a ballet; the jealous student who does not like the fact Maggie might have her dreams come true.  Any one of them have a reason to sabotage Maggie's chance at performing for a critic who could make or break her career.  And just when you think you have it figured out - the author pulls the rug out from under you with something completely different!

Obviously, I'm not going to spoil the surprise for those who do want to read the book.  I will say, though, that for me, it was pretty obvious early on who the culprit was.  I was just completely wrong as to this person's reason for doing what they did.

While the story is 162 pages in length, the font is so large, there is more than likely about 120 pages of actual story if they had used normal-sized font.  This means that there is less time for real character development, which is rather disappointing.  Had they fleshed out the story more, given some more time for Nancy to get to know each of the characters, how they interact with one another and with themselves, it could have turned out to be a very well-written story.
As is, it comes across as rushed with less than three-dimensional characters.   I guess I will never truly get Simon & Schuster's reluctance to allow authors of this (and the Hardy Boys) series to really provide a fully fleshed out, lengthy mystery with some great suspense and characters.

On a side note - when this book was first advertised, many people wondered if there would be any comparison with Nancy Drew's original 32nd mystery, The Scarlet Slipper Mystery.  The answer to that would be a resounding NO.  The only similarity comes in the fact that red (scarlet) slippers play a part in both mysteries.  In this one, the slippers are a good luck charm for Maggie, given to her by her mother.  Nancy uses them as bait to try and trick the culprit into revealing himself or herself.  Otherwise, there is nothing about the two mysteries that are in any way similar.

I continue to give this series the benefit of the doubt, hoping each time that the next book will offer a glimmer of hope of improvement.  I hate seeing S&S simply putting out books with the idea that the brand of "Nancy Drew" will sell it.  I would much rather have quality over quantity any day of the year.  I guess we will have to wait until May and see what the next book, The Sign in the Smoke, is like...

RATING:  6 violently scratched out posters out of 10 for providing a worthwhile plot that could have ultimately been a really great story.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Justice Society of America - A Celebration of 75 Years Omnibus

Ever since I first read a story with them in it back in 1980 with the JLA/JSA/New Gods crossover, I have been in love with the Justice Society of America.  I went back and purchased every issue of JLA that featured the JSA; I went back and purchased every issue of All-Star Comics revival series from 58 through 74, as well as the continued stories in the Adventure Comics run.  I was more than disappointed when the Crisis on Infinite Earths did away with Earth-2 and the original JSA - quite frankly, they've never been the same since (although there have been some good incarnations along the way).

This year (2015) marked the 75th anniversary for this super-team, who originally made their debut in 1940 in All-Star Comics No. 3. Sadly, DC Comics did very little to celebrate this momentous occasion.  They released the America vs. the Justice Society trade paperback, which was nice to see.  And they released the 75th Anniversary compilation hardcover.  And that was it.  Such a disappointment that the super-team that basically started it all (as there were no "super teams" prior to the JSA's debut in 1940) receives so little attention. But, alas, I suppose I should not look a gift horse in the mouth, and I should be grateful we did get the little bit that we did!

This nearly 500-page hardcover collection reprints in vivid color some of the important moments in JSA history (while noticeably leaving others out). For whatever reason, the very first appearance of the JSA in All-Star Comics No. 3 was not reprinted here - instead, they collection opens with All-Star Comics No. 4.  This is followed by All-Star Comics No. 37 (featuring the Injustice Society) and All-Star Comics No. 55 (featuring a space-faring sci-fi adventure of the JSA).  Missing is the last issue of the original run of All-Star Comics, which ended with issue 57.

Next up are issues 21 and 22 of Justice League of America, which not only re-introduced the JSA to the mainstream DC Universe, but also began a long tradition of JLA/JSA annual team-ups that eventually included other teams, such as the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Freedom Fighters, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the heroes of the Old West, the New Gods, the All Star Squadron, Infinity, Inc., and others.  Some of those team-ups are also included (although it is only one issue, and not the entire story) - Justice League of America issue 30 ("The Most Dangerous Earth of All," which introduced the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3), issue 47 ("The Bridge Between Earths"), and issue 82 and 83 (which did feature the complete story).

The trip down memory lane continues with the story from Adventure Comics No. 466, "The Defeat of the Justice Society." DC once again skips over some very important stories in the JSA history, such as the issues of the All-Star Comics revival series in the late '70s, which introduced not only Power Girl to the Earth-2 universe, but also brought back Star-Spangled Kid and introduced Batman and Catwoman's daughter, the Huntress! DC also skips over the first two stories of the JSA in Adventure Comics, which featured the all important Death of the Batman! Why these all-important tales were excluded is beyond me. The story in Adventure Comics No. 466 is set directly after the events of Justice League of America issues 171 and 172 (which featured the annual JLA/JSA crossover and resulted in the death of the original Mr. Terrific at the hands of the Spirit King). It is basically a flashback tale, as told by the Huntress to Power Girl, regarding the JSA's disappearance following the demand by the Combined Congressional Un-American Activities Committee that the members of the JSA unmask and reveal their true identities.

The next story is the All Star Squadron preview insert tale that was published in Justice League of America issue 193. This was definitely an important moment, and a particular favorite of mine, as it not only brought back the Justice Society in full-force (following their cancellation from the Adventure Comics run some years previous), but it introduced a whole slew of other Earth-2 heroes and was set in the JSA's original time of 1940s (during World War II).  Written by Earth-2 writer extraordinaire, Roy Thomas, this series ran a total of 67 issues (with 3 annuals) and even survived, albeit briefly, the game-changing Crisis on Infinite Earths.  In fact, the last issue of this series (no. 67) is featured next in this collection, featuring a re-telling of the first case of the Justice Society.

The remaining stories featured in this 75th Anniversary collection are all post-Crisis.  The last issue of the Justice Society series (which only made it 10 issues, but was definitely the best of the post-Crisis attempts to keep the JSA alive) from 1992, as well as the last issue of the All-Star Comics mini-series in 1999, which revived the team once again, setting the stage for a new generation of JSA-ers (and marking the team's start as a generational team, with many legacy characters as members). Then there is JSA no. 25 (2001), which features the return of Hawkman, and Justice Society of America no. 10 (2007), which deals with the Kingdom Come Superman's appearance and Power Girl's adjustment to the fact that she comes from a pre-Crisis reality (yeah, I know, it starts getting quite convoluted here if you don't know the story).
The book ends on a rather dour note, with Earth 2 issue 6 being the final reprinted issue.  Earth 2 is the title that came out post-Flashpoint (which was another universe-changing event that re-booted the entire DC universe yet again).  This series features some re-imagined characters from the Justice Society era; however, they are much darker, more violent, and as of yet, have never formed a team called the "Justice Society."

What IS nice about this collection are the tributes written by two influential comic creators, which are interspersed between the various eras.  Part I (1940-1951) is written by Roy Thomas; Part II (1961-1975) is written by Roy Thomas; Part III (1976-1989) is written by Roy Thomas; Part IV (1986-2011) is written by Ivan Cohen; and Part V (2011 and beyond) is written by Ivan Cohen.  These are some great reflections on the history of this team and how it impacted comics, characters, and the creators themselves.

The Justice Society truly is (in my book, at least) the quintessential super-hero team that has defined all other team books.  They have always been (prior to the Flashpoint change) more of a family than a team, and the generational aspect of it in the post-Crisis series really added to this familial element.  Seventy-five years is without a doubt a long time for a team to endure, and while this new Earth 2 incarnation of the characters may be a severe departure from the original team, I do hope that the writers eventually realize what makes the Justice Society so successful and return to that formula, so that the JSA will be around for another 75 years!

RATING:  9 cries for justice out of 10 for keeping the dream alive, albeit short a few truly important memories that would have made this book perfect!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Odelia Grey Mysteries, Book 10 - A Body to Spare

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post, as I got a part in a new play at the Breakthrough Theatre in Winter Park - it's called "The Library," written by Scott Z. Burns.  A very powerful drama, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has never seen it.  Very relevant, very moving, and quite frankly, very sad.

However - - that doesn't mean I haven't had time to read at all.  In my spare time between work, rehearsals, learning lines, and Christmas shopping, I've managed to squeeze in a few minutes here and there to read the latest Odelia Grey mystery, A Body to Spare.

God, how I absolutely LOVE this series.

Odelia Grey is a middle-aged, overweight paralegal (and, coincidentally enough, so is her author, Sue Ann Jaffarian!) who has an uncanny knack for stumbling across dead bodies and getting mixed up in some rather exciting and often-times adventurous murder mysteries.  Jaffarian has an excellent skill at writing well-fleshed-out characters who literally jump off the page and read very much as real people.  Their reactions to situations, their interactions with one another, and their love and concern for each other instantly make the reader fall in love with them and root for them (regardless of what illegal activities they might be involved in...)

This time around, a body is discovered in the least likely of places - the trunk of Odelia's car! While getting her car washed, the employees of the car wash facility open the trunk to discover the body of a naked man. The body turns out to be none other than Zach Finch, who disappeared years ago when he was still a teenager. Who killed him?  Who put him in Odelia's trunk?  And of all the cars in the world, why her car?  Needless to say, Odelia's in the thick of things again.

While Jaffarian does not utilize all of the supporting cast in this mystery (and Odelia does have quite a large supporting cast!), we do find out what is going on with most of them.  Her boss, Steele, has gotten married and is off on his honeymoon; her brother, Clark, now retired from the police force, is working full time with Willie Proctor - a con man who remains in hiding, yet runs a number of 'legitimate' businesses; her mother is living not far from Odelia and her husband in a retirement community, still maintaining her blog; Elaine Powers is still staying under the radar and watching out for Odelia; Dev is set to retire and move to Seattle to be with his new girlfriend; Seth and Zee are always there to come to Odelia's aid (this time, Seth acting as her attorney); and Odelia herself is working part time for Steele.  And there's a surprise guest star in this one...

The police are all over this one, but they aren't alone; since the deceased was kidnapped, it falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI. So not only does Odelia have to deal with the new police detective Fehring, but she also is under the scrutiny of FBI Agent Shipman, both of whom are very adamant about Odelia keeping her nose out of this one.

Then, of course, there's that special guest star - Emma Whitecastle. Of course, I wasn't really sure who this was right away...until she started talking about the fact that she can talk to ghosts.  At which point, I began to suspect who she was and quickly contacted my friend Kevin, who has read some of Jaffarian's other series.  Sure enough, my suspicion was correct, that Emma Whitecastle is the lead character from Jaffarian's "Ghost of Granny Apples" series. While I have not read any of the books in that series, I have heard good things about them. And now that Jaffarian has crossed over the characters, it makes me wonder if perhaps Odelia won't pop up in that other series, or if Jaffarian might even write one mystery starring both of these sleuths.  If she did, I'd be right there to buy it!

I definitely cannot recommend these books enough.  I used to sing the praises of Lilian Jackson Braun's "Cat Who..." series back in the day (although the last few books in that series were definitely ghost-written, as the style and plotting was considerably different), and the Odelia Grey mysteries far surpass even those mysteries.  A fellow mystery-lover, Dina Stout, turned me on to this series, and I am definitely grateful she did (being a paralegal myself, plus a lover of mysteries, it was right up my alley).

Can't wait for the next one to come out!

RATING:  10 surprise-filled trunks out of 10 for such great, fun storytelling and lovable characters!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Doctor Who, The Glamour Chronicles Book 1 - Royal Blood

I'm very picky when it comes to which Doctor Who books I buy and read.  I'm not a fan of all the Doctors, nor am I a fan of all of his companions.  But there are particular ones I especially like.

Donna Noble - I have every book and every audio book with her as the 10th Doctor's companion; she is by far my all-time favorite companion and always will be

Rory Williams - while I never liked Amy Pond, and I did learn to accept Matt Smith, it was Rory Williams, as one of the 11th Doctor's companions, that prompted me to buy the books with him in them

And then there's the 12th Doctor - Peter Capaldi.  While I can't stand Clara Oswald as a companion (and am thankful she is gone in the television show), I do love Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  He's a breath of fresh air after three relatively young Doctors, and his fierce, cantankerous nature is somewhat reminiscent of the very 1st Doctor, William Hartnell.  He's enjoyable to watch, and he's just as enjoyable to read.

The Glamour Chronicles is a new trilogy of books with the 12th Doctor and his companion, Clara, and Royal Blood is the first of this three-part tale. Set on an unnamed planet in an unnamed galaxy, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in the city-state of Varuz, where the Duke is trying to protect it from being invaded by their enemies, while the Duchess and her conspirators are doing what they believe will help prevent war.

Enter the Doctor and Clara, who the Duke mistakenly believes is an Ambassador, and later, a Holy Man...

Then, enter Emfil, an alien collector searching for the mysterious Glamour, who the Duke mistakenly believes is also an Ambassador...

Then, enter Sir Lancelot and his knights, who are searching for the Holy Grail, and who the Duke mistakenly becomes enamored by and willingly bestows his own army of knights to aid this fabled quest...

Not everyone is who they seem to be, and not all of the good guys are as good as they appear (nor are all the bad guys as bad as they appear).  The Doctor knows Sir Lancelot is a fictional character, so who is he, really?  Clara knows the Duchess is conspiring behind the Duke's back to seek peace for her kingdom, but is there more to it than that?  The Doctor knows there is more behind these electric lights and laser swords and bejeweled trinkets that fill the city, but what is their purpose?

While the plot is teemed with war and traitors and conspiracies, it remains lighthearted with the usual banter so excellently written between the Doctor and Clara, and even the alien collector is fleshed out fully so as to make him interesting and fun to read.  As with most of the prior books I've read, it really felt like a good episode of the television show, and when I was finished, I was more than satisfied.

RATING:  10 glamorous trinkets out of 10 for keeping the feel of the show in the written word!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Midnight Society - the Black Lake

"The agents of MI: Omega transformed her into a monster killer, but she was already something else! What Matilda Finn discovers on her first mission to Loch Ness threatens to shatter her connection to her team and to humanity!"

Thus is the only introduction given to this great little mini-series published by Dark Horse Comics recently, as issue one throws the reader right into the middle of the action.  Described as a pulp story told in a modern setting, the story focuses mainly on Matilda Finn, an agent of a secret British organization who hunts down "monsters" that the outside world cannot believe really exist.  In this instance, it's the Loch Ness Monster.  It seems that a famed cryptozoologist has gone missing, and it's up to Matilda and her group to find and rescue him.  So she heads out with the MI: Omega team to search for the missing scientist, only to discover that the Loch Ness Monster is definitely more than just a myth.  The boat is attacked, the crew is killed, and Matilda and her partner are left to fend for themselves.

It's a well-written fantasy story with a mysterious lead character who knows so little about her past - but who catches glimpses (along with the reader) as the story progresses, and by the end of the second issue, you realize there's a lot more to Matilda Finn than meets the eye (hint:  her last name should have give readers a clue).  Issue three reveals a very surprising fact about Matilda, and in the final issue, you learn how she came to be with MI: Omega.

While the story of the Loch Ness is neatly resolved by the end of the four issues, there are a number of unresolved plot threads left dangling, which, hopefully means that there will be more stories forthcoming.  Such as how the director for MI: Omega has his headquarters shrunken in an aquarium behind his receptionist's desk.  Such as what exactly is the "Midnight Society" of mythological creatures?  Such as how MI: Omega began looking for these creatures in the first place?  Such as what's next for Matilda, now that she knows the truth about herself?

Drew Edward Johnson, who both wrote and drew this marvelous tale, did some fantastic art on the Wonder Woman series for DC, as well as Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron for Dark Horse.  I knew he was a very talented artist, but this mini-series just goes to show how versatile he is, in that he is able to write and draw such an engaging story.

Here's hoping he brings another Midnight Society tale soon!

RATING:  10 mermaid fins out of 10 for putting out a comic series that is truly worth the money spent!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 10 - Tunnel of Secrets

It's no secret (no pun intended!) that I've never been a huge fan of the Hardy Boys.  I grew up reading Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Dana Girls, Trixie Belden, and various other mystery series that had female protagonists.  For me, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift were more about adventure than mystery, so I left those for my brother (who read the Hardy Boys for a short period of time).  My mom tried to get me interested in them back in 1979, when the Stratemeyer Syndicate switched from Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster and the books went from hardback to paperback.  She bought me the first Nancy Drew paperback (57) as well as the first two Hardy Boys paperbacks (59 and 60). I read the two HB books, but was not impressed and didn't buy any more.

When Simon & Schuster decided to re-boot both the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew series back in the early 2000s with the Nancy Drew, Girl Detective series and the Hardy Boys, Undercover Brothers series, I decided to give them a try.  Still not impressed.  I bought the first 21 books of that series, then gave it up.

Fast forward to 2013, when Simon & Schuster did yet another reboot.  This time, the Hardy Boys series became the Hardy Boys Adventures (which pretty much vilified my belief that they were more about adventure than mystery).  So I thought, what the heck, I'd give it another try.

Surprisingly enough, while the series is not what I'd call top-notch reading, I've actually been enjoying these books better than the Nancy Drew books that S&S is currently publishing (seriously - "Nancy Drew Diaries"???  whose idea was that???).  This latest book, Tunnel of Secrets, pretty much shows why.

With only 136 pages of story (which is considerably less pages than the current Nancy Drew books, although the font here is smaller, so they probably contain the same amount of story), the action is fast-paced and the adventure is actually fairly interesting.  In this tale, the boys are trying to locate some kidnapped students, only to discover that the underground tunnels they found back in book 7 of this series actually lead to an entire underground city!  Throw in a secret society with a vague connection to the Freemasons, as well as a mute homeless man with a secret and a creepy cemetery, and you've definitely got some interesting reading material!

Sadly, with such a reduced page count, the characterization is not very strong (particularly with all of the supporting cast and guest characters).  If Simon & Schuster would simply allow these ghostwriters (both for this series and the Nancy Drew series) to tell the story to its fullest and not worry about a smaller page count, these stories could probably stand out and be comparable with the books of old.

One thing that is somewhat enjoyable in the new series is the fact that the police chief does not coddle the boys and "assist" them with their mysteries; rather, he resents the boys' involvement, constantly warns them to stay out of or face jail time, and basically acts as a nemesis to their tendency to step in and solve the crimes before the police.  Which, let's face facts, is a lot more realistic than the police chiefs from the original Hardy Boys  and Nancy Drew books, who were ever-so-grateful to the sleuths for their help and often gave them information and assisted them, rather than taking charge of the investigations.

As a kids' series, I would definitely say this was an enjoyable read, even though it could have been better with some fleshing out.

RATING:  7 underground tunnels out of 10 for giving letting the boys find a skeleton, where Joe has no choice but to reach inside to retrieve a key!  (That scene alone was worth the whole book!)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Kyle Callahan Mysteries, Book 3 - Death by Pride

While this is technically the third book in Mark McNease's "Pride Trilogy," which began with Murder at Pride Lodge and continued with Pride and Perilous, it's actually the fourth book with Kyle Callahan and Det. Linda Sikorsky solving murders (as there was that short novel, Death in the Headlights, that was more focused on Sikorsky than Callahan).  However, I won't hold that against the author, as I've enjoyed the series for the most part.

This time around, Kyle and Linda are searching for a serial killer who the media has dubbed 'the Pride Killer.' This person killed gay men four years straight (no pun intended) during Pride Weekend in New York City, then mysteriously disappeared for three years.  Now, the killer is back at the same time that Linda visits Kyle and Danny in New York to see her first Pride Parade.  Needless to say, Kyle and Linda can't keep their nose out of it and set about trying to find the identity of the killer so he (or she) can be put behind bars for good.

I do enjoy the fact that the author allows the characters to grow with each book - Danny is now posed to take over Margaret's Passion, now that its owner and namesake is moving to Florida to retire; Linda has retired and started her antique/odds-and-ends store; and Kyle, while still working for Imogene, he is beginning to realize that sooner or later she's going to move on and where will that leave him.  Plus, Kyle and Danny get a very big surprise from Margaret, as sort of a parting gift before she leaves NYC.

I am a little annoyed with the constant shifting of POV.  I don't mind a chapter here or there from the killer's point of view (the book opens with the killer, so there is no surprise as to the identity - it's just waiting to see how he's going to be caught), but when there is shifting POV within each chapter, going from Kyle, to Linda, to Danny, then back to Kyle, all in the span of just a few paragraphs, it detracts from the even flow of reading.  For such good mysteries, though, it is something that can be overlooked.

What can't be overlooked in McNease's writing is the repetitiveness.  Over and over and over again throughout the story (pretty much every time Danny is mentioned), the reader has to read how Danny is saddened that Margaret is leaving, that he has worked for her for eleven years, that he promoted Chloe to day manager, blah, blah, blah.  Again and again and again and again.  Once or twice is okay, but hitting us over the head with the same sentences every time Danny is mentioned becomes redundant and just filler.  The same thing goes for Linda still being new to the "gay scene" and this being her first Pride.  By the end, you feel like the book could have been about two or three chapters shorter if the author had stopped repeating the same exposition over and over.

However, the murder mystery itself is well-plotted, and the last few chapters build up some great suspense as the killer sets his eyes on Danny, and Kyle and Linda race against time to rescue Kyle's husband from certain death.

McNease has said from the beginning this is a trilogy, but the epilogue to the book mentions a potential vacation in the future for our protagonists, and the Author's Notes at the end of the book hint at the possibility there may be another story in the future.  (Of course, the fact that Amazon lists a new book by McNease titled Kill Switch, described as the 5th installment in the Kyle Callahan mysteries, pretty much clinches it, eh?)

RATING:  7 rainbow flags out of 10 for giving readers an intriguing killer that makes you realize not everyone is always what they seem

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files - Down Town

And speaking of The Dresden Files...

Since Butcher seems to be taking a rather lengthy break from Dresden while he writes some other novels, I'm thrilled that Dynamite Comics is still putting out mini-series with new original stories, written by Jim Butcher, in conjunction with Mark Powers (and very beautifully drawn by Carlos Gomez).

As I've read the 15 books in the Dresden Files series, I've created my own images of the characters in my mind.  When Sci-Fi channel put out the Dresden Files television show a few years back (starring Paul Blackthorne, who now plays Detective Lance on the CW's Arrow), my mind sort of starting picturing the actors from that show in the roles.  Now, though, Carlos Gomez has captured these characters so perfectly, it's easy to see them now as the way he draws them.  Dresden, Molly.  Karen.  Tomas.  Even Mouse and Bob.

This latest adventure, Down Town, is set just after Proven Guilty and White Knight in the book series.  Dresden is training Molly in the user of her magical gifts, when a mysterious creature (who turns out to be a Golem) begins killing - first a pawn shop owner, then the owner of a laundromat.  There doesn't seem to be any apparent connection - until Marcone shows up at the end of the first issue.

Fans of the books will be very pleased with the comic stories, as not only are they a part of the official Dresden canon, but they flow seamlessly into the realm of the books.  The characterization is spot-on, and the stories have the same flavor and action.  Harry is once again on a mission to save innocent lives, Marcone is up to his usual tricks with his own agenda, and there's an evil villain on the loose, using magic to destroy and create chaos.

I love how involved Molly is in this story.  She hasn't been involved in the comics up to this point, so to now see her brought to life (so to speak) and watch as she practices with her new-found abilities is a lot of fun.  It's also great to see Mouse in action as well (as he plays a pretty good role in this story).

Where many comics today feel padded with long, drawn-out stories just to pad a story into six-issues or so to fill a trade paperback, this story does not.  Each page is packed with story, and every panel, every word balloon is imperative to the tale.  And there are not a lot of splash pages just to show off the flashy art (in hopes of distracting from the weak story).  No need for that here.  This is just good, old-fashioned Dresden.

Definitely looking forward to the next mini-series, whether it's a comic-adaptation of one of the books (so far, they've done Storm Front and Fool Moon) or a new original story, either way, I'll be there!

RATING:  10 fiery fuego blasts out of 10 for staying true to The Dresden Files and keeping my thirst for more Dresden stories quenched for the time being.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ghost Finders Novel, Book 6 - Forces from Beyond


First, I did not want to see this series end.  This has been a fun series, and I've enjoyed each book so much more than the last.  What started out as just a good ghost hunting team in Ghost of a Chance turned, in the course of six books, into a family of sorts, with a purpose and a mission.  From Ghost of a Smile and Ghost of a Dream, to Spirits from Beyond and Voices from Beyond, each subsequent adventure not only put them in more and more dangerous situations, but also knitted the group tighter and revealed more and more of the underlying, continuing drama going on behind the scenes at the Carnacki Institute.  I thought this was going to be another great ongoing series, as well-written as Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series.

But then I finished Forces from Beyond.

To say I was thrown for a loop by the ending is putting it mildly.  The team not only finally gets some information and inside looks at the Carnacki Institute's evil nemesis, the Crowley Project, but they find out the true nature of the Flesh Undying and come face to face with the entity itself.  This truly was the fulfillment of every story that has been building since the very first book.  This was the opportunity to open the team up for a brand new mission, a brand new outlook, and maybe even some brand new characters.

Instead, we get a very definite end to the series (although the last two pages do leave a bit of an opening, but I'm not holding out hope).  Some of the characters make it out alive.  Some of them don't.  Some of the are changed forever.  There's JC Chance, the ever dashing, ever daring team leader who pushes his team to their limits, but at the same time is never afraid to take the first risk.  Happy Jack Palmer, the team telepath who is barely hanging on to life through the various combination of pills he is forced to take in order to function.  Melody Chambers, the team techie who is like a kid in the candy store when given the opportunity to see what the Crowley Project has in terms of illegal and even unfathomable technology.  Catherine Latimer, the Boss of the Carnacki Institute, whose heart is as cold as her exterior expressions, but who has her own secrets that are revealed in this book.  Then there's Kim Sterling, the only real "ghost" in the Ghost Finders team, whose connection with JC and love for him takes a whole new turn by the end of this one.

The characterization is so well done, the dialogue is fun and natural, and the storytelling keeps me turning page after page, not wanting to put it down.  The only other series that keeps me this excited about reading it is the Dresden Files.  Only, Butcher has put Dresden on hold for the time being, and now Green has more or less put an end to this series.

Sigh...now what do I read?

I guess all good things must come to an end - and just like Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, I'd rather see a series end while it is still so good, than to see the author push out work that is sub-par or let someone else get a hold of it and change it in ways it should never be changed (recent incarnations of Wonder Woman, anyone?).  So while the conclusion is bittersweet, and while JC, Melody, Happy, and Kim will be sorely missed, I can honestly say it was an excellent run.  All six books were top-notch, enjoyable reading, and I definitely do not regret one word that I read.

RATING:  Ten dissolving bits of flesh undying out of ten for giving me a fantastic run of books, and for making me truly feel for the characters on the page.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Short Lived Comic Series #1 - The Liberty Project

While this blog was mainly meant to focus on the books and graphic novels that I read, occasionally I will post my thoughts on a short-lived comic series that I might read.  During the '80s and '90s, there were a number of independent comic book companies that put out titles that were actually very good and a lot of fun, but for various reasons, they just didn't last.

The Liberty Project is one of those series!

The Liberty Project was an 8-issue comic series published by Eclipse Comics, which ran from 1987-88.  It was the story of four super-powered criminals who were given a second chance by becoming a part of the "Liberty Project" - basically, they had the opportunity to do good, go on missions to rescue and/or save people, and this could lead to their possible freedom.  There's Cimarron who has super strength; Slick, who has the ability to cause the ground to become so slick no one can stand; Crackshot, a reluctant villain who truly wants to turn his life around - who also happens to be such a sure shot, he never misses; and then there's Burnout, a young girl with a severe attitude problem who can make things blow up.

The series is written by Kurt Busiek, who, at the time, was not quite as famous as a comic creator as he is today.  But the stories are well-written, the characters are definitely developed nicely, and quite frankly the series contains a major element that is missing from most comics being published today - FUN!  That's right, these eight issues were a heck of a lot of fun to read.  Sure, the characters are technically criminals, and sure, their first impulse upon joining the Project is to figure out a way to cheat the system and escape.  But Busiek is an excellent writer, and he makes you, as the reader, actually care about the characters (despite Slick's cockiness and Burnout's constant anger).  With each issue, you learn a little bit more about the characters and come to realize there is more to them than their outside appearance may seem to tell.  Even their fifth member, Savage (who is a teenager who got injected with chemicals that turn him into a beastly ram-type savage) has human elements that keep him from becoming completely hateable.

The series had some great moments - from Slick realizing he might actually be able to do the "hero" thing, to Cimarron's team-up with Valkyrie (from the Airboy strip, not from Marvel Comics), and ultimately the story in their final issue, which I won't give it away, as it really does have a big impact on the characters.

Sadly, there were several unresolved stories that were left hanging when the series ended - from where the characters got their powers (which was never explained, but hinted at when some aliens made the comment that, "They don't even realize where their powers come from") to the return of the aliens that they fought and defeated, among others.

The series continued into Total Eclipse, which was a company-wide crossover that combined characters from a number of the company's titles.  Unfortunately, when I found these issues in a $1 bin and bought them, I didn't know they continued into Total Eclipse, so now I'll have to hunt down that series.

But, I do have another short-series that the LP team appeared in, and that is Topps Comics' series,
Jack Kirby's TeenAgents.  This was a four-issue series, also written by the talented Mr. Busiek (which may explain the Project's appearance in the book) about four super-powered teens who come from a secret society living inside the earth.  They show up top-side and immediately become embroiled in various battles.  It's another fun read, and in issue 3, Busiek brings back the Liberty Project, albeit with some different members this time around (I can only assume these characters made their appearance in Total Eclipse).  Crackshot is gone, Burnout is older with red hair now and a different costume, And we have two new members - Raider X, who is a huge hero with a Death's Head style helmet (we don't get to see who he or she is under the helmet in this series); and Heartbreak, a young blond man who seems to be a romantic (never could really figure out what his power is).  The Project only appears in issue 3 and the first few pages of issue 4.

I haven't been able to find any reference to any appearances by the team after their TeenAgents appearance.

Sadly, they don't make comics like this any more.  Marvel's Squirrel Girl and DC's Starfire are probably the only two mainstream comics on the market today that come anywhere close.  Yes, I know I'm getting old, when I start saying, "I remember when....."

RATING:  9 super powered punches out of 10 for reminding me how good comics could be!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dark Shadows Audio Book 29 - The Last Stop

I won't normally be posting two Dark Shadows audio books right in a row, but my recent trip to Tampa gave me time on the drive there and drive back to listen to two of them, the second being this one - The Last Stop.

I have been enjoying the stories with Jerry Lacy as the lawyer, Tony Peterson, and Lara Parker as his sidekick of sorts, Cassandra Collins (a/k/a Angelique in disguise). They make a great pair of mystery-solvers, and while each story does delve into the supernatural (it wouldn't be Dark Shadows without it!), they are fun and quirkly, and Jerry and Lara play well off of each other.

This tale is a bit different, as it drops the listener in on the middle of the story, with Tony and Cassandra being held in a cell. With time to kill, Tony decides to pass the time by telling Cassandra a story that happened to him years ago when returning to Collinsport. The train on which he travels has a very unique passenger - one who takes Tony on a strange and unusual journey and makes him an offer that could very well change his life forever.

W. Morgan Sheppard, who is quite the famous actor in his own right, provides the voice of Lou, the mysterious passenger who is not what he seems to be.

The story is good and moody, very dark in some places, and the ultimate test of good and evil (along with that gray area in-between) certainly keeps it in the realm of Dark Shadows.  The only criticism I have for this one (and I don't know if it's just my particular CD, or if it was the production itself) is that there are places where the volume is rather low, and it's hard to hear what the actors are saying.

As with most of the prior audio books, listening to this tale made me feel like I was right there in the action with the actors. It's not the actors reading the book, as many audio books tend to be - rather, it's like I am sitting in the kitchen, listening to the television set in the other room; and I can hear everything that is going on, I simply can't see the action. The dialogue, the sound effects, the music - the directors and writers of these DS audio books do an amazing job in keeping Dark Shadows alive!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dark Shadows Audio Book 28 - Speak No Evil

This audio book from Big Finish Productions thrilled me for two reasons - one, it was a continuation of Dark Shadows, and that is probably my favorite show of all time; and two, it stars one of my two favorite Doctor Who actors - Arthur Darvill! Since David Henesy won't come back for any more Dark Shadows stuff, BFP got Arthur Darvill to fill the role of Tad Collins, the son of Quentin Collins from the 1800s.

This story is set 15 years after the 1840s story that aired on television. Tad is grown up now, and his father is out of town with Daphne, leaving Tad by himself at Collinwood. The circus has come to town, and Tad pays a visit - however, he ends up making enemies of the tattooed woman and a clown who is very protective of her. The story really gets moving when the clown breaks into Collinwood and steals a book of the occult, along with six "wands," as Tad calls them. Of course, those wands turn out to actually be the I-Ching, which anyone who watched the show will recall were used to allow Barnabas, and later Julia, go back into the past.

I'll readily admit that I got excited as soon as the I-Ching were mentioned.  I've always been a big fan of time travel in stories, so I expected it to occur here.  It did not, though - yet, it didn't leave me disappointed. The writers took it in a different direction, and there was a rather unexpected result in the end - very much Dark Shadows-esque.

I just can't get enough of these audio books, and thankfully, Big Finish is continuing to put them out. My love for Dark Shadows stays alive with these books, and it's always so exciting to put each CD in and hear that opening voice over, then the opening credits, and the ending credits when the story finishes.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next one!

RATING:  10 crazy clowns out of 10 for Arthur Darvill (Rory!!!!) alone!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cemetery Girl, Book 2 - Inheritance

It's funny.  I used to never really like trade paperbacks or graphic novels.  I have always been a huge fan of buying and reading the individual comics in series.  But, as I'm sure pretty much everyone knows these days, graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and hardcover collections are the "in" thing.  The fact that Barnes and Noble has literally three or more rows of nothing but graphic novels testifies to that.

In recent years, however, my mind has slowly been changing.  A friend introduced me to The Walking Dead comic by giving me the first two graphic novels to read (which collected the first 12 issues of the ongoing comic series).  I found that I enjoyed reading the book this way.  Since then, I have purchased a lot more graphic novels, many of them original concepts and stories, some of them collections of ongoing series.  Definitely one of my favorites is a relatively new book, Cemetery Girl.

 Written by two very prolific authors, Christopher Golden and Charlaine Harris, the story centers around a young girl who wakes up in a cemetery with absolutely no memory of who she is or how she came to be there.  She doesn't know who left here there, nor why anyone would want her dead.  She adopts the name Calexa Rose Dunhill (Dunhill is the name of the cemetery), and she quickly discovers that she has the ability to communicate with and see the spirits of the dead!

In the first graphic novel, Calexa helps solve the murder of a young woman buried in the cemetery.  She also befriends the caretaker of the cemetery, Kelner, as well as an eldely woman who lives across the street from the cemetery.  This second book picks up pretty soon after the conclusion of the first story.  Calexa is staying the night with Lucinda Cameron, the elderly woman across the street, when a masked intruder breaks in and murders Lucinda.  The killer escapes, and Calexa is once again left alone.  Until Lucinda's spirit appears, asking Calexa to help her uncover the identity of her killer so she can rest in peace.

With only 112 pages of story and art, the story is fast-paced, but not so fast that we don't get character development or an amazingly well-plotted story.  Interspersed within the tale is a new flashback to Calexa's past, as well as a mysterious stranger that seems overly interested in finding Calexa.  The art is by Don Kramer, a very VERY talented comic book artist who also happened to draw one of my favorite comic series, the Justice Society of America, for a number of issues.

This is definitely a series that I would recommend not only to comic book fans, but to regular readers of both mysteries and general fiction stories.  The only bad thing about this series of graphic novels is that they only come out one book per year (although, let's face it, I would much rather have quality over quantity any day of the week!).

RATING:  10 gravestones out of 10 from the perfect mix of mystery, suspense, and just all-around great storytelling.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tom Stetson, Book 1 - and the Giant Jungle Ants

This is the first in a three-book series written by John Henry Cutler.  I picked up this book, along with books 2 and 3 in the series, all in dust jacket, while I was in Atlanta last month, and to be honest, the only reason I picked them up was because it was the complete series, the dust jackets (while not perfect) were beautiful and strong in color, and the final title in the series ("Blue Devil") made me laugh, as it is also the name of a DC Comics character from the '80s that I really liked.

So, I finally got around to reading the first book - and while I'm not normally much of a fan of boys' series, as they are usually more about adventure than mystery, I have to admit, I found this book to be rather unique.  First, while I am not overly familiar with Whitman books from this era (Copyright 1948), I was surprised to see that the dust jacket cover art literally covered the front, spine, and back!  It is a beautiful rendition of a scene from the book when Tom is attempting to rescue his uncle, who was captured by the natives in the Brazilian jungle.  It also details a number of jungle animals and plant-life (yet, noticeably, fails to render any image of the named "Giant Jungle Ants" from the title of the book).

There are a number of internal illustrations by artist Ursula Koering.  Surprisingly, a number of these illustrations show the barely dressed natives (the men wearing nothing more than a loincloth), which is certainly something you don't normally see in children's series books.

Thanks to information provided by James Keeline, I discovered that John Henry Cutler, the author (who is not credited on the cover, but only on the title page inside) is not a pseudonym, but an actual person.  The Tom Stetson series could very well be based upon his own travels through the Brazilian jungles, which would explain the amazing detail with which the author describes the wildlife, the fauna, and the natives of the jungle. Like the early Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books from the '30s and '40s, this first Tom Stetson book provides ample description of the settings and characters, putting clear and easy pictures into the reader's mind as he or she reads the story.

Now, the story itself was certainly not a mystery (the closest thing that comes to a "mystery" is when Tom stumbles upon a strange tall, round bamboo building with no doors or windows), it reads easily and there is plenty of suspense as Tom and his uncle ultimately have to trick the natives in order to rescue his uncle's adopted son, Manolo.  Tom and his uncle face the dangers of the jungle's wildlife, the poisonous plant life, and the very dangerous natives, the Tapintins.

The book is definitely a product of its time, with its innocent language and its numerous reference to Uncle Leo's work as a missionary and his desire to change the ways of the Tapintins from "savages" to more acceptable "Christians."  There is also some stereotyping, of Manolo, as well as the natives that they meet.  Something that is worthy of note is the author's use of real history within the story - when Tom asks about English explorers who have disappeared in the Brazilian jungles, his Uncle Leo tells him of Colonel Fawcett, and from pages 31 - 33, he tells the true-life tell of the Colonel, who disappeared in the jungles back in 1925 while searching for an alleged lost city.

This is a book I would definitely suggest to fans of children's series books, whether you like mystery or adventure, or both.  While I do buy some series books with uncertainty as to whether I will actually like them or not, this is one I am definitely glad I picked up!

RATING: 8 giant jungle tocandeiras (ants) out of 10 for keeping my interest and actually letting me enjoy a boys' series book.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 10 - A Script for Danger

Anyone who knows me, knows that I've been reading and collecting Nancy Drew books for years - from the original books dating back to the 30s, to the current series of Nancy Drew Diaries.  While the recent re-boots - the Nancy Drew, Girl Detective series and the Nancy Drew Diaries series - have been less than stellar, I have been trying to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that each new book that comes out will show improvement in the writing and better mysteries.

For Nancy Drew Diaries, however, the series seems to be stuck on one topic - sabotage!  A Script for Danger is the 10th book in this series, and while I applaud S&S for finally giving readers some longer stories (these books, for the most part, have ranged from 150 - 180 pages, which is considerably more than the prior series, whose books averaged anywhere from 120 - 130 pages, if that - yet, with font that is rather large, the amount of story is probably about the same), they need some writers and ideas that go beyond the simplistic plot of "who's out to get me."  At least the Hardy Boys' re-boot has provided some various styles of mysteries - from kidnappings, to hidden treasurers, to theft.

And speaking of Hardy Boys, the plot of this book bears an uncanny resemblance to a recent Hardy Boys' title, Deception on the Set.  In that story, a film is being made in the boys' hometown of Bayport, but someone is sabotaging the stunts, trying to shut the film down.  In this mystery, a film is being made in Nancy's hometown of River Heights, but someone is sabotaging the shoots, trying to shut the film down.  (sigh)

And if it weren't bad enough that the story seems to be "borrowed" from another series, so does the cover art.  Erin McGuire, who has been providing cover art for this new series of Nancy Drew books, also provided covers for a series entitled Saranomal, which was about a young girl who developed the ability to see and speak with the dead.  One of those titles found Sara walking down the boardwalk, buildings on either side and lights in the background.  Just ... like ... the cover ... to ... this ... book ... (sigh)

If I'm sighing a lot, it's because my hopes are slowly dwindling that Simon & Schuster will ever realize that they have a very profitable property on their hands, if they would just treat it with some care instead of churning out regurgitated stories and art and sticking the Nancy Drew brand on it, figuring the name alone with sell it.

Now, that's not to say the story was entirely bad.  There were actually a number of characters within the tale, and the author provided several possibilities for the culprit (although, anyone who has read mysteries long enough will easily pick up on the clues in the first couple of chapters to know who is behind the sabotage).  There was definite potential with the story and the characters, and had the author been allowed to flesh out the tale more and perhaps provide a 200+ page story with smaller font, it might have been a more satisfying read.  Plus, I was surprised by the author's push to show George as the constant muncher, while Bess was more reserved with her eating habits.  Completely out of character, even for this new series of books.

(And the fact that I had to shell out $6.99 for a book with only 176 pages of large-font story, while I pay the same price for the Model: Undercover mystery books, which have 300+ pages of story in smaller font - thus, providing more bang for the buck!)

The next book is solicited as The Red Slippers.  The description on Amazon lists the synopsis as - - you guessed it - - sabotage!  (sigh)

RATING:  3 regurgitated diary pages out of 10 for simply keeping the Nancy Drew brand going...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

America vs. the Justice Society TPB

Have you ever read something in your younger days, thoroughly enjoyed it, thinking it was one of the best stories ever - - then, you re-read it again as an adult and think to yourself, "This isn't nearly as great as I thought it was..."

Those very thoughts occurred to me as I read the trade paperback collection of America vs. the Justice Society.  This trade collects the four-issue mini-series that was published by DC Comics back in 1985, just before the Justice Society was written out of comics via DC's big crisis that year.  I have always been a huge fan of the Justice Society, and seeing them in their very own mini-series at that time was a huge deal for me (they were already appearing in the on-going series All-Star Squadron, set in World War II, as well as showing up once in a while in Infinity, Inc. and their once-a-year team-up with the JLA in the Justice League title).  I could not get enough of the JSA.

Re-reading this four issue mini-series now, however, I discovered a number of things about the story.  First, and foremost, is the fact that the actual story of the Batman's supposed diary accusing the JSA of being Nazis is not in the forefront of the tale.  Neither is the main villain of the story, who isn't revealed fully until the end of issue three.  No, what seems to be the main focus of this story (and perhaps the real purpose behind writing and publishing the tale) is the full history of the JSA.

Don't get me wrong - I love the JSA, and for me, Roy Thomas is probably one of the greatest chroniclers of their stories.  But in re-reading this tale, I pretty much skimmed over a great deal of it, as it has the various members of the JSA - in defending themselves against the Congressional committee investigating the claims of Batman's diary - re-telling every single adventure and story the JSA has ever had - from their formation all the way through their recent fight with the stream of ruthlessness in the Infinity, Inc. title.  If you took out all of the pages re-telling their history, the story would probably be less pages than it would take to fill one standard-sized comic.

Leaving me to wonder - DC knew at this time that they would be sending the JSA off into the netherverse, supposedly to no longer be an active part of the DC Universe, so was this DC's way of giving the JSA a nice send-off, recapping their 40-year history?  Was Roy Thomas asked to write a story that could integrate a re-telling of their history as a way of honoring the first super-group?  I don't know.  What I do know is that it was definitely a thrill for me to see all of the members of the Justice Society in a big tale like this, even if it was their last hurrah.

And I suppose I should be happy this was published back in 1985.  Looking at how much story was packed into those four issues, in today's comic world, where there is a stronger emphasis on splash pages and big flashy art, and less emphasis on telling a compact story, this same tale would probably be spread out over a 12-issue series, if not longer.

The one thing this trade did make me feel was nostalgic - VERY nostalgic.  I totally miss this version of the Justice Society and Earth-2.  The Earth-2 that exists in DC comics today, and the heroes (if you can call them that) who exist on that world are a far cry from this vintage characters.  Long live the JSA!!!!!

RATING:  7 golden-age heroes out of 10 just because it's the Justice Society of America!

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown, Book 2 - The Devil's Hound

Here is a series that I thoroughly enjoy!  There seems to be an influx of children's mystery series from England that are making their way onto shelves here in America, and I, for one, couldn't be more pleased.  They are (so far) well-written and so much fun to read.

Lizzie Brown is a young girl in Victorian England who's mother died years ago and whose father was a drunk and thief.  She escapes his abuse by joining Fitzy's Traveling Circus.  In the first book, Lizzy discovers she has psychic ability, able to see into people's pasts, as well as their future, just by touching them.  She develops some friendships with other children in the circus, and with the help of Lizzy's newfound abilities, they unmask a phantom that has been terrorizing London.

This second book, The Devil's Hound, picks up shortly after the end of the first book.  The circus is headed for Kensal Green, a rural area of London, to pitch their tents.  As they pass by a large cemetery, the animals begin to react funny.  The circus performers believe there is a curse on the cemetery, and that it is haunted by a huge animal referred to as the Devil's Hound.  Lizzie scoffs, as she does not believe in ghosts and the supernatural.  However, she and her friends (who refer to themselves as "The Penny Gaff Gang") meet a young girl whose own father has recently died of small pox, they become embroiled in a rather interesting mystery involving grave robbers.  Lizzie and her friends come face to face with the Devil's Hound, and they ultimately learn that these grave robbers are searching for more than just buried treasures.

Lizzie also learns that she has other abilities beyond just seeing the past and future - in this book, she is able to catch and hear a glimpse of those who have died.  While she gives her new young friend some reassurance about her passing father's love for her, it doesn't dawn on her until later that she might be able to reach out to her own mother who died all those years ago.

While I will admit, I figured out pretty early on that something else was going on beyond the grave robbing, as well as who was behind it, the author, Vicki Lockwood, weaves the story so well, keeps the action going strong throughout, and develops the characters so thoroughly (which is an amazing feat, considering how many characters are in this circus - yet, Lockwood focuses her attention on a few in each book, while a pretty fare share may appear in the story), that I couldn't put it down until I was finished!

The books are hardbound with some beautifully painted covers by Stephanie Hans.  This one, showing Maggie staring out from behind a gravestone at the horrifying Devil's Hound in the fog, is spooky and mysterious.  I think anyone who picks up books based solely on the cover would have a hard time passing this one up!

My one annoyance (if you can call it that) about this series is that the books are not numbered, so I have to do a little detective work to figure out which book follows next.  The first two books were easy to tell (since the Phantom clearly describes itself as the first in the series).  However, while the back of this book gives a two page preview for The Ghost Ship, there are two books - The Fairy Child and The Ghost Ship - that both came out recently.  My OCD kicks in here, as I want to make sure they are read in order (and since they seem to follow a timeline, I don't want to skip one and have to go back and read it out of order).  Sadly, I wasn't able to find an author or series website that provides a listing.  Even the publisher's website was not overly helpful in that area.

However, that's a small detail, and one I can easily overlook due to the enjoyment I get from the books.  I have the third and fourth books already, and I definitely look forward to them!

RATING:  10 midnight howls out of 10 for great characterization, a great mystery, and great suspense!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

the 13th Spoon - a Mystery Story for Girls

Yes, yes, I know.  "A Mystery Story for Girls."  So, what am I doing reading it?  Well, for starters, I enjoy most children's series from the first half of the 20th century - from Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins to Garry Grayson and Mary and Jerry.  Also, I enjoy the girls' mysteries generally more than the boys' "mysteries," as the boys' series are usually more about adventure and less about mystery.  Hence, my reading of "A Mystery Story for Girls."

I've only previously read one other Pemberton Ginther book, and that was The Secret Stair (also one of the mystery stories for girls, in this same series).  That book was rather lackluster, but I thought I'd give this one a try, particularly since I am a completist and feel the need to have every book in a series that I start to collect.

The underlying mystery of the 13th Spoon is actually rather intriguing.  As described on the inside flap, "The Twelve Apostle Spoons were worth a great deal of money, but the Thirteenth Spoon, the Master Spoon, was as valuable as all the other twelve.  Alan Hoyt, after years of effort, had collected the complete set.  They were the prize item of his collection, although a Wattean fan was, also, a valuable and rare item.  When Carol comes to be his secretary, Hoyt showed her the spoons and the fans.  Then strange things begin to happen...[and] waking in the night, Carol discovered Mr. Hoyt unconscious, and the spoons and fans gone."  Now, if that doesn't sound like the set up for a pretty good mystery, I don't know what does.

Unfortunately, Ginther doesn't focus solely on the mystery.  Ginther's writing is rather off-beat, in that the reader doesn't just follow the main protagonist, Carol Breck.  Instead, the story jumps around, from Carol's perspective, to her friends' perspective, to her competitor's perspective, to a suspect's perspective, and even the actual criminal's perspective!  Thus, at any given moment, while the reader may be reading the story from Carol's perspective, the next page may jump and you find yourself reading about Frederick Parsons over in Brussels...or Gilman in New York...or even Claire (Carol's rival) as she waits for her boyfriend (in a chapter aptly titled "Entirely About Claire").  For me, this took away from the smooth enjoyment of reading the tale, as it revealed too much about the various characters and removed the "mystery" from the actual mystery.

Now, that being said, I do enjoy the main character, Carol Breck.  She is fleshed out nicely and very well-rounded, possessing the perfect humility and demeanor of a proper girl of the 1930s (yes, this book was published in 1932 - just 17 years from being 100 years old), but she's also determined and mindful of things around her, picking up on clues that other miss (a somewhat tamer version of the original Nancy Drew of the '30s).  Her benefactor, Alan Hoyt, lacks depth - we know he is recovering his strength, as he is dependent on a wheelchair, but we get very little background on him.  In fact, we get more information about his neighbor, "the Major," than we do about Hoyt.

As with Nancy Drew, Carol has two friends who are uniquely different - Alice and Beatrice (a/k/a Beefy).  Sadly, they are very underused in the story, basically there as friends from college who join Carol in a venture to earn money to pay for schooling by creating jewelry and fans that other girls might buy.  It would have been interesting to see how this story might have gone if Ginther had maintained Carol's point of view throughout the entire tale and allowed Alice and Beefy to come along for the ride.

But, alas, it is what it is, and while it certainly was not one of the better reads from the collection of books I have from the 1930s, I will admit it was a step above Ginther's other book, The Secret Stair.  Of course, after these two books, it leaves me wondering if it's even worth it to seek out her third mystery story for girls, The Jade Necklace.

RATING:  4 out of 10 apostle spoons for centering a mystery around a stolen item that is unique (and, apparently, true, since a search on the internet reveals that apostle spoons do exist, having originated in the early 15th century in Europe)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Haunted - a Bishop / Special Crimes Unit Novel

Tech week and opening weekend for the play I am in ("As Is," by William Hoffman) put me a bit behind in my reading - but my love of Kay Hooper books kept me opening her latest paperback every free chance I had until I finished it!

Kay Hooper is one of those authors whose books I fell in love with from the very first one I read (along with Jim Butcher and Sue Ann Jaffarian).  Her stories center around a very elite group of FBI specialists, all of whom have psychic powers of some sort and are led by the very enigmatic Noah Bishop.  They are usually told in trilogies (this book being the third of the most recent trilogy that began with Haven and Hostage), and each book introduces new psychics into the group.  (Of course, stopping to think about it, at the rater they are going, they will eventually discovery that every person in the United States is psychic!)

The books deal with very dark evil, and this one is no different.  Haunted not only takes readers to
the small Georgia town of Sociable, but it brings back Hollis Templeton and Reese DeMarco, two of my favorite agents.  This book also introduces a unique dog by the name of Braden, who Ms. Hooper took from a real-life dog that was given a second chance when rescued from a shelter.  

As always, Hooper weaves a very intricate tale, giving us a glimpse of things through the killer's eyes and mind without ever truly revealing the identity until the end.  There are also some grizzly murders, sometimes killing characters I really don't want to see get killed (such as Toby Gilmore, who I thought would have made a very cool ongoing character for this series!).  There is plenty of suspense and build up, and Hooper knows how to keep her tales engaging.  Every book is fresh, no repeated plots or weak stories, and it's always hard to put down one of her books.  At 311 pages, it was a breeze to get through this (when I had the chance here and there to actually sit down and read!), not because the story was simple or the writing was childish, but because the characters come alive and the tale grips you so much you want to know what's going to happen, how are they going to catch the killer, and who is it!?!

At the end of this tale, it seems there won't be any new additions to the Special Crimes Unit, even though a couple of new psychics are introduced (including one with telekinesis - which definitely would give the team an edge in their cases).

Now, to sit back and wait another year until the first book in the next trilogy comes out, Fear the Dark.

RATING:  10 bleeding houses out of 10 for maintaining the suspense and mystery that I love about these books!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hocus Pocus Hotel - Book 1

I will admit it - every time I go to the bookstore, I head into the children's section to see what series books they have.  I count the number of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews on the shelves (and usually end up re-organizing them into numerical order by series).  Then, I take a look to see if there are any new offerings to series that I enjoy, such as Lizzie Brown, Agatha, Penelope Tredwell, and others.  Finally, I comb through the new releases to see if anything jumps out and catches my eye.

A couple of months ago, I was at Barnes and Noble with my friend, Kevin, and as we were checking out the new releases, I noticed this book.  Hocus Pocus Hotel.  Yes, the title sounds a bit cheesy, but after reading the description on the back, I decided to flip through it.

"Come to the place where TRUE MAGIC lives..." the tagline reads.  "Ever since it was built by the great magician, Abracadabra (and here I thought that was a Flash villain...), the hotel Tyler Yu lives in has had its share of mysterious events.  Ghosts wandering the halls, a magician who vanishes into thin air--Ty can't figure these things out on his own.  But Charlie Hitchcock, with his photographic memory, might be just the partner the school bully needs.  Together, they'll solve magical mysteries beyond your wildest imagination."

Flipping through the pages, I was surprised to see a number of color illustrations throughout.  So, figuring I'd take a chance, I picked it up.

I just got around to reading it, and while the promise of these two characters solving mysteries "beyond my wildest imagination" was not exactly fulfilled, it was a fun read.  A short read - a VERY short read, but certainly a fun one.

While the book was 204 pages, there are 26 full page illustrations, a dozen or so half-page illustrations, and 11 blank pages (where the chapter ends on the left page, leaving the right page blank).  Plus, each of the 22 chapters begins with a red curtain illustration page on the left, meaning that out of the 204 pages, 59 of those pages are not actual typed story.  Further, the margins are exceptionally wide, the chapter titles are so large that the actual type begins 3/4 of the way down the page, and all type is double-spaced.  Ultimately, this provides for much less actual story than you would think, considering the page count.

There is no grade level given for the intended reading audience, but judging it on the style of writing and words used, I'd have to say perhaps a 3rd grade reading level (even though the book is placed on the shelves with the pre-teen books).  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable little read, and I did like the fact that every "magical" trick used in the book is given a full, detailed explanation of how it was done.  I also enjoyed the two characters, who are as far opposites as possible, coming together and acknowledging (very nearly respecting) the fact that the other may not be quite as bad as they thought.

This first book actually hosts two mysteries - one involving a magician living at the hotel who disappears when he seemingly jumps from a 14-story window, and the other involving a "ghost" who haunts the halls of the ninth floor.  With Charlie's photographic memory and Tyler's own quick thinking, the two manage to figure out the secret behind these tricks and uncover what really happened to the famous Abracadabra.

There is a website for the book series, www.hocuspocushotel.com, that provides more information about the books, the characters, and the author.

This is a series I would certainly recommend to anyone who enjoys a quick-read mystery for fun.

RATING:  7 magical tricks out of 10 for keeping children's books good, clean, and fun.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Dark Shadows Audio Book 27 - Operation Victor

Okay, I will readily admit - I'm not the biggest fan of Quentin Collins.  His character on Dark Shadows may have been sexy, but his stories were not overly exciting, and the same has held true in the series of audio books.  When he is doing full cast audio dramas, I'm good with it.  But up till now, his solo audio books have been rather lackluster - at least, as far as I was concerned.

Until this one!

Operation Victor is set during World War II, and it finds Quentin doing his best to avoid getting involved.  The only thing is, someone has other plans.  Quentin is drugged and, against his will, is forced to join a covert mission to investigate some mysterious arcane experiments taking place in the heart of the Black Forest.  Forced to work side-by-side with the rather presumptuous and tenacious Sally Green, Quentin dives out of a plane and climbs up a mountainside to sneak into a shady castle where a Doctor Moloch is messing with the supernatural.

The title of the book should somewhat give away what is going on there (I mean, c'mon - "Victor" and a "castle" with supernatural experiments?).  Without spilling the beans, I can safely say that there are a number of surprising twists and unexpected turns throughout the 60 or so minutes of story, and the ending was very satisfying in my books.  This definitely would have fit in easily with the television stories.

I once again will say how much I enjoy listening to these stories - hearing the original actors' voices as they reprise the numerous roles they played on the show - hearing the opening theme music, as well as the closing credit music at the beginning and ending of each book - even with the voice-overs at the beginning, just like in the show.  It brings back so many great memories of the show and brings out the kid in me from when I used to get so excited with each episode that came on.

I am a HUGE fan of Big Finish Productions from breathing new life into this series!

RATING:  8 werewolf howls out of 10 for surprising me not just once, but several times throughout the story!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Star Power - TBP Vol 1 - Star Power and the 9th Wormhole

Good, old-fashioned fun reading!  Those are the best words I can think of to describe this graphic novel that I picked up at DragonCon this year.  It was the cover that caught my eye, so asked the creators behind the table what it was about.  He described it as a girl who suddenly gains the ability to wield the cosmic energy known as the Star Power in the far future and uses it to protect the Millennium Federation of planets.  That intrigued me enough to glance through the book.  The art was stylistic but good, so I decided to give it a shot.

SOOOOOOO glad I did!

This was a great comic book, set on a semi-epic scale, but with down-to-earth characters (so to speak, since the story takes place on a space station who-knows how many light-years away from Earth), enjoyably over-the-top villains, and space battles galore!  The main character, Danica Maris, reminds me a lot of Ralph Hinkley, William Katt's character in The Greatest American Hero, as she suddenly finds herself with all this power, but has no idea how to use it.  Unlike Katt's character, Danica does have a disembodied entity (who she calls "Mitch") that from time to time offers a bit of assistance and instruction.

Danica is a lab assistant on Space Station Sanctuary Six, where she is providing research assistance in the study of stars - but one particular star ends up not being a star at all, but an energy source that shoots straight through Danica's telescope and into her, transforming her into a star-powered sentinel.  The last of her kind, Danica (or "Star Power" as she comes to be known) finds that she has the power to protect her fellow scientists and lab assistants from the coming threat of alien attack.

The plot moves along nicely, without all the filler we seem to get in today's mainstream comics (or "padding" as I call it, so that the companies can pad out the story to fill a trade paperback), and the characterization and dialogue is superb!  And the art!  WOW!  The style of Garth Graham works well for this story, and he creates some very distinct alien races and unique spaceships.  We get very few splash pages, those that are there being reserved for big moments in the story - most pages have 4, 5, or even more panels, which equals out to more story content!

Michael Terracciano, the writer, handles the young Danica Maris like a pro.  She is very believable as a young girl who suddenly gains massive powers.  I particularly loved the scene in Chapter Two where Danica finds out she is capable of interstellar travel.  When her mentor and friend, Dr. Brightman, goes to comfort her for the shock, Danice surprises her by screaming and jumping for joy.  "When can I start traveling to other planets?  Other stars?  Other systems beyond the jump gate network?"  Let's face it - what normal human being wouldn't jump for joy if they found out they could do that!?

And despite the fact that this is a big space drama with tons of alien races, alien worlds, and alien spaceships with alien technology and languages, Terracciano manages to handle it all so that you don't need to be a scientist to read it.  It reads easily, and by the time I finished this first graphic novel, I felt like I really got my money's worth for what I spent.

Star Power is a web comic that can be found at http://www.starpowercomic.com/, and this first trade paperback collects the first six chapters of the story.  I spoke with the creators, and they said they currently have a kickstarter going for the second volume in the series and plan to have it by next year's DragonCon, if not sooner.

RATING:  10 out of 10 star-smashing space battles for giving a jaded comic fan what he has been clamoring for - a comic that is FUN to read!